It Takes a Village . . .

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 5, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

In a famous Buddhist parable, a man who had always observed the five precepts of the lay Buddhist is tempted one day to break the fifth, which prohibits the consumption of intoxicating liquors. In his drunkenness he succeeds in breaking the other four precepts. The parable is intended to show that the fifth precept is the most important because drunkenness destroys the mindfulness that is the means and end of Buddhist practice.

The novel The Judgement by Thai writer Chart Korpjitti is a variation on this parable, but it is much more than that. It is also a meditation on how the vicious and powerful corrupt the virtuous and the weak. Specifically it shows how this happens in Thailand, where power and appearances, not merit, often determine respectability. Like many Thai novels it presents a country quite different from the one found in tourist brochures, and one more akin to Thailand's grisly newspapers or its sordid television dramas, of which a version of The Judgement was one.

The novel relates the last days of Fak, the janitor of the local temple school. Fak's father has passed away, leaving Fak to care for his father's widow, Somsong, who is quite out of her mind. The rumor mill begins to screech that Fak and Somsong are sleeping with each other. And though the rumor has no basis in fact, Fak's sterling reputation begins to tarnish: one of the Buddhist precepts prohibits illicit sexual conduct.

Another precept prohibits the taking of life. Fak violates it, but only as a result of enormous social pressure. One day he is ordered to kill a rabid dog. In a scene reminiscent of Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", Fak bludgeons the dog to death while the village looks on and cheers. But because there remains disagreement as to whether the dog was actually mad, Fak is only the more demoralized, with a depth that perhaps only a true Buddhist could understand.

And then no one shows up to the cremation ceremony for Fak's father, and in his despair he is persuaded by the undertaker Khai to have a drink, Fak's first. He realizes that alcohol relieves his suffering, and he quickly becomes a full-fledged drunkard. His productivity and health decline; his money dries up; he loses his job. When some children taunt him, he hurls a coconut at one of them: the hit is direct and disastrous. Fak goes to jail. And then he vomits blood and dies.

Fak's demise is rapid almost beyond credit. So too is the chilling indifference of the village. Only the outcasts Somsong and Khai feel any loss. Somsong is committed to an asylum; Khai regrets that he introduced Fak to alcohol.

Westerners, especially Americans, often bemoan the destruction of "community" and they try to reassemble it wherever they can - in communes, the workplace, a housing complex, a school. They forget that community was destroyed for a reason, namely that it is a restriction on liberty. True, Fak's community is all he has, but in the end it is his nemesis. Forget freedom of religion and speech and all the rest: many Asians emigrate to the West to be free of the gossip and intimidation that marks their social interactions back home. They want only to work without interference. Early in the novel, Fak realizes that only work brings him true happiness. That is, until his work entails murdering dogs. He makes the discovery that true happiness is possible only under the influence, because only then can he feel free of the villagers' remarks and stares.

And smiles. The Thai smile is generally believed to reflect what smiles normally reflect: joy. But the Thai smile serves other purposes; it is not always offered with the best of intentions. A retired Thai policeman once proposed that the more a man smiles, the more likely he is to be lying. Chart Korpjitti might agree. The Teflon headmaster who robs poor Fak of his savings says that Fak "was quite a useful person. Even though he's dead his body still had its use...." He is referring to the fact that Fak's body was the first to be used in the temple's new crematorium, and also to the aforementioned robbery. And then:

"The whole of the headmaster's face was smiling. His eyes crinkled with a smile. His cheeks smiled, the corners of his mouth were upturned in a smile which uncovered his sparkling white teeth. Even his neatly trimmed mustache smiled. It was a really a beautiful smile."

Its publishers consider The Judgement to be among the top twenty Thai novels. It won the SEA Write award in 1982 and a national literary prize the year prior. For a Thai novel its style is innovative, and it is certainly a refreshing break from the usual aristocratic soap operas. And even though its ending is far from happy, its theme is rather hackneyed. Individual good, society bad. Good guys finish last (or are finished first.) One cannot pity Fak: his author does all the pitying for us.

The Thai novel cannot yet be compared to international classics. Possibly it never will be and - to be fair - need not be, the novel form being a recent import. But The Judgement and other Thai novels should be read for what they teach about Thai culture, and especially its less conspicuous aspects. Ultimately the interplay between Thailand's shiny happy surface and what lurks beneath is one of the country's most compelling characteristics: the interplay between gentleness and savagery, or what Chart Korpjitti calls "the commonplace suffering that man relentlessly inflicts and endures in an ordinary situation."

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Review of Chart Korpjitti's The Judgement, Thai Modern Classics, 1995.

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