In Colin Cotterill's Laos, Dead Men Do Tell TalesFor two years, the author lived in a Laotian hospital, in an apartment above the operating room. His experiences there inspired characters — including a country coroner — for the books he would later write.
Modern Vientiane bustles with change.
Michael Sullivan, NPR
Michael Sullivan, NPR
Modern Vientiane bustles with change.
Michael Sullivan, NPR
Colin Cotterill believes in fate. Though he didn't know it at the time, fate seemed to determine early on that he would write the Dr. Siri books, a series of mysteries that follows a 70-something Laotian country coroner.
It all started with an unexpected hospital stay:
"When I first arrived in Laos," the author remembers, "I was traveling with a doctor and he leaned over and said, 'Do you realize you have hepatitis?' "
At first, Cotterill thought it was impossible, but the doctor turned out to be right. Cotterill, who had come to Laos on a project with UNESCO, spent his first month in the country on the second floor of the local hospital, where he was looked after by the very friendly Nurse Dtuy.
The Two-Year Hospital Stay
After his recovery, Nurse Dtuy helped persuade Cotterill to move into the hospital permanently. He lived for two years in an apartment above the operating room, he says, acting as an "honorary member of the medical staff," popping down to watch operations, visiting patients in the wards and making friends with the doctors.
Cotterill wanted to learn Lao; he already knew Thai. To work on his pronunciation, he began recording long interviews with just about everyone he met. In the process, he came away with fascinating stories of the years before and after the 1975 Communist takeover.
"Unbeknownst to me, I was going to use [the stories] in books I hadn't decided to write," says Cotterill. "Something psychological was happening, forcing me to collect information that I didn't know what to do with."
Welcome To The Morgue
Some 10 years passed. After spending time as a teacher and running an NGO protecting children from sex offenders in Thailand, Cotterill decided to sit down and write about Laos.
"You'd find Lao people as extras in a novel talking about the Vietnam War, usually with an American protagonist, but you never saw the Lao as people," says Cotterill.
The books, set circa 1976, give personality and feelings to the Lao people. The characters — Dr. Siri, Mr. Gueng and Nurse Dtuy (inspired by the nurse Cotterill met during his early hospital stay) — are drawn with sardonic humor. The sign over the door of Siri's office reads "morgue" in French; the doormat — Dr. Siri's personal touch — says "welcome."
The doormat is especially appropriate, given Dr. Siri's particular relationship with the dead: He sees, and converses with, dead people — particularly the souls of the recently departed who end up in the morgue.
A Changing Capital
A reluctant coroner and an even more reluctant Communist, Dr. Siri takes nightly walks home. These only serve to remind him of the new regime's failures: "Siri walked back through the deserted streets. It was only 8 p.m., but Surathithat Road was quiet as the grave," writes Cotterill.
Thirty years after Dr. Siri's fictional walks, Vientiane bustles with change. A seedy nightlife culture has emerged, and stately French colonial buildings are being torn down, replaced by concrete shopping malls. Cotterill worries about the influence from Thailand — just across the Mekhong — and what it might mean for Lao culture.
"Lao youth have a Thai culture. They watch Thai television programs," he says. "The girls wearing high-heel shoes and tank tops ... in the '90s, that was unthinkable. Dr. Siri would be very upset to see the young generation going to the dogs as they are."
Cotterill lives in Thailand (he was kicked out of Laos in 1994 for reasons he cannot explain), but he returns to Lao several times a year to help run charities and to conduct research. But, practical reasons aside, he can't seem to stay away from the country:
"I keep coming for the people," Cotterill says. "Every time I come to Laos, there's always an element of the mystical. When I step off the airplane, I know something wonderful or terrible is going to happen to me."
"Do you really think it was necessary to yell it out at the top of your voice, Siri?"
Judge Haeng, head of the Justice Department and perennial thorn in Dr. Siri's backside, had the old sur¬geon cornered.
"I could hardly imagine my voice would carry all the way to the platform, considering it was an open-air meet¬ing hall." Siri smiled serenely.
