Did you know Bangkok was sinking? I really didn't. It's one of many things I learned from Karen Connelly's Touch the Dragon. When I did a quick Google News search, all I could find was this, in the Times of London.
As if Thailand doesn't have enough problems. It's as if nature insists on kicking it when it's down.
Of course, Connelly's Thai journal was collected two decades ago. And, while written by an extremely socially conscious girl (of 17, not 16, contrary to my previous mistaken post), her story is not really one of the Asian country's problems.
It's a love story dedicated to a nation.
Frankly, the Calgary teen's observations, made while she visited Thailand on Rotary exchange, are enough to make even the most uninterested non-traveller want to pack a bag and head overseas. Immediately. Despite the cockroaches. And an unnerving tale of a trip to the gynecologist.
In fact, I must go to Bangkok before it sinks, putting it near the top of my list of places to go before nature or man or both destroy them.
Connelly's tale unfolds in diary format, starting Aug. 21, 1986, when she writes, "Leaving Canada. A view of the body of mountains: deep sockets of aquamarine, blue veins slipping over cliff-sides, stone edges splintering from the earth like cracked bones."
I admit, when I opened the paperback, I was worried the language might be too flowery. A little too Grade 10 creative writing, if you will. Yes, I saw it won the 1993 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction. And that Canadian great Timothy Findley endorsed her work. Perhaps more importantly, a friend gave it to me as a gift with the promise I would enjoy.
Still, I was once a 17-year-old girl. And my diary was full of daily irrelevancies -- to sum up: crush on boy, need to leave small town, crush on boy, worries about not understanding Chemistry 12, crush on boy.
I wasn't sure I could stomach the diary of another 17-year-old girl.
But clearly, Connelly is far more talented, and far more able at such a young age to view her world clearly. Plus her adventures were much more fantastic than my trips to the library or students' council meetings.
Yes, she talks of the inevitable break-up experienced by any girl who leaves her boyfriend thousands of kilometres behind. She describes a painfully beautiful first date with a Thai man; a date that speaks more to jolting cultural differences than the blushes and dreams of a teenage Canadian girl.
But more importantly, she talks of life as a sweaty falang, or foreigner, who can not possibly fit in, even if she wants to. Which, after a short time, she really does -- although she would completely scratch the beauty pageants.
Towards the end of the book, on page 172, she writes, again beautifully, "This is the way my life will be, then: a blown mural of moments, people, places, none of them solid." I can't decide if the line is hopeful or overdramatic.
There is a disconcerting element to Connelly's work, however.
Only 20 years have passed, but already there is something about the world she describes that seems wholly untouchable. Is it her description of being unable to reach home by phoning repeatedly? Today e-mail would likely ease that strain. Is it the moment her Thai English teacher says McDonald's food "tastes of plastic and wet napkins" (page. 56), when we know the fast food chain has all but taken over the world?
If you're interested, Connelly journals now on her website. It appears the site is an engine to market her newest book, a novel. But as someone looking forward to reading her new work, I don't mind.