Smoking Poppies and Ignorant Boors

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 17, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

There is a seemingly growing trend in modern literature that I, a writer living abroad, feel obliged to protest. If computers do not write the books constituting this trend, then they are written using the following algorithm.

The author, a Westerner, travels to a foreign, usually developing country; spends a few weeks there and no more; makes practically no effort to understand its language or its culture; goofs off, makes scenes, mocks locals. He then quickly repairs to his relatively safe homeland and dashes off a poorly wrought and overlong novel. Westerners are the novel's principal characters, and the recently visited foreign country is its principal, almost primordial setting.

Witness one Graham Joyce, an Englishman, author of Smoking Poppy, which is set in Chiang Mai, Thailand, my home of two years. The last book I read authored by an Englishman and set in Thailand was Alex Garland's The Beach. I had unkind words for Garland's depiction of Thailand and especially of Thai people, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief that where Garland failed, Joyce would succeed.

Disbelief lay in early reports that the book dealt with the "Thai underworld." Why, I thought, must it always be the "underworld"? Is there nothing captivating about the sea-level world? Must Thais forever be portrayed as crooks and whores? On the other hand, a couple of Englishmen have written pretty well about Asia, namely Graham Greene and George Orwell, and perhaps, I thought, Joyce is in their company. I mean, with a name like Graham Joyce....

I fear, alas, that Englishmen of this stamp no longer exist; or, if they exist, they are no longer writing, or have fled to New York, or, like V.S. Naipaul, have become prone to public declamations against the widespread ignorance of Virgil. Contemporary English literature as represented by authors like Will Self and Martin Amis tends to be alcohol-soaked, scatological, chronically mean-spirited, both "pissed" in the English sense and "pissed off" in the American sense. It may be that hundreds of years of bloody wars with the Continent and brutal suppression of the savages worldwide have finally sunk into the English psyche and made the Englishman unpleasant. "Decency", as one critic has maintained, characterized George Orwell (and compassion, I maintain, characterizes Graham Greene), but the glorification of a bold and ugly and even pitiable indecency and hatred now prevail. Smoking Poppy. The story is told by bland Dan, an Englishman separated from his wife. Dan learns one day that his daughter, Charlie, whom he hasn't seen for two years, has turned up in a Chiang Mai prison on charges of trafficking in opium. Hence the title Smoking Poppy. Get it? Smoking poppy? Smoking gun?

Dan and his friends react to this news in a fairly consistent manner. "Where the f*** is Chiang Mai?" they wonder. Rather than consult a map, they repeat this question to each other, as if this 700-year-old city, Thailand's second-largest and arguably the country's cultural capital, were on par with, say, Karabutak, Kazakhstan or one of Jupiter's lesser moons. (With my apologies to Karabutak, moon.)

In Thailand, convicted traffickers face a possible death sentence, and its poor prison conditions are well known in the West, particularly by a book called Damage Done. This book is a firsthand account of an Australian man's incarceration in Thailand for, I believe, heroin smuggling. Though I have not read it, I am told that it is a grim cautionary tale, demonstrating chiefly that Thai jails are bad, without dwelling too much on the badness of Australian drug traffickers. (The film Return to Paradise, starring sinister heartthrob Joaquin Phoenix, has a similar cautionary message, but takes place in Malaysia. It is a better film than Smoking Poppy is a book, because the film's screenplay has a genuine conflict and believable, even likeable characters.)

It does not really occur to Dan that he should be looking after his progeny rather than attending pub quizzes and drinking like a fish. Instead, his mind is filled with images of his daughter "rotting" on a "filthy pallet bed" in some "filthy foreign dungeon" in "some place called Chiang Mai." The Foreign Office, to its credit, points out to Dan that England puts "a lot of pressure on the Thai authorities to help stamp out drug dealing, so they in turn like to come down heavily on drug traffickers, particularly Western ones." But dull Dan doesn't get it. Meanwhile his friends crack jokes about "Thighland" [sic], alluding to the sex industry for which, sadly, Thailand is chiefly known - in London.