"Well, it did. And I could see the angry expression on the chairman's face quite clearly. You sometimes forget you represent the Justice Ministry at these events."
"Really? I thought that was your job."
Haeng clenched his fists. Although he would have preferred it otherwise, he was the coroner's superior. He was a young man with a boyish, pimply face and an iffy Soviet education. Upon his return from the Eastern Bloc, despite his lack of experience, character, and personality, the Justice staff had kowtowed and given him the impres¬sion he was worthy of the position. Only one, Dr. Siri Pai¬boun, had stood up for himself. Their run-ins had been frequent and the score in terms of victories overwhelm¬ingly favored the doctor. The Justice Department had
needed a coroner, and Siri, despite his indifference to the position, was the nearest to one the country had. It was a Lao-Mexican standoff. Haeng couldn't fire Siri and they both knew it. But in its own ironic way, the conflict had become one of the perks of the job for Siri.
"You know what I mean, Dr. Siri," Haeng said. "A dis¬obedient child in school reflects poorly on the upbring¬ing by his father."
Siri chuckled at the inappropriateness of the analogy, making Haeng even angrier.
"And what would you have me do?" Siri inquired. "Leave the poor chap there secreting his final bodily flu¬ids all over the seat?"
"Surely . . . surely you could have been more discreet?"
"You mean whispered for the people in his row to pass the body down to the end?"
"Just think in future, won't you? Of course we'll need an autopsy."
"An autopsy? He died of boredom. You won't find traces of that anywhere on the dissecting table."
"Don't be ridiculous. A long-term Party member dies mysteriously at a national conference. It's our duty. The politburo would expect nothing less. My decision's final."
"Ah, so it's a show. Should we sell tickets?"
"It is not a show. It's a decent, responsible socialist act. His family will be grateful."
"They'll die of embarrassment when they find out."
But Haeng was no longer listening.
"Oh, and one more thing." Siri's big bushy eyebrows
rose like synchronized caterpillars to the top of his fore¬
head. "We won't be flying back to Vientiane on Monday."
"The prime minister wants the Justice Department to show its confidence in security measures in Xiang Khouang. The province has a history of unrest and we need to let them know we support their efforts to keep down the scattered resistance. The PM has suggested we drive to Luang Prabang."
"Oh, good God."
"I suppose you have a problem with that also?"
"Why me? I'm a coroner. What confidence will that instill?"
"I admit I didn't want you along, but I think today's lit¬tle exhibition booked you a place. I imagine the senior members believe it would . . ."
"Teach me a lesson."
"You bring it upon yourself."
"But driving? I hope they'll give us enough sticky rice and raw fish to last us a month."
"I'm assured the road has been cleared and the bridges repaired all the way through. It's the dry season, Siri. We could be in Luang Prabang in a day or two."
"And the president's wife might grow a penis on her chin."
"Don't be vulgar."
"I hope we're going in a tank. Unless it's been rerouted, that road passes directly through enemy-controlled territory. Aren't you afraid of getting shot?"
Although the judge paled, he managed to keep his chest out in front of him.
"Where have you been, Siri? Don't you read the Khaosan newsletters? There is no enemy. He's been van¬quished. All we have now are one or two Hmong rebel gangs hiding in the jungle. Even so, we'll be traveling with crack People's Liberation Army commandos. It'll be safer than crossing Lan Xang Avenue. Don't be afraid, old fellow."
Siri wasn't afraid. He was devastated. He knew the road was awful. Even in a tank they wouldn't arrive in under a week. And, as for vanquishing the enemy, that was far easier in an editorial in Khaosan than in real life.
The Hmong had first migrated to Laos from China almost two centuries before. They were a people forced through their swidden—slash and burn farming— lifestyle to move on every five to ten years when the fields became unproductive. Originally, land had been plentiful and this was no problem. But soon, with over¬crowding on the plains, they were forced to higher and higher ground. They were a race with no nation, no large cities, and few ambitions beyond family and home. They lived according to tradition with the elders teach¬ing everything technical, moral, and spiritual to the young. But history constantly found them in the wrong place at the wrong time. Opium cultivation had been imposed on them by the Chinese and French adminis¬trators, then they were taxed for producing it. When they supplied to the wrong side, they were hounded off
the land. They found themselves in a system they'd had no desire to enter, constantly having to fight for their independence. When they fought it was not out of con¬viction but for their own survival.
