Disjunctive Palimpsest: Tracing French Detective in Postcolonial  Laos

 

Panida Boonthavevej

Silpakorn University 

Abstract

The paper offers a twofold study of a crime series penned by Colin Cotterill (b. 1952), between 2004 and 2016, featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of the Lao PDR in the late 1970s. It first focuses on the series’s palimpsestuous relation with the detective fiction by Georges Simenon (1903-1989), between 1931 and 1972, whose main character is Inspector Jules Maigret of the French criminal investigation division. A critical intersection of Gérard Genette’s concept of hypertextuality and Homi K. Bhabha’s notions of mimicry and hybridity establishes Siri Paiboun series as a hypertext upon which the hypotext of Inspector Maigret has been grafted.

Nonetheless, the study problematises the palimpsestuous relation of the two series, contending that the Siri Paiboun series operates as a site where colonial mimicry produces “excess or slippage” which deviates from and later disrupts the authority of colonial discourse epitomised by the convention of French police novel.

Arguably, the generic disjuncture, termed as hybridity (Bhabha 2007), manifests an attempt to engage French detective fiction within a different cultural context. Traversing national divides, the British author makes use of the genre, first, to delegitimise the colonial authority of the genre by questioning the status of Simenon’s series as a model of roman policier, and, secondly, to criticise the Lao dysfunctional judicial system while his Belgian predecessor seeks to endorse the institutional authority of the French police force, whereby crimes are punished and the rule of law is upheld.

Introduction: Palimpsest and genre classification

Between 1931-1972, Georges Simenon (1903-1989), a Belgian writer, churned out seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories featuring Jules Maigret, the chief detective of the French Police Department (Geherin 2008, 9; Worthington 2011, 143). Thirty-two years later, Colin Cotterill (b.1952), a British author, debuted his detective series. Up to date, eleven novels have been published, in which Siri Paiboun, the protagonist, is the national coroner of the Lao PDR, working in the morgue of the Mahosot Hospital.

In The coroner’s lunch, Siri first mentions the name Maigret after he is assigned the task of investigating the mysterious death of two Vietnamese operatives whose bodies are found in Nam Nguem Reservoir. He attributes his investigative eagerness to his favorite pastime while studying in France:

 

During his stay in Paris decades before, he’d taken delight in the weekly serialisations of one Monsieur Sim in the L’Oeuvre newspaper. They followed the investigations of an inspector of the Paris police force who was able to solve the most complicated of mysteries with the aid of nothing more lethal than a pipe of tobacco.

By the time he got to Vietnam, Siri was more than pleased to learn that Monsieur Sim had restored his name to its full Simenon, and that Inspector Maigret mysteries were now appearing as books. The French in Saigon had shelves of them, and a number found their way north to be read by those communist cadres who’d spent their formative years in France.

Siri had been able to solve most of the mysteries long before the detective had a handle on them – and he didn’t even smoke […]

he felt a distinct merging. The coroner and the detective were blending. He liked the way it felt. For a man in his seventies, any stimulation, should it be kind enough to offer itself, had to be grasped in both hands. (Cotterill 2004, 62-63; my emphasis)

The merging of the police detective and the coroner conjures the concept of hypertextuality in Gérard Genette’s seminal volume, Palimpsests: Literature in the second degree, which unites a text B (hypertext – the Siri Paiboun series) to an earlier text A (hypotext – the Maigret series) (1997, 5). Here, the process of making new things out of old ones entails “a new function being superimposed on and interwoven with an older structure” (Genette 1997, 398), inviting readers to engage in a relational reading to the hypotext. The textual relation between the two crime series can be represented by the analogy of the palimpsest, whereby “on the same parchment, one text can become superimposed upon another, which it does not quite conceal but allows to show through” (Genette 1997, 399). Traditionally conceived in terms of intertextuality and hypertextuality by Julia Kristeva (1969) and Roland Barthes (1973), this relational reading was coined by Philippe Lejeune (b. 1938), an essayist, as “a palimpsestuous reading” (Genette 1997, 399; original emphasis).

