This slim volume, The Path of the Tiger by Sila Khoamchai, is amongst my most treasured possessions. It was a gift from friends, more than twenty years ago. For a long time it sat on my bookshelf unread, until, eventually, I travelled to Thailand. The first time I read it, I grappled with both the story line and the translation—back then I hadn’t read much translated fiction. Despite that, the story stayed with me. In part because of the window it provided into another, to me then, entirely new and different way of looking at the world. In part, because of what the author Sila Khoamchai has to say about life.
Last week I returned to the novel a second time after chancing on a comment in Goodreads drawing a comparison between The Path of The Tiger and Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, which I had reread at the end of last year. Although from vastly different cultural traditions, the two books are similar in their rich depiction of the struggle between the protagonist and his environment. I don’t intend to compare the two in any detail, suffice to say each is much more than a survival story. Hemingway’s protagonist, Santiago, returns from his fishing expedition apparently defeated, with only the skeleton of his great fish to show for his ordeal.
Sila Khoamchai’s hunter must return to his wife and children empty-handed, without the barking deer he wounded early in his expedition, and with the news they still have only rice to eat.
As is so often the case with rereading one of the greats I got a lot more from this second reading. Not the least because, this time, I read the introduction! Turns out that that comparison with Hemingway’s great classic is outlined in detail right there. I just hadn’t bothered to read it the first time. The writer of the introduction, Marcel Barang, in his enthusiasm for the strengths of The Path of the Tiger, is a little more dismissive of the Hemingway novel than I would be. Santiago’s mission may well have been absurd but nevertheless The Old Man and the Sea is an allegory for the growth and change which comes with facing a great, if futile, struggle. That said, I do agree that the fruits of the hunter’s ordeal in Khoamchai’s work are equanimity and self-control; those values which are so important in Buddhism and so very useful in day-to-day life.
Sila Khoamchai is the nom de plume for Winai Bunchuay, a Thai novelist, who spent several years during the 70s as a guerilla fighter, living in the jungle. He draws heavily from that experience. His descriptions of the jungle are visceral in their impact.
The night wore on, embracing everything tightly in its pitch black wings. Its grandness cancelled out the whole world, compelling jungle, mountains and rivers to remain still and silent in its wake. Cruelty was a shadow hidden in the fathomless depths of darkness.
“There should be at least one star,” he mumbled as his eyes searched the void above.
As I read I was right there with the hunter, terrified, alone, facing the indifference of the jungle. It reminded me of a time when I, and a group of others, spent the night lost in the Kaimanawa mountains, in the North Island of New Zealand. There is nothing quite like the depth of the night, lost in the New Zealand bush, to teach just how indifferent the planet is to our fate, to sense that lurking cruelty. How much more potent the lesson when you are stalked by a tiger, in a dense and tropical jungle. How sweet the path home once you find it.
This is a book that has rewarded rereading. It might be a slight volume but it is dense with lyrical, detailed description, and dense with observations about life. I’ll likely read it yet again, in the years to come.
Do you reread favourite novels? Which ones?
The Path of the Tiger, by Sila Khoamchai, translated by Phongdeit Jiangphattanarkit. Edited and introduced by Marcel Barang. My English language edition was published in 1994 by Thai Modern Classics.