In Laos, interclan rivalry was exploited at the time of the Japanese occupation. One clan collaborated with the Japanese, the other with the French. This split became even more pronounced after the war, with one side forming an alliance with the communists in the north and the other with the Americans. There was very little option of nonalignment. The Lao Hmong lived in a land that had forever been somebody's battleground. Diverse groups who had no interest in politics were forced by their clan name to favor one side or the other. Clans found themselves pulled into the fray by recruiters. Once again, the Hmong had become somebody's enemy—a title their culture abhorred and, given their history of abuse, one they hardly deserved.
Once rallied, the Hmong were fierce fighters and all those who battled alongside or against them vouched for their valor. It wasn't until 1973 that a cease-fire was called in the protracted civil war but the suffering hadn't stopped for the hill tribes. In 1975, the so-called thirty-year Hmong who had sided with the Pathet Lao were somehow forgotten when the communists took control of the country. There were token positions and ranks allocated, but the majority were either sent back to grow opium, or, worse still, relocated to the plains, where they succumbed to diseases unknown in the mountains.
The Hmong who fought with the CIA under General
Vang Pao were also forgotten by their allies. The Ameri¬cans could retreat to the land of the free and the brave, but the Hmong had nowhere to go. They were the enemy in their own land. They weren't extended the luxury of being ignored or relocated. They were hunted. They fled, of course, some to the camps in Thailand, other old sol¬diers to the mountains around Phu Bia, where they formed the armée clandestine in a hopeless resistance against the PL. Others still formed bandit gangs and vented their frustration on their own kind. Once again, war had divided a culture, split families, and left only shells of the proud men and women who had fought and lived to tell the tale.
No, it wasn't the Hmong Siri was afraid of. He'd been in battles all his life and survived. A bullet to the head wouldn't have been that much of an upheaval to him now. What distressed him was the thought of being stuck in the jungle with spotty-faced Judge Haeng for a month. That, he decided, would be a slow and agonizing way to go.
There wasn't a lot for individuals to do on a Sunday in Vientiane. At least from Monday to Saturday a person could work for next to no pay and spend her evenings doing community service for the sheer joy of it. But Daeng was officially a business proprietor and Dtui had recently moved to her new husband's rooms at the police compound so neither was registered for the Sunday com¬munity development programs. This meant there wasn't even a slim hope of clearing garbage from the banks of the irrigation ditch or laying gravel on a dirt road while
singing "The Blood We Shed for the Republic Has Turned to Sweat."
So, instead, they rode their bicycles to the little metal bridge at kilometer 2 that crossed over to Don Chan.
The river island was man-made, the Mekhong having been diverted into an aqueduct to supply water for the city long before the establishment of the Nam Ngum waterworks. In the rainy season nothing more than a humble stub poked from the water, but now the island and its sandbar stretched way back past the city. Small holders and farmers had rebuilt their bamboo huts and fresh green vegetables sprouted in abundance. It was the ideal spot for a picnic. Dtui and Daeng's spread con¬sisted of river-fish cakes, sapodilla-flavored rice wine, and of course, vegetables with still-beating hearts plucked from the earth before them. They sat at the top of an eight-foot-high bank, close enough to Thailand to see their affluent neighbors taking lunch, sitting at tables watching their poor Lao neighbors cross-legged on the grass getting pickled.
"Do you think they wish they were here?" Dtui asked. With the baby working on its personality inside her, she'd decided this would be her last drinking day. Even so she sipped modestly at the sweet wine. Daeng was a serious drinker and she more than made up for Dtui's abstinence.
"Why not?" Daeng replied. "I've seen wild birds in the branches of trees looking enviously at caged song doves. We all of us want what we can't have. Do you wish you were there?"