As far as the question of genre is concerned, the Maigret series may be categorised as police novel, or roman policier, a sub-genre of crime fiction which is usually governed by a police officer which emphasises the process of detection. (Mills 2007, 176). Obviously, he works “with institutional support, conducting more or less accurately reported police business” (Knight 1980, 168). Fashioned after the French counterpart, the Siri Paiboun series is categorised as postcolonial crime fiction. Ed Christian’s “Ethnic postcolonial crime and detection (Anglophone) defines postcolonial crime fiction as the detective fiction that “often moves from the interrogation of suspects to the interrogation of society, where crime stems from flaws in the political, social, and industrial systems […] due to the residual effects of colonialism and to the struggles of formerly colonised nations to find new yet culturally friendly ways of making their situation progressively fairer and happier” (Christian 2010, 284).

Postcolonial crime fiction, Christian maintains, features postcolonial detectives who are “always indigenous to or settlers in the countries where they work; they are usually marginalized in some way, which affects their ability to work at their full potential; they are always central and sympathetic characters; and their creators’ interest usually lies in in an exploration of how these detectives’ approaches to criminal investigation are influenced by their cultural attitudes” (Christian 2001, 2; original emphasis).

Remarkably, the difference between the two series is that of the coloniser and the colonial subject, constructed via the colonial discourse, rendering the latter “a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction.” The colonised is thus produced as “a social reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible” (Bhabha 2007, 110). Reading along these lines, the protagonist of the Siri Paiboun series can never live up to the finesse of roman policier in the Maigret series. Although he was trained in a French medical school, for one thing, he was not considered as competent as his French classmates.

After clawing his way through a French education system dense and overgrown with restrictions against the poor, he had finally proved that a country boy could make something of himself. He found a rare, benevolent French sponsor, who sent him to Paris.

There he became a competent but not brilliant medical student […] In his first two years at Ancienne, without distractions, he was in the top thirty percent of his class. His tutors agreed he had great promise, “for an Asian.” (Cotterill 2004, 16) 

No matter how devotedly Siri tries to emulate the French model, he would be considered mere “francophone,” not French, revealing the ambivalence of colonial mimicry as “the desire for a reformed, and recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha 2007, 122; my emphasis). At the same time, the Siri Paiboun series as the hypertext may never be placed in the same category of the Maigret novels (the hypotext). Being the sign of a double articulation, it would be fixated as “a ‘partial’ presence,” (Bhabha 2007, 123) posing a threat to the authority of the French novels. As a result, the ambivalence of colonial discourse becomes eminent.

An examination of how the Siri Paiboun series deviates from the French model reveals its agendas of 1) subverting the Eurocentric ideological and literary expectations, and 2) (re)investigating the postcolonial society which poses a number of constraints under which the detective operates (Matzke and Mühleisen 2006, 5-8). Figuratively speaking, “there are two bodies under examination: “the body of the victim (plot of the crime novel) and the body of the (post)colonial society. […] Consequently, the body of the victim is transformed into a site of multiple investigations and subject to many, often overlapping or intersecting modes of analysis and meaning” (Knepper 2006, 39).

Physical appearances and personal traits

Reading the Maigret series in relation to the Siri Paiboun series, one notices some salient affinities and disparities between the two. One point of difference between the Maigret novels and the Siri Paiboun novels resides in the characterisation of the detective figures.

Regarding physical appearances, Inspector Maigret is described as a heavily built man in his forties, often seen wearing “a thick black overcoat with a velvet collar” (Simenon 2014b, 3). With his “proletarian” frame, he had “a way of imposing himself just by standing there,” his pipe usually nailed to his jawbone (Simenon 2013a, 10-11).

In addition to his self-assertiveness, Maigret is also noted for his stoicism. In A man’s head, Dufour, one of the sergeants, is shot to death. Janvier, another sergeant, wishing to console him, but “he felt so devastated when he saw his chief’s sagging shoulders that all he could do was sniff and turn his head away” (Simenon 2014c, 44). Afterwards, Maigret returns to the headquarters, where he is ready to be reprimanded by Coméliau the magistrate. However, 

 

[…] Maigret did not flinch once, did not register the slightest trace of protest or impatience.

