Friday, July 18, 2008

8 pages of colin cotterill

this ain't a book review. how could it be when i am only 'bout 8 pages into the thing. but for some time, i've noticed on the spl website that when i do a book search on "Laos" this guy colin cotterill shows up with 4 or 5 books... fiction, by the way - and mysteries at that. so i finally checked one out: anarchy and old dogs. and it's part of a series of whodunits 'bout an old doctor, siri paiboun, running around in 1970s communist Laos, solving crimes, seeing ghosts, etc. so i started reading it, and this is my 8-pages-in report... and admittedly, maybe i'm being overly critical 'bout all this, but here are my initial issues with the book, all of which are linguistic in nature:

1) i kinda wish that cotterill had tried to romanize the names of his characters in a more consistent way. on page 2 is the name, dr. buagaew. i am not sure how to say that... is it the same as bouakeo? and is siri paiboun the same as phaiboun? and if bouakeo is buagaew, then shouldn't phaiboun be paibun? and is nurse dtui the same as tui, like fat? and is tawon of the severed scrotum the same as tavanh? i just think that the french, for all the bad things people say about 'em, had a pretty good system for spelling Lao names, and so you might as well stick to it. besides, the spellings are kinda nice when you look at them - nice in their consistency and also aesthetically. to cotterill's defense, he does live in thailand where the romanization of thai names has become this grab-bag, free-for-all nightmare. thai names are spelt however you want, whenever you want, whatever you want, with a seemingly random positioning of english letters - sometimes its jun, then its chun, then its jan... (when really it's chan). but enough of that, on to number...

2) this may not be an important point for most, but neither was my first complaint: cotterill uses idiomatic expressions that are kinda weird in the context of the Lao language - like, "bet my socks on it (pg. 7)" and the phrase from whence the books title comes, "the old dog might learn a few tricks (pg. 8)" ...socks, dogs, feet... i don't know what the Lao equivalents would be, but i don't think they would reference such topics as dogs and feet unless they were cussing at someone. and finally,

3) nurse dtui makes plans to go to her palm-reader, a transvestite, who gives free readings. this becomes an opportunity for dr. siri (pg. 8) to make the comment, "are you saying that she ... he doesn't charge?" i think that we're to believe that this conversation is originally spoken in Lao, and that what we're reading is a translation of sorts, but if this conversation was in Lao, then the whole he/she thing is a non-issue. the pronoun for he/she is gender neutral - its the same for both men and women (Lao). and i bet that cotterill's gotta speak some thai and Lao... (and it's the same in both languages) so how did this sneak through?

i am gonna stop at number 3, although i could continue. in fact, i am slightly embarrassed to post this - i mean, i'm a jerk: he's writing a mystery novel, which really ain't meant to be literary scholarship academic professor indy jones kinda stuff. so read the book if you like mysteries, and try to stop yourself from thinking about how european the character's jokes sound or, "how would this be said in Lao?"

he's got a nice website - it's


D said...

I went to the library today and saw another book from him in the new books section, "Curse of the Pogo Stick" and checked it out. Are these books series, because they all have the same characters in the one you're reading as the one I checked out? Will let you know how I let the book.

jrm said...

hey bhet! yes, they're a series - and they do kinda build on each other. the one that you got is the latest one, just released. the first is called coroner's lunch. here is the list:

Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008)

Disco for the Departed (2007)

Anarchy and Old Dogs (August 2007)

Disco For the Departed (August 2006)

Thirty-Three Teeth (August 2005)

The Coroner’s Lunch (2004)

let me know what you think

somchai said...

JRN I think you noticed more in 8 pages than I have in two books.

I was left with a funny feeling like they were un Lao if you get my idea. And then you went ahead and named two concrete examples at #2 and #3. The books are researched real well, but the characters don't jump to life as being Lao.

Great reveiw, looking forward to Ant Egg reveiw and reading a lot more of this blog, I've been reading in bits and pieces making my way back.