"I was there, briefly. I liked everything about it. It's so
modern. The stores have so much choice compared to ours. They're crammed with all kinds of goodies. But . . . I don't know, I wondered where it would end. You get a rice cooker and you lust for an oven. You get an oven and you want a chef to come and cook for you. Once you get into that cycle you can never be satisfied."
"So, you prefer having nothing."
"I appreciate things more. And I don't have nothing. I have friends. I have a reasonably good life—a socially responsible job—experiences. I mean, how many people get to hang out with a legend of the underground movement?"
"Oh dear. You can't believe everything Siri tells you, you know."
"Yes I can. He's told me all about you. He says what he believes. That's why I respect him. I wish I had nerve enough to blurt out what I actually feel like he does."
"That luxury comes with age. When you're younger, you don't always get away with saying what you believe, particularly in this type of system."
"Did you think it would end up like this? When you were fighting the French? Did you think the alternative to colonialism would be so . . . so claustrophobic? Did you think we'd be looking over our shoulders all the time wor¬rying we might be doing or saying something to offend the Party?"
"We're in transition, Dtui. Things will get better. At least we Lao are in control of our own destiny now."
"If you don't count the Vietnamese 'advisers.'"
"We'll shake them off. Have faith. The worst is behind
us. We haven't known real peace for my entire lifetime. Let's sit back and enjoy it while we've got it. By the way, my glass is empty."
"Yes, Your Highness."
They lay back in the thick buffalo-forehead grass for a while and listened to the slow, soothing motion of the river trickling through the reeds.
"I'm starting to feel guilty," Dtui confessed.
"I feel like we should be off catching the bomber."
"I've told you. Patience is a vital component of a suc¬cessful investigation. Rushing into it without a plan is a waste of human resources."
"The trip to the police station yesterday was a com¬plete waste of human resources. What did the boy say? 'And why should we share our findings with you two . . . ladies?' Talk about insolence."
"Right. But didn't that inspire us to think laterally? And didn't that period of thought lead to our brilliant insight?"
"Your brilliant insight."
"It was our idea."
"I remember exactly how it went. You said, 'If you were the assassin, Dtui, what would be going through your mind on the day of the bombing?' And I said I'd want to make sure my bomb actually went off and did its damage, seeing as there'd be no chance of its making the evening agricultural broadcast on the wireless. And you said, 'That means the bomber would have to be on the hospital grounds that afternoon.'"
"It was the only way he could be sure."
"And you said, 'Perhaps we could ask the staff whether they noticed anyone hanging around all afternoon on Friday.'"
"Right, but it was you who remembered the nurses and the photographs. It wouldn't have entered my head."
"Yes it would. And it probably won't help anyway. When the prints come back from the shop tomorrow all we'll see is smiling nurses and flowers. Not a bomber in sight. He's hardly likely to pose with them, is he now?"
"So little faith in one so young. Remember, anything's possible."
"There must be more we can do. If only we could get access to the army bomb squad report or the police investigations. I'm sure we could do more than the boy wonders."
"Until Siri and Phosy come back it's just you and me. I have all kinds of contacts in high places in the south but nobody up here—not yet."
Dtui poured Daeng another shot from the misty bot¬tle and filled her own glass with water. They toasted the diners across the river.
"I do," Dtui said.
"Have an influential friend. You do too. Or at least an ex-influential friend."
"You don't mean Civilai?"
"I certainly do."
"Oh, Dtui. He's retired."
"Cronyism doesn't just go away overnight."
"He isn't going to be in any state to help us."
A few months earlier Siri had uncovered a plot to overthrow the Lao government. Dtui and Phosy had crossed over to a refugee camp in Thailand to spy on the deposed Royalists. Information they gleaned there had led to the failure of the coup. But in the aftermath, Siri had discovered that his old friend, Civilai, was in line to take a post in the proposed revolutionary administra¬tion. He was a traitor, a fact that only Siri and Daeng were privy to. Civilai had taken early retirement in return for their silence. Daeng doubted the old politician would be prepared to step back into the quicksand from which he'd so recently escaped.