Solemn-faced, his features drawn, he listened to the end with deference and humility. (Simenon 2014c, 45) 

Maigret’s characteristics reflect his ordinariness and understanding of human behavior upon which he relies for crime solving. Noticeably, “he does what average Frenchmen once did, enjoys what they enjoyed, believes what they believed” (Porter 1981, 208). Unlike the eccentric amateur detective who prides himself on his intellectual superiority and superhuman deductive powers, “Maigret is a professional policeman […] a common man of average intelligence” (Geherin 2008, 10).

On the contrary, the coroner in Cotterill’s novels is characterised as an atypical detective figure. A somber detective is replaced with a partly comical figure.

 

Dr. Siri Paiboun was often described as a short-arsed man. He had a peculiar build, like a lightweight wrestler with a stoop. When he walked, it was as if his bottom half was doing its best to keep up with his top half. His hair, clipped short, was a dazzling white […] He’d never had much success with whiskers, unless you counted eyebrows as whiskers. Siri’s had become so overgrown, it took strangers a while to make out his peculiar eyes. Even those who’d traveled ten times around the world had never seen such eyes. They were the bright green of well-lighted snooker-table felt, and they never failed to amuse him when they stared back from his mirror. (Cotterill 2004, 5) 

Detective domiciled

In light of personal life, Jules Maigret is married to Louise, whom he had met at a party he had been invited to. She is often referred to as “Madame Maigret.” The couple remains childless. While Madame Maigret is understanding of her husband’s career, she is unfortunately “a model of nonentity” (Mills 2007, 177). In A man’s head, Madame Maigret finds that her husband is so absorbed in the murder case he is investigating. She says nothing even when “her husband left her after drinking his coffee without even noticing that it was scalding hot” (Simenon 2014c, 74).

Meanwhile, Siri Paiboun was first married to Boua, a nursing student whom he met while studying in Paris. She died in a mysterious explosion while both were working with the communist movement, rallying for supporters. After the Communist Party took over the country and declared it a republic, Siri, who had been a field surgeon, was relocated to Vientiane and reluctantly took the job of a coroner. He later married Daeng Keopakam, who is now styled as “Madame Daeng.”

Siri had first met Daeng thirty-seven years earlier at the southern youth camp where he and his wife, Boua, were serving with the Lao Issara or the Free Lao movement. In Anarchy and old dogs, Siri re-connects with Daeng, though suffering from rheumatism, selling noodles at a stall near the Mekhong ferry ramp (Cotterill 2007, 99;101). Subsequently, they get married and Daeng moves to live in Vientiane. Also childless, she establishes herself as an entrepreneur taking over a noodle shop near Chantabouli Temple (Cotterill 2007, 255). An actively supportive wife, she plays an important role in Siri’s detective  flair.

As far as residence is concerned, Maigret and his wife live in an apartment on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, considered a petit bourgeois setup. Meanwhile, Siri initially stays in an old French two-story house near Haysok Temple. The building, to be shared among a few families, “needed just about everything: paint, mortar, uncracked glass, tiles, you name it” (Cotterill 2004, 7-8). The place is later ruined in a bombing incident that kills one of his neighbors. He is thus relocated to a shared government housing near That Luang (Cotterill 2009, 90). Referred to as “The Zoo,” the cement box home, at one point, accommodates the needy – “eleven vagabonds and exiles: Comrade Noo, the Thai forest monk; Mr. Inthanet, the puppet master; the silent wandering woman; Crazy Rajhid; Gongjai, the ex-karaoke lounge hostess; Mrs. Fah (Cotterill 2016, 13; Cotterill 2015, 77-78).

Places and social environment

Married and childless, the two government officials carry out their, often self-imposed, missions while allowing readers to vicariously explore the landscape and atmosphere in which crimes occur. Remarkabley, there is often an intimate relation between crime and its milieu.

When the detective is strolling along the streets of Paris or other towns, his view towards those places he immerses himself in reflects on his occupation and the authority the state has invested in him. Here, walking is a form of surveillance the police officer vigilantly conducts.

For instance, investigating a cold case in Liège, in The hanged man of Saint-Pholien, Maigret alights in an old neighborhood.

