On Laos, not so much 'quiet' as discreet
Updated and re-released late last year, Brett Dakin's 2003 memoir about living and working in Laos in the final two years of the 1990s remains broadly educational and movingly personal, the qualities that earned it so much acclaim when it first appeared.
Add to that a bittersweet return to the country a decade later and “Another Quiet American” deserves its reincarnation as one of the most edifying and evocative books available on our neighbour to the north, a valuable scene-setter for anyone planning to travel or spend significant time there.
As is to be expected, much is familiar in this account for Thais and Thailand’s expatriates. The two countries have much in common, of course, even though, as Dakin mulls at length, Thais tend to regard the Lao as backward bumpkins. He admits that the Lao in turn often cast wishful glances southward, but is cheered by their burgeoning sense of national identity, an asset hindered for decades in that conflict-benighted former French colony. Dakin traces the history of Laos from earliest beginnings through the convulsions of war and ideology and arrives amid their modern-day consequences. By turns he laments the country’s old-world habits and revels in its innocent charms, ultimately realising that you can’t have all mod cons and all the traditions as well.
While Dakin’s style of writing tends to the mundane and he prefers the discretion of a diplomat to outright criticism, he can be sharp in his political commentary, which jibes perfectly with his acute observations about the people he meets, both the powerful and the common. Coming across a rare protest demonstration (permitted since it was pro-Chinese and anti-American), Dakin notices that only the Lao traffic cops are allowed to have whistles. “The whistle was one of the strongest holds the authorities had over the people. In the wake of the failure of communism, words were empty – no one believed anything the government said. The whistle, on the other hand, was as effective as it had been in 1975. You couldn’t question a whistle. You couldn’t reason with sound.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dakin’s journal is the way it’s book-ended with his ghostly experiences of “remembering” and “forgetting”. Having returned to the US, he watches Laos closely at first, only for it to gradually – and inevitably – drift from his consciousness. “If I had really wanted to stay, I could have found a way. But that was just it: if I had stayed, I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I could imagine myself living in Vientiane for years, applying to renew my visa every few months.”
And yet, in a sense, Dakin finds a way to “stay” after all. His profile tells that he chairs a non-profit organisation called Legacies of War, which “raises awareness about the Vietnam-era bombing of Laos”. It’s a good fit. When he departed Laos in 2000 there were still bombs going off, and not just the old American ordnance finally exploding. Laos’ rulers were on shaky ground, not least because of the grenades being tossed about in downtown Vientiane.
Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos
By Brett Dakin
Published by Asia Books, 2013
Available at Asia Books, Bt445
Reviewed by Paul Dorsey