Dtui knew none of this.
"Let's find out," she said.
In the words of Comrade Civilai, the rainy season of '77 had been as brief and unconvincing as a politician's credibility . . . and he should know. Since his strongly encouraged retirement from the politburo three months earlier, officially for health reasons, he'd had a lot of free time to perfect his witticisms. His best friend, Dr. Siri, had been afraid the traumatic events leading up to the old man's fall from grace might have driven him to despair and an early visit to the pyre. But far from it. Civi¬lai had expanded in all directions like a man released from the grip of atmospheric pressure. His mind had been given rein to consider philosophies beyond Marx and Lenin. He'd begun to listen to the lyrics of his grand¬niece's pop music and see merit in them. He'd started
reading the novels hidden in his loft and breathing in their beauty. Not since his French education had his mind been so liberated.
His body too had expanded. His skin no longer stuck to his bones like pie crust. Always a food con¬noisseur, Civilai now had endless hours to engage in his passion. He delighted in his wife's cooking and exper¬imented with his own. He invited friends for dinners, performing miracles with the scant offerings on sale at the morning market and the Party co-op. He had, they all agreed, blossomed and bloated as a result of his divorce from politics.
Dtui and Daeng sat with him at the round kitchen table in a house that had once belonged to the director of the American high school at kilometer 6. It was what the English would call a bungalow and what the Lao would call a rather pointless style of architecture—not raised from the ground on stilts to allow the air to circu¬late and the floods to pass beneath. Windows of glass that magnified the rays of the sun. A toilet with a communal seat that encouraged the exchange of germs and dis¬ease. But the senior Party members didn't live there because it was practical. They'd moved into the walled US compound to thumb their socialist noses at the Ameri¬cans. They'd endured and survived the endless air raids on their cave enclaves in the northeast for thirty years. The enemy owed them.
Daeng was pleased to see how well the old comrade was looking.
Dtui, like the rest of Laos, saw him as an elder states¬
man in frail health who had retired gracefully. But there was nothing frail about him on this day.
"I must say it's rare that I get two voluptuous lady visi¬tors at the same time," he said. "Nice to see I haven't lost that magnetism. How did you get here?"
"On our bicycles," Dtui told him.
"All this way? And you with your arthritis, Madame Daeng."
"Can't let a little chronic pain spoil a day out, com¬rade," she told him.
"That's the spirit. Then I think you both deserve a drink for making it here."
"I'm on the baby wagon, uncle," Dtui confessed. "But Madame Daeng got quite sloshed at lunchtime. I think that's why she can't feel her legs."
"Nice to see," said Civilai, pulling down several bottles from the Formica wall cabinet. "Then she'll need top¬ping up."
"Where's Madame Nong today?" Dtui asked, wonder¬ing whether Civilai's wife would let him tipple in the afternoon if she were around.
"Women's Union excursion . . . again. She's been sign¬ing up for all of them since I became redundant. Can't really understand it. You'd think she'd want to spend all her time cleaning up after me, wouldn't you?"
"You'd think so." Daeng smiled. "We girls are mysteri¬ous creatures."
"No arguments from me there." Civilai nodded, arriving at the table with three full glasses with lime slices hanging onto them for dear life. "So, what can I do for you, ladies?"
They sat and drank their vodka sodas—one without vodka, two with little soda—while Dtui told Civilai all about the peculiar happenings at the morgue and the reluctance of the police and the army to share their find¬ings. He agreed that, although there were several dozen people who might like to give Siri a good slapping, none that he could think of disliked the doctor enough to blow him up. He recalled one attempt on the coroner's life a year before but as far as he knew there had been nothing personal about it and the perpetrator was safely behind bars.
"When's Siri due back? Civilai asked.
"Tomorrow evening," Dtui told him.
"Then we'd better get cracking. We can't have our chief and only coroner killed by some maniac, can we now?"
"You think you can help?" Dtui asked.
