Thursday, July 12, 2012

Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill: A review

It is 1977. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the former Pathet Lao revolutionary and now reluctant national coroner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, has again been summoned to a remote part of his country to look at a dead body. This time it is a body - an arm anyway - that is protruding from a recently built concrete walk that leads from the President's former cave hideout to his new house. Dr. Siri's task is to disinter the arm, see if there is a body attached, and find out how the body died and how it got into the wet cement. 

Dr. Siri has taken his assistant Nurse Dtui with him on the trip to help in his investigation. They have left Mr. Geung, their mildly Down Syndrome-afflicted helper at the morgue in Vientiane, to take care of things while they are gone. Unfortunately, one of Siri's enemies in the Justice Ministry sees Geung as an embarrassment and a liability and he takes the opportunity of Siri's absence to have him kidnapped by the military and sent to the north for "re-education."

Meanwhile, Siri and Dtui get the body out of the concrete and perform the autopsy which only deepens the mystery of the death and how the body got there. But Siri is not only a surgeon and a coroner. He is also a shaman who embodies the spirit of a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman and is visited by the spirits of the dead who often lead him to the answers to questions of how they died. Soon he suspects that the spirit from this newly discovered body is with him and is trying to communicate something to him.

Cotterill manages to weave a lot of cultural information into these stories. This time, he explores further a theme from the previous books, mainly the enmity and distrust between putative allies Laos and Vietnam and the racial/cultural prejudice against the Hmong people in Laos and the Montagnards of Vietnam. Also, in this book, the Cubans who have been sent to Laos to help with the rebuilding of the country play a significant role. 

I was particularly interested in the story line of Geung, his loyalty to his friends and his job, and his single-minded obsession to return to Vientiane and take care of the morgue as he had promised Dr. Siri that he would. He is just a lovely character and I did enjoy reading about him.

All three of the main characters in these books, Siri, Dtui, and Geung are so compassionate, sympathetic, and humane and so full of humor that one feels comfortable in their presence. There's never really any doubt that the brilliant and intuitive Dr. Siri will get to the bottom of any mystery presented to him and that he will find a way to thwart the paper- and ideology-obsessed bureaucracy of his newly-Communist country. Nor is there any doubt that he will find a way to avenge his wronged friends. I want Dr. Siri to be my boss. 

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