Dr Siri Paiboun, elderly chief coroner of 1970s Laos, makes a welcome reappearance after his first outing in THE CORONER'S LUNCH. As THIRTY-THREE TEETH opens, Siri and his two colleagues, Dtui and Geung, carry out a post-mortem on two men, Mr A and Mr B, who have been found dead in the middle of the street while sharing a bicycle. Between them, the team rapidly identifies Mr B as a government official by his purple fingers, diagnosed as "triplicate syndrome" from the endless copying of documents required by the communist bureaucracy. The site of the crash leads Siri to the Ministry of Sport, Information and Culture where, with his friend Inspector Phosy and some spectacularly inefficient ministry staff, he discovers a malignantly powerful, sealed teak box, carved with elephants and inscribed with the crest of the deposed royal family. Before he can progress with this bizarre investigation, another corpse arrives at the morgue: a lady who has been apparently mauled by a large animal. Before pausing to draw breath, Siri is told by the authorities to investigate two charred corpses that have been found in Luang Prabang, home of the deposed royal family. Delighted to escape from the intolerable heat of Vientiane but warning Phosy not to attempt to open the box until he returns, Siri travels north to the mountains, rapidly diagnoses the cause of death and solves the mystery of how the men met their ends, in a few efficient pages worthy of the great Sherlock Holmes himself.
After this, the story changes, taking on a far more mystical dimension. Before returning home, Siri finds himself in a mysteriously abandoned orchard, full of trees bearing rotten fruit. Siri can't understand why the starving populace has not stripped the trees bare, until he meets a solitary gardener making a futile attempt at pruning. The connections between the charred bodies and the malignant box begin to become clear in Siri's mind, together with elephants, puppets and numbers of teeth (which are human teeth and not those of bicycles – I at first suspected due to the circumstances of the first death that the titular teeth might be those of a bicycle chain, but I was wrong).
In THE CORONER'S LUNCH, we learned that Siri is a personification of an ancient spirit, and it is this aspect of his story that comes to the fore for THIRTY-THREE TEETH, at the expense of a continuation of the detective elements. In a series of amusing set pieces, including a vivid account of the authorities' chaotic and misguided attempts to ban all spirits from the communist state. To achieve this goal, all the possessed people are summoned to attend an indoctrination lecture. However, the officials are incapable of maintaining order among a crowd of unruly spirits, and things escalate out of control. After completing his investigation of the burnt bodies, Siri has a vivid dream and is compelled by its symbolic message to journey to find a guru, who reveals much to Siri about his ancestor Yeh Ming and his own early life in his "second sunrise". Eventually, with the help of Mr Inthanet and some puppets, Siri decides it is time to return home.
Back in Vientiane, Dtui has been left to work on the deaths of more people who have apparently been killed by the large animal – is it a bear (one has recently and conveniently escaped from a cruel captivity) or something more strange? Dtui turns out to be an intrepid and scientific investigator; the description of her visit to a Russian circus trainer for information about bears is quite wonderful, particularly the poor Laos girls who are having to train as gymnasts. Phosy, meanwhile, is under pressure to deal with the cursed box, to Siri's consternation.
THIRTY-THREE TEETH provides a thankful opportunity to become reacquainted with Siri's lunchtime companion Civiali, his bossy neighbour Miss Vong, Crazy Rajid and another unpleasant neighbour Mr Soth, who has spotted Siri performing a destructive act distinctly unfriendly to the Party. Of all these varied characters, I developed a real soft spot for the plain spinster Dtui, who emerges as an attractive and feisty character with much more depth than was apparent in the previous book. I loved the way she handles Ivani the bear tamer, and found the story of her domestic life, her secret learning and her care for her mother poignant yet unsentimental. Siri provides the intelligence and humour of these books, but it is Dtui's character and determination to become educated that give us a hint of what the country's future could be unhampered by restrictions and privation: her simple integrity in the face of huge obstacles is something truly to admire.
THIRTY-THREE TEETH is mainly about our interconnectedness – between man and animals, between man and plants: even the balsa wood from which the puppets are made is connected with the very essence of our being. The Buddhist context for the narrative is far more developed than in the previous book, and together with the humour, the mystery elements are somewhat overwhelmed by the end of the book – or at the end of the day, perhaps just not very important in this Gaian scheme of the Universe. The communist regime and its adherents are the butt of jokes, and the populace – the fraction of it that did not swim to Thailand upon the takeover – are the heroes in the adversities of the fall-out. But all of this pales beside the author's interest in the whole, in the unifying force that binds all living things and those which once lived.