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THE UNDERSTORY by Saneh Sangsuk Kirkus Star


by Saneh Sangsuk ; translated by Mui Poopoksakul

Pub Date: March 12th, 2024
ISBN: 9781646052752
Publisher: Deep Vellum

A monk’s tales of adaptation and awe, of humans and the more-than-human.

Sangsuk’s novel, translated from the Thai by Poopoksakul, introduces us to a nonagenarian monk named Luang Paw Tien, who shares fantastical accounts of jungle life in Thailand before his village’s transition to large-scale farming and urban development. An eccentric and charismatic figure, Luang Paw Tien has retained a childlike wonder into old age and is beloved by the children who listen to his storytelling. A repository of traditional knowledge, he tells them of “a time when human settlements had been something foreign, and their accompanying fields, orchards, farms and paddies foreign land.” The present, we learn, has fallen under “the shadow of decline and deterioration,” which includes the imaginative banality of modern commercial life. But Luang Paw Tien’s stories—full of sensuously rich descriptions of a teeming ecosystem’s flora and fauna and of the humans who merely inhabit rather than dominate it—conjure a world of enchanted life and captivating mystery. Elephants, tigers, monkeys, boars, snakes, crocodiles, and bats take their place as charismatic protagonists here, often in tales with supernatural dimensions. Routine human practices such as hunting or rice farming are rendered evocatively and take on their own mythic significance. The novel’s extraordinary climax arrives with Luang Paw Tien’s account of how he became a monk through a terrifying battle with a demonic beast, whose assault begins with the killing of an ox: “I followed the prints, and the bloody marks around them, which seemed to grow bigger and bigger and more intensely red, and a chill ran down my spine when I saw them joined by the paw prints of a tiger, which suddenly materialized on top of and among [the ox’s] hoofprints.” This is a captivating and delightful work.

A charming, engrossing, profound exploration of the transformative power of stories.