chart korbjitti, “the judgment”

chartChart Korbjitti
The Judgment
(translated by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-kit & Marcel Barang)
(Samnakphim Hon/Howling Books, 2007; originally 1981)

There is neither a tremendous amount of information on Thai fiction in English – the Bangkok Post‘s occasional fiction reviewing being cheerfully incompetent at best – nor does much Thai fiction in translation get published or distributed outside of Thailand, so I thought it might be useful to have a project of haphazardly reading through what I can find here. Chart Korbjitti (ชาติ กอบจิตติ), for example, is one of the best-known of contemporary Thai writers, having won the SEA Write prize twice; this book was turned into a film, and he’s been translated into French and English. But he’s published through his own press, Samnakphim Hon, or Howling Books, based in Pak Chong in the northeast; Thai publishers haven’t generally been adept at securing distribution outside the country, and I suspect his books aren’t read very often in English if only because no one outside the country knows that they exist. While a couple of used copies turn up on Amazon, I’m not sure how one would go about getting print copies outside of Thailand; however, thanks to industrious translator Marcel Barang, a PDF version can be bought or sampled here. There’s a useful introduction by Marcel Barang that contextualizes the novel in the Thai Modern Classics edition of the book (1995) that isn’t in the Howling Books edition (I’m not sure about the PDF); it’s worth tracking down if possible.

Chart concerns himself with the people of Isan, the northeast of Thailand. It’s not a milieu that’s familiar to most Western observers of the country, though the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul might change that; certainly, it’s not the way the government seeks to present the country.

No Way Out (1980, translated 2003 by David Smyth) is more compressed and more unremittingly bleak, approaching almost the level of Jude the Obscure‘s bathetic “Done because we are too menny”. There, the cause of the problems faced by the poor is clearly defined as predatory lenders selling debt without regard for the human cost; the protagonist is sold into effective slavery on a fishing boat (a problem still rampant in Thailand), his wife and daughter are forced into prostitution, the luckier son goes to jail. As the protagonist is about to commit suicide, he pins his fate on his decision to borrow 3000 baht (around $100) from his employer to build a house; can this really be considered hubris? He ends by blaming karma:

Boonma didn’t blame anyone at all. He wasn’t even angry with anyone for making his family end up like this. He blamed only himself. He was angry only with himself for being born poor. He didn’t know why poor people such as him always encountered such misfortune. All he knew was that life was a matter of karma, of paying off the debt for the sins of past lives. (p. 129)

These concerns also animate The Judgment (คำพิพากษา). Fak, the protagonist, is his father’s only son; he works as a janitor for his village’s school. His dream had been to become a monk, but he left the temple to support his father; when his father dies, his sense of duty leads him to support his father’s second wife, who is mentally unstable and tends to expose herself to people. The village takes it for granted that Fak has taken his stepmother has his wife; Fak, however, is trying to hold on to his virtue so that, when circumstances permit, he can return to being a monk. But he is worn down; in fairly fast order, he takes up drinking, becomes a drunk, and loses his job.

Drinking is a sin, prohibited by monastic vows; so is killing living things, and a turning point in the narrative is when Fak, at the insistence of his co-workers, kills a dog that’s assumed to be rabid. This is a socially useful act, and Fak is congratulated for it, but one that’s spiritually detrimental: Fak sinning by killing the dog means that no one else needs to sin. (There are, for related reasons, large numbers of stray dogs in Bangkok; and while it is not a sin to eat an animal, it is to kill one; butchers are hidden away.) And while Fak is striving to honor his father by taking care of his widow (who has no family and cannot be left on her own), the village assumes the worst of him and no one turns up for his father’s cremation. Fak is befriended by the town undertaker, a man comfortable with his own low status; trying to comfort him, the undertaker introduces Fak to alcohol and spells the way to a speedy (perhaps unbelievably so) descent into alcoholism.

Fak’s troubles intensify: he is tormented by the village children and accidentally hurts one of them; the boy’s father and his friends ambush Fak and beat him severely. Finally, Fak goes to the school headmaster with whom he has been storing his money; the headmaster lies and claims that he never held any money for Fak. Fak publicly accuses the headmaster of cheating him and is laughed at by the village; he is put in jail, though the headmaster lets him out as a show of largess. His friend the undertaker abandons him for fear of repercussions from the villagers. Moneyless and friendless, Fak starts throwing up blood and dies in very short order. The headmaster arranges for his cremation, but does it in a deliberately shoddy manner. Fak’s stepmother is captured and sent to an asylum in Bangkok.

