Monday, March 28, 2016

The Bird Catcher by S.P. Somtow

As an exercise in increasing my posting regularity, I’ve decided to initiate a delve into the world of contemporary fiction. Previously, my examinations have remained relegated to 70’s science fiction dystopias. But I’m going to try something completely different:
(drum roll)
Edited by literary great Lavie Tidhar. Published in 2009. Packed full of who knows what.

A Note on Speculative Fiction
The first thing you may notice from this book is that it’s not science fiction. The hard capital S and Fs indicate this is instead a collection of Speculative Fiction. Which is what scifi calls itself when it wants to escape from the grim science/fantasy genre shelves at the local bookseller. Hard SF is normally scared s-less by normal sci-fi tropes. I’m not expecting to run into any spaceships or aliens with weird bumps on their heads. But maybe I’ll be surprised.

A Note on World Authors
If you are from a non-English-speaking country and you are writing in English, it is going to take extra work. Each word is going to be that much more valuable. You’re going to try to get to the point without a lot of digressions. At least that’s my thinking when I read distinctly international fiction like this.
Plus, in the same way that Settlers of Catan had to be really good to make the jump from Germany, I feel like these stories had to work extra hard to get to where they are today. But I might be wrong there, too.

Without further ado, the first story in this collection:

The Bird Catcher by S.P. Somtow

If I had to “pigeonhole” The Bird Catcher into a genre, it would probably be horror. There’s not really any ghosts or monsters, but there is a serial killer. In fact there may be a couple of them.

The Bird Catcher starts off in modern day Bangkok and then flashes back to post WWII Bangkok and then the tiny fishing village of Thapsake. The main character (never named), his mother and finally a shadowy companion are all fleeing survivors of a Japanese internment camp in China, who settle as foreigners in Thailand.

Cages within Cages

The feeling of being trapped in a cage is the ongoing motif for The Bird Catcher.
The narrator has escaped a gruesome fate, but the prison has followed him. The Buddist practice of “making merit” by releasing birds is examined critically, the narrator notes the birds’ wings are clipped, and often return quite soon to captivity ready for another customer.
The narrator feels trapped by his circumstances and as a foreigner in a different culture. He feels trapped by the horrible dreams he has from the camp.
But on the other hand, Thailand seems like a pretty nice place in many respects. The narrator has friends. The weather is beautiful. Play is unstructured and offered in generous amounts. There's plenty to like.

Humans are on the Menu

No matter how wonderful the rest of the country is, the narrator can’t help but feel drawn to the brooding half-witted mentally-scarred man Si Ui.
Si Ui only has a few lines in the story, 90% of which are “Hungry!” and “Si Ui Hungry!”
Si Ui has seen some stuff from his internment camp days, and the narrator bonds with him over this. They wordlessly appreciate each other’s company and shared experience. Si Ui introduces the narrator into the world of bird catching, which he is remarkably good at.
They kill some birds. They eat some birds cooked. And they eat some birds raw.
And some of those birds, they might not be birds, but little girls from the neighborhood.

Fractured Minds and Hungry Bellies

Much connection is made between the empty hunger of surviving horrific events, the simple hunger when you want to eat, and the compulsive mental hunger a serial killer feels that draws him to his next victim.
Only problem is, I’m not convinced this is a real thing. History is full of people who have survived the worst human experience can offer, and they don’t turn into some kind of liver-eating monster.
If you are a kid, and your parents are murdered by Santa Claus, you aren’t going to dress up as Santa Claus and start punishing people. That’s an overused trope from the very bottom of the horror barrel. Yet the narrator constantly refers to the hunger inside him born from the camps and how the killing of birds suddenly grants him this relief he has never had before.
Serial killers apparently do often have tragic events in their past. But I can't help feeling there's plenty of people who are just born that way.
If this was a real thing, liquor companies would be out of business and human overpopulation would no longer be an issue.

Explaining Something to a Child

One of the most authentic feelings I got from this story was in the framing. The narrator’s flashback to his bird-chomping days is told from his perspective in the modern day. Walking to a decrepit freak show museum to show his grandson the mummified remains of Si Ui the Liver Eater, he attempts to explain the significance of his own memories to a boy who really could not care less.
This is parenthood at its most real.
When your son or daughter is a baby, you think about all the things you want to tell them. Perhaps not necessarily about your dabblings with cannibalism, but important life lessons or learning opportunities.
But here’s the real truth: there is not a single fact or figure in my head, not a single fragment of information, that holds any interest beyond the strictly short term to my son. 
Anything I tell him, I can see Minecraft continuing uninterrupted somewhere behind his glassy eyes, waiting for me to finish so he can go do something interesting.
At the end of the story, the narrator tucks his grandson into bed and hops a flight back to New York. After which he’s probably going to eat some people, I guess.


I’m not sure I should be rating these. What would I even give them? Stars? Thumbs? Dead birds?
I’m not going to grab a zip-line and fly down to the local library to hunt up more fiction from S.P. Somtow. But I also feel like I got something out of it.
Will I like the next story in the collection? The only way to find out is to read my next blog post.

Coming Soon: “Transcendence Express” by Jetse de Vries. See you then!

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