Dan gets his act together and gets to Chiang Mai. His reaction is predictable. He is overwhelmed. Autorickshaws, bar girls enthrall him. The place is crawling with "rip-off merchants" selling "trashy beads." The world outside of London is very mystifying to our man Dan. The bad "Thighland" joke gets repeated, twice. Exoticism runs riot. Dan is alarmed. His friend Mick gets drunk, defames the wai, breaks wind. The barbarians have breached the gates.

Like Alex Garland, Joyce fails in his attempts at rendering Thai English. He apparently relies on old stereotypes of Oriental speech, especially that of China. The Thais are solly. Velly solly. Arguably, any attempt to render English spoken by nonnative speakers will fail, and many accomplished writers shy away from trying (Graham Greene's Vietnamese character Phuong speaks plain English.) Why not Joyce? Answer: If Thais speak bad English, then they are obviously bad, or at least unrefined people, doomed to sleep forever on filthy pallet beds. On the other hand, if Englishmen speak no Thai whatsoever, which these Englishmen don't, then obviously this is because English is a superior language, which in turn explains - four hundred years of English colonization to one side - why English is the world's lingua franca.

Yet somehow these Englishmen seem to have missed out on those civilizing influences so ruthlessly meted out to the former British colonies. Meet Mick, Dan's farting friend aforementioned:

"Tuk-tuk man: You wan girls? Mick: No. Tuk-tuk man: You wan boy? Mick: F*** off. Tuk-tuk man: Grass? Mick: Just drive your f***in' lawnmower. Tuk-tuk man: You wan fat lady? I got plenty fat lady. Mick: You want fat lip? No? Then shut it."

Though a Thai would say "girl" and not "girls", and "have many" and not "got plenty", let this not distract from the main point: verily, this Mick is a man only a mother could love. But a pub is never far, and Mick merrily sets out to alleviate, or exacerbate, this terrible ill temper of his. The "Thighland" joke makes its fourth appearance, and Dan and his friends make the obligatory trip to the red-light districts, where they make the obligatory mistake of underestimating the desperate cunning of the demimondaines. The reader skims.

The problem with the writing of comedy is that bad comedy is worse than no comedy. The punch line fails to please, and the would-be comedian begins to sweat under the bright lights, to shuffle around the stage, to mumble worse jokes in an attempt to compensate, to loathe himself as much as he is loathed. As the Bangkok Post almost daily reminds us, prostitution and drug-trafficking in Thailand are neither of them very funny (to say nothing of the trafficking in women), and to try to make them funny is a sign of poor taste. In this respect, a writer like Bangkok's own Christopher Moore, who tends to depict the more tragic side of modern Thai life, is more commendable, though perhaps less so than William Vollmann in The Atlas et al.

Any tourist's trip to northern Thailand must include a trek into the hills, so Dan makes a trek into the hills, where are scary hill-tribes and opium fields. The "tuk-tuk-is-really-a-lawnmower" joke makes an unwanted encore. The specter of malaria surfaces. Tribespeople are trotted out for the cameras, compared, contrasted. "Almost a pygmy race," says Dan, become amateur anthropologist, of the Akha tribe. The diversity outside of London is indeed baffling, but, no, Dan, "almost a pygmy race" is not in this enlightened 21st century an admissible description. "Short" would suffice.

I finished maybe two Martin Amis books, none of Will Self's, and only through the employment of speed-reading techniques did I finish The Beach. I simply cannot finish Smoking Poppy, and for the same reason: What better writers would make into short stories, these chaps spin out to novels. They are certainly not alone in being afflicted by this blight of needless dilation, but they are representative.

What is worse about Smoking Poppy, though, is that it will undoubtedly sell a great many copies and fill a great many empty heads with a vision of Thailand as seen through the eyes of a know-nothing tourist. And these readers too may one day come here, and, wielding Joyce's book as their talismans, make jolly by insulting tuk-tuk drivers, swimming in beer, and exhibiting flatulence. When they return home, they may even write a novel about their fortnight of exotica. So much the worse for international understanding, and for - dare I utter the word? - literature.

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Review of Joyce, Graham. Smoking Poppy [Pocket Books, New York, 2002].

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