The third book in the series that began with THE CORONER'S LUNCH and continued with THIRTY-THREE TEETH continues our journey of discovery of a magical-realist, independently minded group of protagonists in landlocked, impoverished 1970s Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun, the country's coroner despite being long past retirement age, together with his mortuary nurse and new tenant, Dtui, is sent into the mountains to investigate the discovery of an arm that has been found protruding from a the concrete of a path under construction. This isn't just any path, but is part of a huge celebratory project. The caves of the mountain were used as the hiding-place of the revolutionaries who are now the rulers of the country, and are to become enshrined as a national monument complete with opening ceremony, hence the pressure is on for a fast resolution to this potential hiccup. As Siri soon finds, the caves also sheltered the then royal family, and were used to create a massive hospital during the blanket-bombing of the Vietnam war, the after-effects of which are still causing misery and suffering.
As soon as Siri and Dtui have left Vientiane on their detective mission, their boss, the nasty young judge Haeng Somboun, arrests Geung, their mortuary assistant (who has Down's syndrome), and has him driven off by the militia. By the simple expedient of his extreme passivity, the soldiers gradually forget that Geung needs guarding, so about 2,000 km away from his home, he wanders off, determined to fulfil his duty of keeping the morgue clean and cockroach-free until Siri and Dtui return. The book alternates between Geung's dangerous walking odyssey and the increasingly complex mystery that Siri and Dtui have to solve.
Colin Cotterill's plots are too bizarre and convoluted to attempt to describe in detail in a short review. I recommend reading the books in order, though, as the mystery elements are made even more complicated by Siri's increasingly strong connection with the spirit world. In the previous book, we learned that he is a reincarnation of a shaman, Yeh Ming. In DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED, he also becomes a host for the sprit of Odon, a Cuban who was helping the hard-pressed medical staff but who had vanished before Siri arrives in the region. For the first half of the book, I was quite confused by all the theories and investigations that Siri undertakes, and about which of his personae was acting at which moment. Not only is the basic mystery of the arm multi-layered and complex, involving as it does a tragic love story, the deposed Royal family, a possessed old woman and her young granddaughter, Cuban "advisers" in the country's reconstruction, Comrade Lit (officially in charge of the investigation, but more than content to leave it up to Siri while he follows other, more romantic, inclinations); but there is an equal number of supernatural elements, not least Siri's magical experiences of music and parties that others cannot hear. In the end, I stopped trying to work out what was going on, and let myself be carried away on a tide of apparently disconnected observations, deductions and events, eventually being rewarded by a logically pleasing conclusion that did not, I'm glad to say, use magic to "cheat".
Perhaps because of this complexity, or perhaps because he is such a sweet character, I found the simpler story of Geung and his journey more involving to read than the account of Siri's investigations. Nevertheless, the last third of the book is an admirable exercise in plot-juggling, and very clever in the way seemingly disparate stories and motivations are woven together into a coherent framework with emotional conviction. And after Siri and Dtui return to Vientiane, the coda at the mortuary is a satisfying ending. It goes without saying that DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED is very funny: laugh-out-loud in many places. It certainly isn't a gentle book, though – there are several episodes for which readers will need a strong stomach, which remove any hint of whimsy from the proceedings. As with the previous books, the story is told against the continuous background of devastation and extreme poverty in this ruined country, and is replete with many satirical observations of the communist administration and vignettes of how the country's inhabitants are coping with it – not all of them with the special mix of pragmatic humour and robust sensitivity which is Siri's trademark, but many of them with a quiet dignity that overcomes their pitiful circumstances in a way that is humbling to read.