Thursday, May 01, 2008

The beauty of banality

A delightful passage in Timothy Hallinan's Thailand-set novel A Nail Through the Heart shows refreshing modesty about exotic travel:

"Twenty or so years ago, in one of the first invasions by a Western brand name, Nescafé shouldered aside the much more labor-intensive processes by which the Thais made some of the world's best coffee, replacing taste with convenience."
The novel's protagonist, Poke Rafferty, does not much like the change, seeing in it "a clear line of demarcation between the relatively leisurely pace of life in traditional Thailand and the hurry-up influence of the West." Does this make Hallinan an author from abroad taking an easy pot shot?

Not quite. Here's the rest of the passage:

"But Rose [who is Thai] grew up with Nescafé. She adores it, hot, tepid or iced. He has seen her eat a teaspoon of it, dry. ... [Rafferty] takes a sip, rolls it around in his mouth like red wine, and revises his opinion. It's an interesting drink if you don't insist that it's coffee."
The thought is amusing, the observation affectionate. It leads me to suspect that Hallinan, an American who lives part time in Southeast Asia, has an eye for real life among his hosts and an openness to experience that goes beyond the exotic. He is a traveller, to cite a useful distinction that a teacher of mine once made, and not just a tourist.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Barbara said...

I remember that passage! I did like the many touches in the book that make it clear Hallinan knows whereof he writes. He's a fine writer, besides.

May 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If that touch is typical, it's not so much that he knows whereof he speaks, but that he has a certain humility (he avoids easy denunciations of Western cultural imperialism) and a certain sense of humor.

May 02, 2008  
Blogger Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, and thanks to all. This post was pointed out to me by someone responding to my own blog, and I have to say that reading it -- and the comments -- have made my day. It's true that I observe with some wistfulness the Westernization of Thailand (probably especially the proliferation of American fast food outlets, crowding out one of the world's richest and most distinctive cuisines), but things change, and there's not much sense in devoting a lot of energy wailing about it.

Anyway, thanks. And there's a new Poke book out right now, THE FOURTH WATCHER.

Timothy Hallinan

June 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and welcome to Detectives Beyond Borders. I once read with horror an American breakfast-food executive's comments about the company's business prospects in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were not accustomed to eating cereal for breakfast, but he was optimistic his company could "change" their eating habits. This was chilling.

And what happens to this rich, nourishing, distinctive and inexpensive cuisine when it is crowded out of the market in its native lands? Select number of its practitioners open rich, nourishing, distinctive and expensive restaurants in Hong Kong, Western Europe and the U.S.

June 10, 2008  

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