There’s a similarity to Western novels of the individual against society – Thomas Hardy’s later novels come to mind, as do Jack London’s Martin Eden and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and, probably at some remove, Dostoevsky’s holy fools. Though it’s written much too late, The Judgment seems to fit squarely into the conventions of the naturalist novel. My hesitation is because it’s hard for me to make sense of the novel’s relationship to religion and social order: is Korbjitti’s book coming out against traditional Thai society? Certainly it’s the source of Fak’s problems. The undertaker explains to Fak:

If all the people in the village were lined up according to their status, I’m sure I’d be at the end of the line because I’m really inferior – just an undertaker. But right now – you and me are birds of a feather and it’s a toss up who’d be at the end of the line. When you were a novice, you were at the head of it, and you had no idea how the people at the other end felt. (pp. 151–2.)

Hierarchy is extremely important in Thai life. (And in its language: one of the things that’s interesting about the Thai language are the sheer number of different pronouns for speaking to people of different status.) And while one’s position in the hierarchy isn’t totally fixed in stone – any male can become a monk and thus higher status; no analogue exists for women – it tends to be a conservative force. The headmaster stands at the front of the village line; it is impossible for the village to imagine that he could have cheated Fak. Karma plays into this hierarchy: one is born low status because of sins in one’s past lives. Fak goes against this, by actively blaming people – the headmaster’s cheating him – rather than fate; for this reason, his punishment by the village is intensified. I can’t tell, however, how clearly religion is meant to be the cause of Fak’s suffering. No real alternative is presented; the supplanting force of capitalism, in the form of consumer goods and associations with Bangkok, is presented dismissively. No Way Out takes place in Bangkok and religion plays much less of a role in comparison with the economic system; the consequences are the same.

march 1–15, 2015

Books

  • Chart Korbjitti, No Way Out, translated by David Smyth
  • Chart Korbjitti, Carrion Floating By, trans. Marcel Barang
  • Chart Korbjitti, The Judgment, trans. Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-kit & Marcel Barang
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
  • Lily Tuck, Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man
  • Yukio Mishima, The Temple of Dawn, trans. E. Dale Saunders & Cecilia Segawa Seigle

Films

  • Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund
  • The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton
  • After the Thin Man, dir. W. S. Van Dyke
  • All Good Things, dir. Andrew Jarecki
  • Phantom Lady, dir. Robert Siodmak
  • Europa Report, dir. Sebastián Cordero
  • Shall We Dance, dir. Mark Sandrich
  • The Tales of Hoffmann, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
  • Pickup on South Street, dir. Samuel Fuller

Exhibits

  • “Representing Localities: Memory And Experience,” Thavibu Gallery
  • “Pranai Kasemtavornsilpa: Trace of Life,” Number 1 Gallery
  • “Tuksina Pipitkul & Wantanee Siripattananuntakul: State of the Ridiculous,” H Gallery

february 16–28, 2015

Books

  • Pamela Lu, Ambient Parking Lot
  • Veronica Gonzalez, Twin Time: Or, How Death Befell Me
  • Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

Films

  • Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!), dir. Lukas Moodysson
  • Nightcrawler, dir. Dan Gilroy

Exhibits

  • “Benya Hegenbarth: Encounters,” Soy Sauce Factory
  • “Hamid Sardar-Afkhami: Myanmar Recent Portraits,” Serindia Gallery
  • “Luong Trung: Street Feelings,” Artha Gallery
  • “Siam through the Lens of John Thomson 1865–66,” National Gallery
  • “5 Question Forms,” National Gallery
  • “Joyrukclub: Voice of Calcutta,” Passport Bookshop

february 1–15, 2015

Books

  • Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
  • Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library, translated by Ted Goossen
  • Henry Green, Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green

Films

  • Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras
  • 21 Jump Street, dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
  • 22 Jump Street, dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Exhibits

