Monday 28 July 2014

The Plain of Jars

I feel as though I've been reading this book forever. Martine recommended it when I went to visit her in Laos earlier this year. Some books have a weird resonance. I opened the chapter on Kibuye in Emergency Sex just as my bus was pulling out of Kibuye. I started reading The Plain of Jars chapter about ascending the hills to Vang Vieng just as my bus was ascending the hills to Vang Vieng.

Like the Dr. Siri series it's set in Lao, which is why Martine was recommending it. Unlike the Dr. Siri series, it is in desperate need of editing, which is odd for a publisher like Roundfire. Although, they do claim to publish 300 titles a year, so perhaps they simply don't have the time to give each title the attention it deserves?

This is one of those cases where you have to separate the story from the technicalities. Technically, it could do with losing a few thousand words. At times it feels like trudging through a pachyderm's thesaurus just to get to the end of a sentence. 'Sparing on the adjectives' is advice worth following. 

Despite that, it is an extremely engaging story. Even if you have to take a mental machete to the prose, Roundfire's motto holds true:

[O]nce you pick [our books] up you won't want to put them down.

So, I've been reading it on and off now for about three months. It's an epic set between the CIA perpetuated civil war of the 60s and 70s, and the post-war aftermath of the 1980-90s. The story of a pilot, a mother, a journalist, an assassin and an elephant.

What would you do if you found that the bones and ashes you were given by the Air Force were not the remains of your loved one? Dorothy Kozeny, a 64-year-old widow from a small town in Ohio, after getting no answers from the relevant authorities, decides the only thing to do is to go to Laos herself to search for the truth concerning her son's fate. In 1990, accompanied by a trusted Laotian called Kampeng, Dorothy travels deep into the mountains of rural Laos, attempting to trace her son's path through inhospitable terrain, an unforgettable trek that provides her with a rewarding, often humorous, and at times frustrating, cross-cultural experience. All clues lead her to a mysterious figure, an alledged CIA operative left over from the war, living in a remote and hostile area deep in the jungle. The second part of the book traces the life of this enigmatic character hiding in Laos, the two main characters linked through Dorothy's son.

Lombardi's knowledge of both the American Air Force and the folk customs of Lao are encyclopedic, yet he manages to weave them into the story without making it feel too much like a history lesson. 

All in all, I did enjoy this one, although my own fascination with the Plain of Jars probably had something to do with it. I think a little editing could turn a good story into an outstanding one.

If you are interested in Laos and its history, the film The Rocket is also well worth watching.

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