Two Novels, Two Thailands

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 7, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Numerous attempts have been made to prove that if you are wealthy or wellborn then you are more likely to be happy, yet the results have been consistently disappointing. To want is to suffer, said the Buddha, and many people are poor because they have no overwhelming desire to be rich. Ergo, they suffer less. Two Thai novels offer weight to this assertion. The author of The Circus of Life was a wretched and self-pitying aristocrat who killed himself at age 26. The author of The Path of the Tiger is a teacher's son who, despite years of exile, is now what we so dismally call a "productive member of society."

Marcel Barang is the translator and publicist of The Circus of Life and the handful of Thai novels falling under the marketing rubric of the "Thai Modern Classics." According to Barang, Circus is the "first important Thai novel" and even a "masterpiece". It has been reprinted over twenty times and has sold over 100,000 copies. That the first important Thai novel did not appear until 1929, a date by which the novel as a literary form was already showing signs of obsolescence in the West, may be reason enough to dismiss modern Thai literature. Then again, it was not until the late 19th century that Thailand made emulation of the West a matter of official policy, when King Rama V made the first visit to Europe by a Thai monarch and posed for portraits dressed like an English gent. Little surprise, then, that Circus takes place mostly in Europe and America, and its central characters are mostly foreigners, including the Thai narrator's love interest, Maria Grey.

The narrator Wisoot is practically indistinguishable from the author Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat, and thus the novel falls into the genre of the feebly disguised memoir. Ironically, the narrator is 28 years old, an age the author himself would not see. And arguably the success of his novel helped to drive him from despair to suicide, as its criticisms of the aristocracy and indeed his own family were not well received. Arkart was also a gambler, and in his last years he became half-blind. He was so horrified by the sight of the world that nature mercifully took away his sight.

Why is Wisoot so glum? Well, he is estranged from his father (like many of us.) He is poor (for a nobleman.) He is under enormous pressure to go abroad (and goes abroad.) A girl he likes marries somebody else and Maria Grey is declared off-limits. He temporarily loses his best friend. His health deteriorates. He goes blind. Only these last stir much sympathy in the reader, afflicting as they do a man so young and talented and kind. Otherwise Wisoot's reasons for being "forlorn and miserable beyond words" are rather adolescent, and one searches in vain for the "iniquity and injustice he had suffered continuously since childhood." Like Jan Darra, another prominent male in Thai literature, Wisoot is an inveterate whiner.

Much is made of the "pliancy" of Thai women, although often it is Western women who level the charge amidst a general moan about their inability to find or keep Western boyfriends in Thailand. The charge is quite unfair, as it ignores the "pliancy" of Thai men, often reduced to a state of abject dependence on their overbearing mothers. Wisoot laments the condition of Siamese women - especially with respect to the persistent tradition of polygamy - but every such woman he knows is far stronger than he is. When he does acknowledge his inferiority, he does so in bitter, misogynistic terms. "All women were the same: easily seduced and inconstant." Yeah, man. Women suck. It is easy enough to see who is wearing the proverbial pants here.

But the main interest the novel holds is not in the psychology or amorous pursuits of Wisoot, but in his foreign travels. Because it was written for a Thai audience, its explanations of things Western strike a Western reader as charmingly naive. For instance, Wisoot tells us what a "bus" is, and what a subway is like. The kindness of his foreign friends baffles and enchants him. Given Bangkok's present reputation, it is ironic that he falls in love with Paris for its available women, and that Monte Carlo is remarkable for its gigolos. New York reminds him of the movie Metropolis (I think he means this as a compliment.)

Not all of his travels are so pleasant. Europe disappoints him, for his "Paradise" is still recovering from the juggernaut of the Great War. He dislikes South Asia: no surprise given his typically Thai notion that all Hindus are crooks. (Thais say that if you see a snake and an Indian, hit the Indian first.) Although he enjoys the U.S., he is forewarned about its racism. In Malaya he - a Thai - complains about the bad drivers.

Of Siam he also has gripes. Asked why he wants to study law instead of taking up writing, he complains that no Siamese likes to read. And while abroad he is alarmed that "no one had heard of Siam" - a bit of an overstatement, but no less a blow to national pride. He would not be surprised by people confusing Thailand with Taiwan, as they often do.