  • “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground,” BACC
  • “Japanese Tea,” BACC
  • “Barry X Ball: Portraits and Photos,” 100 Tonson Gallery

january 16–31, 2015

Books

  • Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
  • Henry James, The Bostonians
  • Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design
  • Jack Vance, The Dying Earth
  • Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld

Films

  • Birdman, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Exhibits

  • “Boonhlue Yangsouy: Behavior = Identity,” Number 1 Gallery
  • “Manit Srisuwan: Hope: Me My Mind: Part II,” Number 1 Gallery
  • “Alison Wilson & Dominic Fonde: Syrinx,” Thavibu Gallery
  • “Gems of Hanoi – A Dao Hai Phong Retrospective,” Thavibu Gallery
  • “Prasert Yodkaew: Predetermined,” Tang Contemporary Art
  • “Nipon Intarit: Man’s Religion,” Kathmandu Photo Gallery
  • “Threshold Part II,” Bridge Art Space

january 1–15, 2015

Books

  • Henry James, What Maisie Knew
  • Henry James, Daisy Miller
  • Henry James, Washington Square

Films

  • Top Hat, directed by Mark Sandrich
  • Swing Time, dir. George Stevens
  • Ida, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
  • The Gay Divorcee, dir. Mark Sandrich
  • Flying Down to Rio, dir. Thornton Freeland
  • City of Joy, dir. Roland Joffé
  • かぐや姫の物語 (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), dir. Isao Takahata
  • Popeye, dir. Robert Altman
  • Bernie dir. Richard Linklater
  • Foxcatcher, dir. Bennett Miller

Exhibits

  • “Ren Hang: Hide,” Soy Sauce Factory

december 1–31, 2014

Books

  • William T. Vollmann, Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan
  • Hugh & Graham Greene, eds., The Spy’s Bedside Book
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace
  • Henry James, Watch and Ward
  • Henry James, Roderick Hudson
  • Henry James, The Europeans
  • Henry James, Confidence
  • Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
  • Norman Lewis, Golden Earth: Travels in Burma

Films

  • Kaos, directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
  • Maps to the Stars, dir. David Cronenberg
  • What Maisie Knew, dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel

Exhibitions

  • National Museum, Yangon, Myanmar
  • Mahamuni Museum, Kyauktaw, Myanmar
  • Rakhine State Cultural Museum, Sittwe, Myanmar
  • Bagan Archaeological Museum, Bagan, Myanmar

november 16–30, 2014

Books

  • Andrew MacGregor Marshall, A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
  • William Stevenson, The Revolutionary King: The True-Life Sequel to The King and I
  • Jan Morris, Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire
  • Geoff Dyer, Working the Room: Essays and Reviews 1999–2010
  • Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star

Films

  • Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak
  • The Wrong Man, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, dir. Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog
  • Beauty Is Embarrassing, dir. Neil Berkeley
  • It Came from Kuchar, dir. Jennifer M. Kroot

Exhibits

  • “Monologue,” Bridge Art Space
  • “Phaptawan Suwankudt: Days of (Endless) Meaninglessness,” 100 Tonson Gallery

november 1–15, 2014

Books

  • William Goldman, The Princess Bride
  • Joanna Ruocco, Dan
  • Michael Allen Zell/Louviere & Vanessa, The Oblivion Atlas
  • Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper
  • Amina Cain, Creature

Films

  • The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner
  • เอวังฯ (So Be It), dir. Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
  • Y/our Music, dir. Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every & David Reeve
  • Last Holiday, dir. Henry Cass
  • The Unknown Known, dir. Errol Morris
  • Whiplash, dir. Damien Chazelle
  • Hangmen Also Die!, dir. Fritz Lang

Exhibits

  • “Manit Sriwanichpoom: Bangkok In Technicolor,” Kathmandu Photo Gallery

tew bunnag, “curtain of rain”

tew bunnag, curtain of rainTew Bunnag
Curtain of Rain
(River Books, Bangkok, 2014)

There’s a notable paucity of contemporary Thai fiction in English. In part, this is because very little is translated from Thai to English; but it’s also due to there not being that much Thai fiction. Thailand isn’t a particularly bookish culture, despite considerable recent prodding which has led to an upswing in book fairs; at Book Expo 2014, I picked up a copy of this book, which might not be said to be, strictly speaking, a Thai book. Though its author is Thai, Curtain of Rain was written in English. Tew Bunnag comes from an old Thai family important enough to have its own Wikipedia page; he grew up in England and now divides his time between Thailand and Spain. This compromise is what makes the book available to its audience: were he writing in Thai, it’s unlikely that an English version would have appeared. But there’s a broader question with this book: who is it for?

