The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, written by Veeraporn Nitiprapha and translated by Kong Rithdee, is something of a miracle in translation from the Thai language. The book, which is Nitiprapha’s debut novel, won the prestigious Southeast Asian Writer’s Award in 2015.

Translated with seduction and melancholy by Kong Rithdee, it is full of sentences that roll over the tongue, the kind you slowly chew, every paragraph plump with imagery and craft. Nitiprapha has a keen sense of the poetry that lurks in drama, and has created at least a minor landmark in the meditation of sorrow and loneliness.

When Chareeya and Chalika’s mother finds out about their father’s affair, she brings an aching silence into the house. An aching silence that eventually leads to two achingly mad deaths, leaving both girls parentless. However, the novel captivates the reader by detailing the small glimpses of happiness in a bleak world, portraying endearing habits such as the two sisters braiding their hair together to pretend they are Siamese twins.

They consume trashy romances and daydream about men, cook large international feasts and the best kanom chan, observe the small creatures in their garden, make the tall trees their companions, or sit across the river with their orphan friend Pran to watch a cold still world pass by. In a sense, this is exactly the kind of happiness the author wants to write of:

“It’s the nature of children. War, flash floods, landslides or the fall of empires can’t diminish the simple happiness that can only be felt by someone who doesn’t understand she’s just a child. The girls leapt out of the charred ruins of their parents’ marriage with only a few scars on their hearts. They rolled about in the orchards of day like animal cubs, scooping laughter and joy out of thin air as if by magic.” 

Sisters in arms

This story of two sisters and their orphan friend is written in a non-linear and magical way. The novel is a glimpse of their lives, set against the changing landscape of rural and urban Thailand.

Chalika and Chareeya are adopted by their mother’s brother Uncle Thanit, who treats all three orphans like his children. Chalika becomes a baker, Pran becomes a musician who plays covers of The Cure, and Chareeya runs away for love to end up working in a music store. The book is guided by a love for music, which is reflected in its lyrical composition, and even includes a playlist of every musical piece discussed through the course of the story at the end of the book.

Categorised by intense imagery even with just the chapter titles, such as “The Girl in the Fish Tank”, “The Goldfish that Sang”, “The Amethyst Tear”, or “The Emerald Spider”, among many others, the book displaces you thoroughly, planting you in a painfully alienating but gorgeous world. The story is about intense longing and the lack of love, with short spans of ecstatic happiness. It is about the broken marriage of Mother and Father, the Father’s yearning to live and die with his mistress, the love that guides Chareeya away from her home, and the love that brings Pran close to both sisters after losing everyone he ever cared about.

Magical but realistic

Although the overarching theme of the novel is isolation and childhood, it hits the reader the hardest with its most banal parts. According to the Bangkok Post, to which the translator is a regular contributor, Nitiprapha was inspired to write the novel “after reading the news of an ill-fated couple who attempted a suicide pact (the girl died, but the boyfriend backed out).”

One might think the book is otherworldly because of its poetic language, but it’s actually the kind of fiction that haunts you with its realistic portrayal of human life. It is about the primal nature of people, the consequences of love, and the madness that lurks beneath everyone:

“In that peculiar moment, without any warning, Uncle Thanit foresaw a day when the sky would be bright and an hour when all things would be baked in a balmy sun and his journey would finally come to an end...Three children who loved each other would hurt each other at the inescapable hands of fate, and he foresaw the fading final moon cycle of his life. Everything had been predetermined. Everything. And he didn’t feel bitter about it, not at all.”

Nitiprapha has been referred to as the Arundhati Roy of Thailand. Her second novel, The Twilight Years and the Memory of a Black Cat, also won the SEA Write Award in October 2018, making her the first female author to win the award twice. Rithdee’s mesmerising translation has provided the world with a window into the Thai mind and heart. And Nitiprapha’s unorthodox style and prowess, which mirrors the classical Thai drama, has made her an international phenomenon one should not miss out on.

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translated from the Thai by Kong Rithdee, River Books.