 

The inspector turned up the collar of his overcoat, cleared his throat and began walking alone down the deserted street. And all his senses were attuned to a single purpose: to perceived the faintest noise, the slightest ruffle in the air that might warn him of any danger. (Simenon 2014b, 86)

The sense of place is clearly reflected in Maigret’s characteristic method of investigation of “soaking up the atmosphere of a crime scene and gradually immersing himself in the lives of people who previously had been strangers to him” (Geherin 2008, 11). In Inspector Cadaver, for instance, Maigret arrives in Saint-Aubin to investigate the death of an Albert Ratailleau. More than once, he is seen walking along the main street:

 

Hands in pockets, overcoat collar turned up, Maigret made his way cautiously towards the first light he could see, which resembled a lighthouse in the fog. Although it seemed a long way off, the shimmering halo was so bright it was easy to think he was heading for a major landmark. […] Saint-Aubin wasn’t a big place. He could already see the lights of the dairy like a factory ablaze in the night. […] This was the miniature world in which Albert Retailleau had lived. His mother had spent her whole life here. Apart from holidays at Les Sables-d’Olonne, someone like Geneviève Naud had virtually never left this little town. (Simenon 2015a, 77-78)

Maigret locates himself in the environs in which crime is committed in order to comprehend the dynamics of the people and place. This will eventually provide the background information for his crime solving. Concurrently, in the Siri Paiboun novels, places in the cities he lives in or visits on his mission supposedly reflect the social climate of Laos in the 1970s. Strolling along the streets is arguably a literary device to display and reflect upon the transformations the cities have undergone. Revealing signs of a crumbling economy, Vientiane, for example, has become dusty and deserted. In The coroner’s lunch,

 

Siri walked home through the dusty Vientiane streets at the end of a long Friday. He usually kept a cheery smile on his face for anyone who wanted it. But he’d noticed that fewer people returned it these days […] He passed dark, half-empty shops that all seemed to sell the same things. He passed the fountain whose spouts had become cave dwellings for insects, and unfinished buildings whose bamboo scaffolding was green with ivy. (Cotterill 2004, 7)  

In Love songs from a shallow grave, Siri accompanies Civilai to Phnom Penh in a fact- finding mission. He reminisces of the time he spent there with Boua for an orientation program after they had been recruited by the French to set up a youth camp in southern Laos. He rememberes walking along the Boulevard Norodom, “one of the prettiest cities in Asia” in 1940s (Cotterill 2010, 127). However, the second visit reveals a totally different city.

 

He stepped onto the deserted tree-lined boulevard. This was where he and his wife had walked hand in hand back in the forties […] He needed to hold on to that Phnom Penh for as long as he could. But there were no smiling faces now. No lovers on benches. No impossible beds of tulips and roses. This was a morning-after Boulevard Norodom. […] There was litter everywhere and evidence of vandalism. (Cotterill 2010, 251)

The transformed landscapes of the cities arguably contribute to the protagonist’s disillusioned view of the communist ideology. Instead of improving the people’s life, those who have put it into practice have adversely changed the once prosperous cities.

Interestingly, situating the detective in the criminals’ social environs, the Maigret series places more emphasis on the psychological complexities of the criminals rather than on the process of crime solving (Schütt 2003, 73). For example, in The Flemish house (2014a), Maigret chooses not to disclose the result of his investigation which would have incriminated the Peeters. This is “perhaps the starkest example of Maigret setting himself up as a moral judge of a crime and a criminal, basing his decision on his own evaluation of the characters and circumstances rather than acting as an impartial enforcer of the law” (Alder 2013, 81). Here, his class solidarity with the petit bourgeois Peeters family becomes more important than the resolution of the case.

