I first heard about Colin Cotterill on a family holiday in the old royal capital of Laos, called Luang Prabang.

It’s a small and atmospheric city of softly spoken residents and half-hidden architectural treasures.

Weather-beaten temples and French colonial-era mansions dot the streets and side-streets and down at the river bank, the waters of the Mekong slide silently by.

There are pockets of activity here, on the main street where the tourists congregate and in a rickety building, on a dusty alleyway, that the locals call “Big Brother Mouse”.

Visitors who venture through the front door are greeted with a large book shelf packed with picture books and children’s stories – and usually, there is a good supply of youngsters making use of them in a room off the side.

The books are written and produced here, for the ramshackle building on Hiaphong Street is an unlikely looking publishing house.

It was founded by an American called Sasha Alyson, a retired businessman from Boston.

While holidaying in Laos in 2003, he failed to spot a single book in the country – so he decided to do something about it.

Three years later, ‘Big Brother Mouse’ produced the first batch of children’s books written in the local language. The idea behind the project is simple – raise literacy levels and promote the idea that reading can be fun.

The land of no books

Yet the task before the Big Brother Mouse team is huge, for this isolated and impoverished nation continues to be, in many ways, the land of no books.

Few people could afford the $7 or so required to buy a popular novel – but then again, they are unlikely to find anything in Lao on the shelves anyway.

A government-approved six volume set called “The History of Laos” did make it into a handful of shops this year, but we were told by one book seller that ‘it’s not selling very well.’

When I asked Mr Alyson about the paucity of reading material for adults, he did offer a few  words of encouragement however; “you do know that Colin Cotterill is trying to get his books published here, don’t you?”

I didn’t – but I decided to find out more.

Mr Cotterill is the critically acclaimed author of an eight book crime-fiction series set in Laos. The London native got to know the country in the early 1990’s when he took a job re-writing the national university’s English course – it had been designed some years earlier by a team of East Germans and was in need of some fairly major repair.

A shaky start

Still, the author told me this rather exotic sounding opportunity got off to a shaky start : when I arrived in the country someone on the airplane leaned over and said: “do you realise that you have hepatitis?”

“I went into the bathroom and looked at this big yellow glowing person and I realised that I was arriving in Laos sick. So on my first day I went to the hospital and spent three months there for treatment – and I liked the place so much that I moved in.”

Cotterill spent two years at the Mahosot Hospital in Lao capital, Vientiane and the experience serving as the inspiration for books about “Dr Siri Paiboun”.

This doc is a curmudgeonly figure, dreaming of a long and uninterrupted retirement when, to his undisguised disgust, officials from Laos’ one and only political party – the Communists – order him to become the national coroner.

Still, Dr Siri does as he is told, casting a wry eye at “revolutionary” Laos as he solves all manner of crimes and mysteries.

The series is now available in 14 languages and seems ideally suited to the local book-starved market – but making them available here has proven a challenge of almost Mekong-length complexity.

Struggle to get published

For starters, getting the books translated in Laos has been anything but simple. Cotterill told me: “I have been looking for six, seven, eight years for someone to translate my books but I’ve never been able to find anyone who could actually get the jokes.”

After asking “20 to 30 people around the world’”to have a go, Cotterill thinks he has finally found someone who gets the jokes in both languages.

His name is Neil Garforth, an electrician from Rochdale, who has been travelling the highways and waterways of Southeast Asia for twenty years.

Garforth has developed an ear for languages over the years and now works as a legal translator in Vientiane.

It is pretty dry stuff he told me – contracts and laws and memoranda of understanding – but at least it is predictable.

Mr Cotterill’s novels offer a different sort of challenge; “Dr Siri Paiboun was described as a short-arsed man,”  said Garforth, reading out-loud from the book. “I mean, how do I translate short-arsed into Lao? It’s not like I have got a lot of words to choose from,” he chuckled.

Less than a dollar a page

Mr Garforth is not doing it for the money – less than a dollar a page he said – and he seems to have inherited a fairly weighty burden; “when I do work on it, sometimes I re-write a paragraph 20 times because I’m not happy.” When I asked Garforth how far he’d actually got, he said he had finished the first chapter of the first book.

If the translated text of the first novel, “The Coroner’s Lunch” is produced, Mr Cotterill will need to get the book printed into the Lao language – but he is running into problems in that department as well.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the “country of no books” doesn’t have a whole lot of printing factories either.

In fact there is only one printer in Laos who uses equipment that could reasonably be described as ‘contemporary’ and he happens to be a devout Christian who insists on reading over the material before it touches his machines.

His name is Mana Jangmook, a self-described “unusual businessman”. ”I  turn down millions of dollars of business every year,” he told me; “We won’t print everything. Like magazines, like sex appeal – we totally deny, we reject completely. Or maybe horoscopes, we deny (that too).”

Quite possibly, he will also deny Colin Cotterill’s books which contain plenty of references to Buddhism and local animist traditions – the sort of thing Mr Mana doesn’t look particularly favourably on.

Big challenges

If you thought that marked the end of this literary obstacle course, there is one more challenge to face – and it is a rather formidable one at that.

If the books do get translated and printed, they have to be sent on to the “state censors” for approval before anyone can sell them.

The censors work in a curtained-off room at the Laos Ministry of Culture and one of our contacts was kind enough to take a picture of the outer door  – but the mere mention of this building in Vientian produces an array of anxious or terrified responses. When I suggested to one local that we would really like to film it for our report, he started to visibly shake.

Colin Cotterill seems to be taking this particular threat in his stride however. “I don’t know how the Ministry will react to these books. I don’t know what will be left or how long it will be. It might be a six page book by the time everyone’s put their hands on it,” he said.

Still, the London-native is quite sure that he is doing the right thing – even if the final chapter in this particular “adventure-in-publishing” seems a long way off; “I want to see how they will react to a story set in their own country.

“ They watch foreign movies but they can’t imagine that Laos could ever produce anything like that and I want to give them that feeling – the feeling that their lives and their stories are just as important as anything they see in Hollywood.”

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