A step back. One of the things that’s most interesting to me about living in Bangkok is how unbookish the city is, how it almost seems to resist narrative. While there are countless memoirs by Westerners in Bangkok – stretching back to the nineteenth century and Anna Leonowens’s fabrications – and a more recent vogue for Bangkok noirs, one has the feeling, surveying it all, that there’s a central narrative that goes unsaid here. Part of that is legal: lèse majesté laws make it impossible for almost anyone to say anything (let alone anything critical) about one of the central organizing structures of Thai society. Past that, one realizes, is another layer of opacity: Thai society is relatively small and centralized, organized around families, and there’s a strong urge not to step on any toes. One realizes quickly reading the news here that an enormous amount is left out of any account; over the official record, there’s an oral layer of discourse based, from necessity, on rumor.

Out of habit, it’s to fiction that I turn trying to understand what’s going on here – there are, it seems, all of the ingredients that should lead to great fiction. And it’s not here, or I can’t find it, and that’s confusing to me. Part of this is the question I started with, that of audience: Thai readership was historically small, and while it’s now potentially much greater, the appetite for the book has been superseded by appetites for newer forms. There’s a much wider readership outside of Thailand – and, I think, a world that would be receptive to different narratives coming from this country – and it’s presumably this audience for world fiction that Tew Bunnag’s book is meant to be read by. But this is, despite its presumably non-Thai audience, a very Thai book, wrapped up in the problems with Thai society.

Curtain of Rain has a familiar structure: two narratives which intertwine. One is that of a Thai writer, with excerpts from his writing, which creates a third narrative. The other is a British woman, his editor, who ends up in Bangkok; they have, predictably enough, a connection from the past. The book falls apart for me with the narrative of Clare, the British woman, who, while depicted in what is clearly meant to be realist manner, fails all criteria for believability. She is, almost upon arrival, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; the doctor memorably asks:

‘Is there any history of Alzheimer in the family?’

Disease is dishearteningly being used as narrative shortcut: her mind is going, so she needs, in the next two hundred pages, to neatly wrap up her life. Six months later she’s only lucid enough to wrap up the book. In between these two things, her editor, at her extremely vague request, flies her business class to Bangkok and puts her up at the Mandarin Oriental. It is possible that British publishing has grandly different economics than American publishing does, but this strains credibility. Further, she is returning to the city because of an incident in the 1960s, when she came, at his request, to stay with a photographer boyfriend, a romance that fell apart when he inadvertently reveals his preference for young boys, an incident that appears to bring her life to a halt entirely. None of this – I haven’t even described the nonsensical office politics at her publishing house – is at all believable.

It’s a shame because it casts doubt on the Thai half of the book, which I’m not nearly as qualified to judge. Many of the characters here appear overly familiar &ndash the poor girl from Isan, for instance, led astray in the big city and who gets AIDS awfully quickly. There is one section that shows some promise: the short narrative written by the Thai writer on his work on a radio show with a demagogue, who he finds abhorrent. The demagogue dies unexpectedly – despite his conservatism, he has a gay lover who murders him – the writer is tasked with writing an obituary. He writes two: one of the celebrated public man, the other laying bare his hidden private life. It’s clear which will be printed. This disparity between what goes on behind closed doors and what’s publicly reported is an apt one for contemporary Thailand, where press restrictions, both legal and otherwise, make much of the media appear nonsensical.

Curtain of Rain fails structurally: the British half undercuts the Thai half, and the conclusion – everything is connected! – seems laughable. Copyediting doesn’t do the book any favors: while Thai transliteration is famously lackadaisical, there’s no reason for the same book to have both “Taksin Shinawatra” and “Thaksin Shinawatra”, or “AIDS” and “Aids”. It is possible that serious editing could have saved this book: there might be a good novella in here waiting to be found, and a handful of decent short stories could be taken from it. As it stands, it doesn’t work. It’s frustrating: the theme of crossover between Thai society and the foreigners who permeate it could go somewhere. I would like to see that book. I haven’t.