On the contrary, Siri often associates himself with the victims. In The merry misogynist, Siri visits Vang Vieng to investigate a serial killer case. Trying to locate the house of Mongaew and Boonhee, who have lost Ngam the daughter, he discovers that:

 

The rice farm was four kilometers out of town along a dirt track that was all deep ruts. By the time he reached his destination, Siri had attained the dexterity of a gramophone needle. It didn’t take a great detective to see how poor the family was.The house was loosely woven elephant-grass panels on a bamboo-and-wood frame. The roof was thatched. There was a bamboo conduit that snaked down from the hills, bringing water from a spring to a large oil drum. Three chickens scratched around in the dirt, and an anorexic dog, one that Siri didn’t recognize, slept under a bush of thistles. […] Siri passed the little altar that held offerings to the spirits of the land. With the kind cooperation of Lady Kosob, the rice goddess, there would be early rains, and they would not fall in torrents that destroyed the earth embankments that separated the rice troughs. It was clear the offerings had been too paltry to raise this family from poverty. There were only two small paddies attached to the farm but they appeared to be deserted. Siri finally found a sunburned man and two teenaged boys sheltering in a flimsy grass-roofed lean-to. There wasn’t an ounce of fat between the three of them. (Cotterill 2009, 120-121) 

The poor couple had been grooming the daughter for the Miss Sangkhan beauty pageant, hoping that she would win and receive a considerable sum of prize money as well as “countless offers to advertise beans and cement and farm implements and soft drinks, all for a fee” (Cotterill 2009, 128). However, the hope was dampened when the pageant was cancelled because it was a relic of the decadent society the Communist Party was trying to weed out (Cotterill 2009, 129).

Forensic team and technology

Professionally, both Maigret and Siri work for government institutions, the police force and the hospital, respectively. However, when it comes to the working condition, Maigret seems to have the luxury of collaborating with a team of resourceful and reliable officers: Janvier, Dufour, Lucas and Torrence. In Signed, Picpus (2015b), for example, Maigret depends his team members to keep watch outside Madame Le Cloaguen’s residence. On the contrary, without a formal training as a coroner, Siri is “ramrodded” into this job after retirement. Dtui, one of his lab assistants, comments on his qualification.

 

Technically, Dr. Siri isn’t all that qualified either. I mean, he’s good, but he doesn’t have any formal training as a coroner. Our politburo didn’t seem to think that fact was terribly important; surgeon – coroner, same difference. Luckily for them, Siri’s a bit of a genius in a number of ways. (Cotterill 2008, 4) 

Meanwhile, his team is portrayed as unconventional, sometimes to the point of bizarreness. First of all is Geung Watajak, “a good-looking man in his forties with pronounced Down Syndrome features and jet-black hair greased on either side of a crooked center parting” (Cotterill 2005, 23). Dr. Pongruk, the former coroner at the Mahosot Hospital, hired and trained Geung as his morgue assistant.

Another assistant to Siri is Chundee Chantavongheuan, who usually goes by her pet name “Dtui.” Described as a “solid young nurse with a well-washed but rather craggy face and a happy mouth” (Cotterill 2004, 19), she seems unsuccessful in finding romance in her life because:

 

There had been years when large torsos were in high fashion, a symbol of wealth and plenty. Physiology went through cycles. But in the twentieth century, malnutrition was à la mode. Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn’t have to dig deep to find her kindness and humor, but they didn’t even bring a spade. (Cotterill 2004, 28) 

Although Siri and his assistants do not look like professionals, they display a strong sense of team spirit. In Slash and burn, Siri embarks on the joint operation of locating a missing US airplane and possibly an MIA. Peach, the Lao – English interpreter, whose parents had worked as missionaries in Laos, looks at the team admiringly. Apparently, she is surprised at the efficiency of Siri’s team members given their lack of proper training backgrounds.

As far as human and technological resources are concerned, Maigret’s team is better equipped with Criminal Records and the efficient forensic technology. In Maigret bides his time, he investigates the murder of Manuel Palmari, a vagrant from Corsica who had started as a pimp. At sixty, he was living with Aline on Rue des Acacias (Simenon 1966, 7). Since Aline is also one of the suspects, an officer is called into check for gunshot residue. He called:

 

“Moers! Can you come in with the paraffin?”

The expert had understood and was preparing his instruments. “Your hand, please.”

“What for?”

“To prove that you haven’t used a firearm this morning.” Without blinking she held out her right hand. Then, just in case,

the experiment was repeated on the left hand. “When can you let me know, Moers?”

“In about ten minutes. I’ve got all I need down in the truck.”