Buddhism plays a small but significant part in the novel. Wisoot's gambling grandma tells him that his misery is due to karma. Interestingly, Wisoot thinks that his doubt in the existence of a Supreme Being is rather non-Buddhist, troubling news to those who embrace Buddhism precisely because of its agnosticism. But Wisoot's Buddhism persists. Given his eventual suicide, it's no surprise that he believes death to be "greatest bliss of all" and that "the more we hope, the more we must be disappointed." To want is to suffer.

But enough of this supine Weltschmerz! It's time to meet a real man, a man who hunts game to feed his buxom wife, a man who scales trees and eats wild mushrooms! Such is the hero of Sila Khoamchai's The Path of the Tiger, a short, 93-page novel that has been compared to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. And no wonder:

"He compressed saltpeter into the muzzle, added a single lead buckshot and some dry tow, which he pounded again to make sure it was tightly packed. He felt better as he inserted a cap into the slit on one side of the trigger, then slowly pulled the cock down until it rested on the cap and flipped the zinc breech shut to prevent the load from getting damp."

Tow, cap, slit, cock, breech, load - now we're talking! This is what literary critics invariably call "masculine" prose: tough Anglo-Saxon words, not those feeble Latinates. Translator Barang seems to have done this intentionally, lest you forget that the Thai language consists almost entirely of tough monosyllables. (That they are basically sung and not grunted confuses matters a little bit.)

Anyway, the plot of the novel is simple. In pursuit of a barking deer, a hunter crosses the path of a tiger. Exhausted and hungry and lost, toting a gun jammed by wet and mud, the hunter is initially terrified, even hysterical. But when he finally confronts the tiger face to face, he absorbs its confidence and "stillness" and thereby overcomes the urge to flee. The tiger turns away, and the once cringing hunter is transformed into the epitome of fearlessness. "Will," he concludes, "was superior to any kind of weapon." The book ends on a major chord.

Sila Khoamchai is the sobriquet of Winai Banchuay, one of a number of Thais that sought exile in the jungle from the post-1976 dictatorship. Thus the novel acts as a kind of argument for facing up to political oppression. The subtext may have caused the novel to receive less official acclaim than it was due - it was passed up for the 1991 SEA Write award, ostensibly for being too short. Speaking truth to power is something that Thailand's rulers have often brutally discouraged. Worse, the exiles were often Communists or were harbored by Communists during a time when, as Khoamchai writes, "those puny Viets. . .had fought and defeated the much better armed Americans." And Thailand remains a country where newspaper reporters occasionally appear in the sights of a gun. Allegory is the way to go.

One may well wonder how Khoamchai squeezed so many pages out of such a tiny plot, and the answer is that the novel is really a kind of ode to the jungle and nature generally. Barang quotes Khoamchai as saying that "nature holds and offers everything." Certainly this is truer of the tropics than of the tundra, but Khoamchai's novel reminds us that with a little skill and resolve, sustaining one's life is not so very difficult, and in some ways it is simpler than being, say, Wisoot. "The jungle," writes Khoamchai, "was silent and forlorn and indifferent to what was going on."

The jungle may be indifferent, but this does not stop it from appearing malicious. The hunter acknowledges that the tiger wants to eat him only because that is what tigers do; nevertheless he insults and pleads with the beast as though it possessed mercy or a conscience. And don't forget the leeches:

"Green leeches love to creep as high as they can and before you are aware of anything, they have slipped under your eyelids or glued themselves to your gums. Some people who witnessed such viciousness said the victim wouldn't feel a thing until he smiled and they could see the creepy green slug sticking out above his teeth. More often, they crawl their way up your trouser legs. . . ."

I think we'll stop there. But note that Khoamchai writes "viciousness" and not indifference. At other times he relies upon Buddhism for an explanation of his fate, as he wonders, "Had his sins from some former life caught up with him?" One can scarcely imagine a worse, almost Kafkaesque condition: being punished for a deed one cannot possibly remember. In any case, the hunter loses his Buddhist qualms about killing. "Sometimes," he says, "life means destruction. . ."

The Circus of Life is romantic, both in content and style; its setting is the whole world; its characters are manifold; and its conclusion is more dispiriting than it is tragic. The Path of the Tiger is realistic and its style is spare; its setting is a swath of jungle; its characters are practically two, one of which is a big, noisy cat; and its conclusion is heartening. The two novels are as different as night and day, but together they form an excellent introduction to the contradictions of Thai society, where some are doomed by luxury and others endure despite adversity.

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Books reviewed in this essay:

Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat's The Circus of Life, Thai Modern Classics, 1994. Sila Khoamchai's The Path of the Tiger, Thai Modern Classics, 1994.

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