Lao Twilight

In Vientiane I swapped Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for a copy of Liam O’Flaherty’s collected short stories (Good riddance to the former. If I want angsty name-dropping posturing, I’ll read my own archive.) The O’Flaherty stories, which I hadn’t read since secondary school, were perfect material for this place. He grew up on Inishmore in the Aran Islands and started writing in the 1920s, and the Ireland he describes in these singing stories could be a sister to rural Laos today.

I remember fragments of his Ireland. My father was from the west of Ireland, and when I was a child I was careful not to drink too much 7-Up at granny’s cottage, where going to the toilet meant squatting in the back field. Terrifying at night. Strokestown in the mid-1970s was an old man’s town, like much of the west. The women had gone to Dublin or Liverpool, leaving a town full of old bachelor famers in tweed caps and black jackets. My grandfather cycled to the pub on Sunday mornings on a heavy iron bicycle of the kind I see everywhere here. The pub after Mass was where they all gathered, the old fellows, and not all of them went to Mass first.

I have never imagined those towns, those men, being young. But here they are in O’Flaherty’s stories, striding powerfully through the pages, matchmaking, drinking, fishing, and farming. And here they are, too, in Laos. I spent an evening with Mr. Mei’s village friends, who had been working the rice paddies since before dawn. Later they hammered together a coffin for a villager who died the day before. With a curiosity in town, and a friend to mourn, they were glad of the excuse to club together for a jar of Lao poteen, which we drank sitting on an earthen floor by the light of a kerosene lamp. Long after this falang had crashed, they stayed drinking and singing around the dregs of the fourth or fifth pot of rice hooch, while the roosters crowed outside. They are in the short prime of a manhood that is more arduous than anything Ireland asks of her soft-bellied Celtic tigers these days.

Like my Lao friends, O’Flaherty’s characters know their world is changing. They have an uneasy relationship with moving pictures from America and with the archaeologists and anthropologists who show up to study their way of life. In one famous parody, he introduces the grotesque Patsa:

He was particularly good at getting money from strangers. In those days a great number of visitors came to the island. It had just been discovered by the new school of European mysticism and was considered to be the chief reserve of the gods and fairies of the Celtic Twilight. It was by exploiting these mystics that Patsa collected the golden sovereigns that are the subject of this story.

Every time the steamer arrived from the city, Patsa was standing on the pierhead, in his dirty white suit, erect, motionless, with his hands in the pocket of his waistcoat, with his yellow muffler and his tam-o’-shanter cap, with his foul ears cocked and his green eyes peering from beneath the rims of his bushy white eyebrows, moving hither and thither like the eyes of a seahawk, with his mouth open and his tongue fiddling with his solitary, yellow tooth. Nobody escaped him. It was impossible to resist his advances. He had that magnetic quality which is possessed by great whores and by madmen who believe themselves to be gods.

He had no fixed method of approach. At times, he would dash up and seize a bag and lead the stranger to the hotel and on the way engage himself as guide, porter, storyteller or procurer. With another he might pose as a picturesque fisherman, proud, reluctant, a man to be painted or helped for humanitarian and mystical reasons. With another he became a buffoon and was even seen to dance and pretend to be mad. With another, he would rush up with great vehemence to beg, showing false scars on his body like a pariah of the ancient East. He stalked others, appearing before them in lonely places, near ancient fortressees, among the ruins of old churches, leaning against prehistoric pagan stones that are supposed to have occult associations. There, in a hollow voice, he told poets and scholars and dramatists, who are now famous, most of the legends and mystic lore than became current in Ireland and even in Europe during the past generation, relating to the Celtic Twilight.

O’Flaherty would smirk at Mr. Mei’s daughters, the little girls who were prim and bashful as they shrank from me in front of their parents. The same lassies, who were about six years old, hustled me shamelessly with their friends at the boat-landing two hours later, safely out of sight of the village and their elders.
    ‘Falang! Hey, falang! Money? Kip? Bon-bon? Pen?’

At least they had the grace to blush when they recognized me, the sloe-eyed devils. But it occurred to me then, and later, writing this in a notebook with locals peering at the English squiggles and trying out my fancy pen, how odd it is that a single generation removed from O’Flaherty’s west, I now play the credulous European mystic in the east, the ancient East.