(Simenon 1966, 22-23) 

Meanwhile, the morgue at the Mahosot Hospital suffer a severe scarcity of resources. The morgue and the so-called forensic lab are housed in the same poorly equipped unit. “[G]uided by the guile of his hero Maigret of the Paris Sûreté,” Siri oftentimes has to rely on makeshift technology when collecting samples from a crime scene (Cotterill 2010, 45). In Anarchy and old dogs, Siri and Officer Tao have to perform an autopsy on the body of Say, the deputy governor of Champasak, who has been electrocuted in his own bath tub. With the scarcity of the resources, they manage to take an impression of the right index finger using a square of carbon paper (Cotterill 2007, 95-96).

To a certain extent, Siri’s method of investigation is quite similar to Maigret’s. He gathers all the information, comes up with a hypothesis, and tries to verify it. Meanwhile, Maigret, after collecting available information, usually starts with a list of questions and tries to answer them. In The madman of Bergerac, he explains to his wife that:

 

‘Before we do anything else, we need a schedule. I think it’s best to act as if we don’t expect to receive any new information. In other words, to work with what we’ve got and try out all the different theories until one of them rings true.’ (Simenon 2015d, 79) 

It seems both Siri and Maigret rely on rational inquiry while working on their cases. Nevertheless, Siri’s investigation is often hampered by supernaturalism in various modalities, i.e., dreams, omens, premonitions, possessions, trances, and visitations, and serves several functions. Conceived as the hypostasis of the victim’s call for justice, it functions as clues that help the coroner/detective in his crime solving operation. Eventually, the perpetrators are prosecuted and the spirits of the dead are laid to rest. The deceased who appear to Siri apparently come to him hoping he would help them with their unfinished business (Cotterill 2013, 71).

An incident that highlights the significance of spectral clues resides in Siri’s first high- profile case in late 1976. Mrs. Nitnoy, Comrade Kham’s wife and a senior cadre at the Women’s Union, is found dead. Comrade Kham breaks it to him that the cause of his wife’s death is her gastronomic fascination. The husband claims that his wife died because she had consumed a lot of lap or pa daek, raw meat or fish concoction infested with parasites. Since, according to the law, the doctor cannot issue a death certificate until he confirms the cause of death, Comrade Kham would rather have Nitnoy’s own surgeon sign the certificate, and rush the body to the crematorium (Cotterill 2004, 40). The coroner’s suspicion is stirred up during the husband’s visit to the morgue:

 

Siri looked at the tall man and was overwhelmingly conscious of a dark image some three meters behind him. For some unknown reason it filled him with dread. It wasn’t clear, and there wasn’t enough light to distinguish features, but its shape reminded him exactly – exactly of Mrs. Nitnoy […] She was standing, shaking. She tensed. She readied herself and charged at the comrade’s back with all the ferocity of a bull intent on goring him […] But when her body met her husband’s, she vanished. (Cotterill 2004, 41)

Consequently, instead of working on the dead body in the morgue, he decides to go to the field, and visits the Union’s headquarters and interviews Dr. Pornsawan (Cotterill 2004, 60). Eventually, Siri discovers that it was the husband who murdered her by lacing her painkillers with cyanide. He was jealous of his wife’s rising career at the Women’s Union as she appeared in Khaosan News Agency newspaper. Haunted by a sense of guilt, Comrade Kham shot himself in the head (Cotterill 2004, 58-59; 240).

Conclusion: Joined in disjuction

Conspicuously, the disjunctive palimpsest, evidenced in the sub-genre the Maigret series is placed in, reveals the repressive force of the central government. Although the detective himself projects “an image of efficiency with a genial face and the touch of the common man” (Porter 1981, 206), the quality peculiar to the private eye in hardboiled crime fiction, he unquestionably embodies the institutional authority of the French police force in maintaining social order as found in police procedural. It has been argued “such a view continued to have widespread currency through the alternate waves of revolution and reaction that characterised French political life down through the nineteenth century and into our own time” (Porter 1981, 203).

