Given this was the first (and to the best of my knowledge the only) collection of Lao short stories to become publicly available in English, I hardly had any choice as to what to read from the South-East Asian country. Quite usefully, though, the book was available from Amazon and after about a month of waiting (I guess they had to dig it out) I received a rather unexpected novel. On one half of the page was the original text in Laotian, on the other side – the translation in English. As I was about to see, this trick was as much about upholding traditional Laotian culture, which was on the verge of extinction one too many times, as well about filling enough pages to justify publishing.
The history of Laos has been far from happy and uneventful. The little state went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got involved in the Indochina War, was severely bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War and on top of that ended with 15 years of communist government. Since the fall of the USSR it has liberated somewhat, although there is still only one approved party – the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.
Most of the short stories in Mother’s Beloved were written during the communist rule – the simplicity of the situations are typical for a regime, in which too much ambiguity is mostly regarded as politically suspicious. For the experienced reader it felt as reading fables. Bounyavong’s characters are faced with moral dilemmas, the resolution of which clearly demonstrates what the ideal citizen should be – humble, respectful, following traditional Laotian values and condemning any enemy of the state. In theory these are not bad qualities at all – in practice, though, the communist propaganda is ever so visible. I try not to criticise Bounyavong too much – for the only way to be published in Laos at that time was to please the ruling party. A country that has gone through numerous oppressions and influences is struggling to reclaim its literary identity – and the only way to do that is to oppose any former influences. Bounyavong was originally influenced by the French and brought up to admire French literature. When Laos was liberated (or in other words when from one oppression to another) he began admiring the literature of revolutionary communism and its supporters.
Both colonialism and communism looked down upon traditional Lao views as being retrogressive and lacking in modernity. In his short stories Bounyavong attempts to contrast such traditional values with modern phenomena, while conforming to communist rules. I wouldn’t say the result is great. Nevertheless, the helpful introduction of the collection as well as some of the stories, which weren’t as naive as others, presented a good first step in understanding Lao literature. Of course, it’s worth nothing that there are very few alternatives from which to choose in English.