The Four Reigns of Kukrit Pramoj
Review of Four Reigns (Book One) [Editions Duang Kamol, Bangkok, 1981]. The complete Four Reigns is available from Silkworm Books.
There was a time when statesmen were also men of letters, when to rule well and to write well were not contradictory but complementary. (Witness the collected inaugural addresses of the U.S. Presidents.) There was also a time when the novel's chief concerns were with what Thai author-statesman Kukrit Pramoj, in his novel Four Reigns, calls, "the inescapable facts of getting born, falling ill, growing old and dying" - and also with the possibilities of falling in love, marrying, and having children.
It is easy to wax nostalgic about these times. But no sooner have we started than our nostalgia is checked by that ever more vocal, stern, and industrious progress brigade, trumpeting that all things are getting better every day and that the past must be regarded as merely a crude stepping stone, valueless in itself. Writing, meanwhile, is increasingly seen as an art on par with calligraphy or a hobby on par with philately - mere distractions from the far more noble and spirit-quickening pursuit of lucre.
Kukrit Pramoj is an author-statesman of the old school and his novel Four Reigns is of the old cast. A comparison with Tolstoy and War and Peace is not out of order. Like Tolstoy, Pramoj is of noble birth and much of his life has been dedicated to the service of the state. In 1950, he founded the newspaper Siam Rath and wrote for it unstintingly, taking time off only to serve as Thailand's Prime Minister in 1975. Oxford-educated, Pramoj wrote articles on a wide range of subjects - including, apparently, astrology - and he also wrote serial fiction. Four Reigns, his best-known novel, was originally written in serial form.
The four reigns under scrutiny are those of Kings Rama V through VIII. Pramoj's novel begins in the late 19th century, during the autumn of Chulalongkorn's reign, and ends with the reign of Ananda, d. 1946, brother to the present King. Arguably, this span of time was Thailand's most critical in its transition to "modernity": Rama V embraced Europe; Rama VII abdicated when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy; Rama VIII was assassinated.
Like War and Peace, Four Reigns is every bit as concerned with the events of great historical importance as with the events of great personal importance. CHULALONGKORN MAKES UNPRECEDENTED TRIP TO EUROPE! But have the onions been sliced yet? IN KING'S ABSENCE, QUEEN BECOMES REGENT - FIRST FEMALE RULER! But will Ploi find true love?
Ploi is the heroine of Four Reigns. At a young age, she and her mother leave Ploi's childhood home and start a new life within the royal Grand Palace. There, Ploi falls under the tutelage of a number of witty matriarchs and she befriends the funny and forthright girl Choi. Ploi falls in love with Choi's brother but in vain. Mother goes away, gets pregnant, dies in childbirth. Ploi desponds. New boy has eyes for her. Betrothal begets marriage begets baby. Ploi's father dies. A comet is seen. The King dies soon after. A nation mourns. It rains.
These are the "inescapable facts" of Book One of Four Reigns. The book's theme? That time passes, that everything is impermanent, and that a proper understanding of this is necessary to achieve equanimity and happiness. This is the very core of Buddha's teaching: a sublime optimism born out of pessimism's ashes and dust.
Like Tolstoy, Pramoj loves his characters purely and intensely, however morally debased, comical, or unsympathetic they may be. He seems to understand well the old dictum that "it takes all kinds." Khun Nui who talks in interrogatives: "But it looked so pretty, I couldn't resist it, right, Your Highness?" Ploi's drunkard brother, Perm: "You, my own young sister, eager to take me to task as if I were a schoolboy playing truant." Even the prim and irascible Khun Oon: "Tigers and crocodiles can never be nurtured in a house. Go - and good riddance!"
In the brief and simple introduction to the book, Pramoj acknowledges his debt to Tulachandra, the translator, and adds that "it is my sincere hope that those friends of Thailand who do not read Thai will, after reading this book, gain a little understanding of us." This is almost pathetic. But what would Pramoj have us understand? And did he succeed?
Because Thailand was never colonized, its social structure - patina of democracy notwithstanding - remains relatively feudal and - nominal Buddhism to one side - its religion is a melange of superstitions. What I think Pramoj wants to say is, "We may be different, 'exotic', 'inscrutable.' But this is who we are, and it works for us; and though we appreciate your efforts to drag us into modernitydemocracytechnology, this will spell the doom of a marvelous way of life, a civilization molded over thousands of years. Pramoj strikes the nostalgic note in the very first paragraph of his introduction, when he writes of "the urge to set down in writing the modes and mores of a disappearing age...."
Some features of that age? Begin with polygamy. Four Reigns does, when Ploy's mother - a "minor wife", or mia noi -- admonishes her daughter, "You must never become any man's minor wife. Never. Do you hear?" Polygamy may be on the wane in Thailand, or not: I have heard that more and more women are lining up to become minor wives, given the minimal prerequisites and good pay. In any case, polygamy carries no fatal social stigma. It's a matter of practicality: If you can afford it, fine. Reason for Thailand's low divorce rate? Possibly. Something monogamous societies can learn from? Perhaps once upon a pre-AIDS time.
Next up: arranged marriages. These have been more or less driven out of Thai society, at least in its middle class. Not so of court society in the first reign. Ploi's marriage is arranged, and one of the witty matriarchs defends the institution thus: "To marry for love is all very well. But what happens when after living together you don't love each other anymore? Love was the mainstay of your marriage, which falls apart when love is no more." (Impermanence again.) "But a marriage carefully arranged with parental love and goodwill rests on the support of that love and goodwill. It's the kind of support you can depend on and will remain with you always." This may have been convincing when families stuck together, when harmony, not liberty, was all. But arranged marriages seem to have gone the way of the small town dance and the neighbor whose name you know.
What else does Pramoj want us to understand? That Thai titles fit into a hierarchy: "Be thankful they call you Mae Ploi and Po Perm, and not the lowly Ee Ploi and Ai Perm!" That being stricken with the "lice of ill-luck" is a common punishment for imitating the royalty. That Thais say, "Oh-ho!" (rising, prolonged tone on "ho") instead of "Wow!" That Thai efficiency is of a different kind: "They got things done somehow - there was a method to their easygoingness." That stepping on a threshold is bad luck. That in the palace there is a strict correspondence between the day of the week and the proper color scheme of one's clothes. That "glaring contests" were once used to settle disputes: who glares the longest and the steadiest, wins. That if you dream of being bitten or crushed by a snake, "this means you are about to be united with your true love."
In a sense, Pramoj has attempted to further a project undertaken by the very King Chulalongkorn whose reign he documents. Said that King, in effect, "I may not wear a top hat and eat with a fork and spoon, but do not think on that account that I am a savage. My people may not ride bicycles and have electric lights, but do not think on that account that they are miserable. Let us not talk of what is best, but of what is best for you, and best for us." If this is what Pramoj meant when he wanted Thailand to be better understood, he has in Four Reigns not only succeeded, but excelled.