Meantime, the hybridisation of the genre in effect questions the judicial system in the Lao PDR. Technically, the law did not exist in Laos. After the communist movement established a republic on December 2, 1975, it would take up to sixteen years for the first constitution to be drafted. That means the Ministry of Justice in which Siri is housed operates under the “lawless” circumstances. In Six and a half deadly sins, for instance, the question of legality is brought up by Phosy, the police chief, in his conversation with Sergeant Teyp in the Luang Nam Tha Police Headquarters. So as to garner confidence from him, Phosy explains, “We have a system. Laws. Everything that happens here is reported to and acted on in Vientiane. You are members of the Lao police force. Never forget that” (Cotterill 2015, 55).

But, in fact, there was no law. There was no constitution.

 

There were no laws as such. The ministry had drawn up a list of crimes and suitable punishments, but the judicial system was in its infancy and justice was being meted out by old military officers and headmen who interpreted the ambiguous lists however they saw fit. […] The question of legality was always a contentious one, as the old royalist constitution and its rules had been thrown out along with the French texts. Until a new law book was drafted, the term “legal” would remain a matter of conjecture. (Cotterill 2015, 55; 101) 

In a land without lawyers, nobody represents the defendant at the trial. It is based on circumstantial evidence alone (Cotterill 2010, 197). In a country where the law is not put into use, the question of legality is critically challenged. What constitutes a crime? It is left to the whim of those in the police force and the judicial system which does not really exist.

The Maigret series, as discussed earlier, may be considered the hypotext and Siri Paiboun series as the hypertext; both are engaged in a palimpsestuous relationship. Yet, one needs to be reminded that it is not simply a situation in which the two texts coexist harmoniously on the same plane. They are joined in disjunction “produced within the act of enunciation as a specific colonial articulation” (Bhabha 2007, 153). One cannot merely say that the Siri Paiboun series takes after the model of the French detective novel since this comparative study of the two crime series has already underlined the questionable status of the Maigret series. The “paranoid classification” (Bhabha 2007, 162) it encounters – does it fit in the sub-genre of the golden age crime fiction, police procedural, or hardboiled crime fiction? – renders obvious the ambivalence of colonial mimicry which resides in the “split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference” (Bhabha 2007, 153). The Siri Paiboun series, as the hypertext, can be classified neither as “imitation,” nor as “proximisation” of the Maigret series (Genette 1997, 7; 304).

A palimpsestuous reading of the Maigret series and the Siri Paiboun novels in light of the genre has finally demonstrated that Siri Paiboun series operates as a site where colonial mimicry produces “excess or slippage” (Bhabha 2007, 122), which deviates from and later disrupts the authority of colonial discourse epitomised by the convention of French police novel. The generic disjuncture, termed as hybridity, reveals the problematic colonial representation whereby the discriminated subject reverses the effects of colonialist disavowal and estranges the basis of its authority (Bhabha 2007, 162). The Siri Paiboun series, one may maintain, constitutes a hybrid object that retains traces of the Maigret series while revaluing its presence by resisting its being positioned as a literary inferior.

 

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------. 2013a. Pietr the Latvian. Trans. David Bellos. London: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1930.)

------. 2014a. The Flemish house. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1932.)

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Christian, Ed. 2001. Introducing the post-colonial detective: Putting marginality to work.

In The post-colonial detective, ed. Ed Christian, 1-16. New York: Palgrave.

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Knepper, Wendy. 2006. Confession, autopsy and the postcolonial postmortems of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. In Postcolonial postmortems: Crime fiction from a transcultural perspective, ed. Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen, 35-57. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Matzke, Christine and Susanne Mühleisen. 2006. Postcolonial postmortems: Issues and perspectives. In Postcolonial postmortems: Crime fiction from a transcultural perspective, ed. Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen, 1-16. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Mills, Kathryn Oliver. 2007. Duality: The human nature of detective fiction. In Questions of identity in detective fiction, ed. Linda Martz and Anita Higgie, 175-182. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Schütt, Sita A. 2003. French crime fiction. In The Cambridge companion to crime fiction, ed.

Martin Priestman, 59-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University  Press.

 

Note: This paper is based on a research financially supported by the Faculty of Archaeology Research Fund, Silpakorn University.

 

Panida Boonthavevej is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Western Languages, Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn Univeristy, Bangkok,  Thailand.