"Undoubtedly. If a respected Party dinosaur can't call in a favor or two, who the blazes can?"
Some people just die. Siri had come to that conclusion after many years of careful observation. They don't nec¬essarily die of anything, they just get old, everything gives up, and they pass away. It's as simple as that. There are those who describe it as dying of old age but that puts old age in the same category as bubonic plague and the Black Death. There really is nothing dangerous about old age and there's no reason to be afraid of it. It certainly hadn't done Dr. Siri any harm. He'd been passing through its hal¬lowed halls for some years and it hadn't killed him.
Comrade Singsai had passed away in his sleep during
an excruciatingly long speech discussing the allocation of cattle. It was rather sad that his last memory on earth might have been how to encourage bulls to increase their semen count. But he was old and he'd endured a full life. He hadn't been able to summon the energy to pull him¬self out of a pleasant dream and back into that never-ending conference. Who could blame him? Siri was sorely tempted to write "He just died" on the death certificate but he knew that wouldn't satisfy anyone. He'd invited Haeng and a couple of the other seniors to observe the autopsy, and, as he expected, they'd declined.
Siri was surrounded by five liter cans of exotic fruits from China, crates of vegetables, stacks of packs of processed meat, sacks of rice, large bottles of soft drink syrup, tins of sardines and pilchards and a whole wall of goods labeled in Russian that could have been anything. There was enough to feed a medium-sized town for a year. And tucked at the back of the potatoes were several pallets of Vietnamese 33 beer in dusty bottles. In the arse¬nal of most coroners is a piece of equipment known as a skull chisel. It's primarily used to separate the calvarium from the lower skull but it has a useful secondary purpose in that it opens beer bottles very well. Siri looked at his watch, popped a 33, and made himself comfortable on the rice sacks.
From somewhere beyond the formality of the Party gathering, the mystical sounds of a kwee pipe drifted across the plain. He'd heard it before on the grounds of Mahosot before leaving Vientiane. He let the music seep into the pores of his skin and smiled at familiar phrases
and intimate passages. It was a magical, heavenly refrain that felt out of place in such a godless spot.
The decision to hold the national conference in the old city of Xiang Khouang had been pure showmanship. After a prolonged period of Royalist-American bomb¬ing, the only structures still standing were one house, a broken hospital wing, and a twenty-foot Buddha with half a head and shrapnel wounds. There was nowhere to eat or sleep or even to hold a conference in the deci¬mated place. But the Lao People's Revolutionary Party had a point to make regardless of the inconvenience to the participants. The stage and a thousand chairs and countless tarpaulins had been trucked down from Phon¬savan, the new provincial capital. And there in the center of the main street they gave their speeches and clapped and let the defeated enemy know who was in charge. All around them in the pockmarked landscape, several thou¬sand tons of unexploded ordnance lay hidden beneath the dried mud. Leisurely strolling during the breaks was strongly discouraged. For the same reason there were no sightseeing tours arranged to the Plain of Jars. Instead, each participant had been given a color postcard of a buffalo beside an ancient four-foot pot in his orientation folder.
At the end of each day, the delegates had been bused back to Phonsavan to eat and sleep in preparation for the next day's ordeal. And it was in a dining hall room that Siri now sat. An hour and two more beers after his arrival he'd hidden the empty bottles behind a stack of man¬darin oranges and gone to the door with his bag. Judge
Haeng and two officials were seated at a table in the din¬ing room.
"It's done," Siri said and he laid the death certificate in front of the judge. It read "cardiac arrest."
"See, Siri?" Haeng said. "See? That wasn't so difficult, was it?"
"Judge Haeng," Siri nodded, "you're right again. Oh, by the way, I redressed him for collection."
Siri was sure the officials would order one or two labor¬ers to remove the cadaver. Nobody would think to check under the shirt. Comrade Singsai would return to his family with his body and his dignity intact.
"Oh, Siri," Haeng called after him as he headed out into the evening chill. "Get to bed. We're off early in the morning."
Siri's response wasn't audible, which was perhaps just as well.