m. r. kukrit pramoj, “many lives”

manylivesM. R. Kukrit Pramoj
Many Lives
(translated by Meredith Borthwick)
(Silkworm Books, 1996; originally 1954)

I moved to Thailand knowing no Thai writers, an embarrassing situation that’s not uncommon. Thinking of a representative Thai filmmaker or visual artist is easy; thinking of a Thai poet or prose writer, even a dead one, is much more difficult: the science fiction and horror writer S. P. Somtow might be the only current candidate. The nineteenth-century court poet Sunthorn Phu gets his own holiday here (June 26th), though he barely exists in English. I can’t really say why Thai literature is so invisible in the English-speaking world; right now I’m reading indiscriminately trying to catch up.

M. R. Kukrit Pramoj is an interesting figure, simply because he was so all over the place. He wrote a great deal of both fiction and non-fiction, and had a serious political career, including a brief stint as the prime minister. He’s undoubtedly best known in the English-speaking world for playing a prime minister alongside Marlon Brando in The Ugly American. After his death in 1995, his house, on Sathorn Road, has been turned into a museum, beautiful if poorly attended. Wikipedia gives an overview of his work, though there’s not as much detail as one would like. It does seem odd that his solitary translation should be Jonathan Livingston Seagull, though that might be Wikipedian caprice.

One notes in Wikipedia’s list of his writings the number of works that are adaptations – from John Wyndham, Giovanni Guareschi, Kurosawa; Khun Chang Khun Phaen is a retelling of an epic poem. Though not noted as such, Many Lives also falls into this category: one of the first things one notices reading the book is that it’s a fairly straightforward reworking of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In that book a bridge in South America collapses and a monk wonders what the different people who died did to deserve their fate; in this one, a river boat bound for Bangkok sinks and an omniscient narrator wonders the same thing. The translator’s introduction notes that Kukrit’s book was written after seeing a bus accident in which a variety of people died; nothing is said about Wilder’s book, though it seems likely that he would have known of it or the 1944 film.

There are, it has to be said, fairly substantial differences between the books which might be usefully inspected. In Wilder’s book, the dead characters turn out to have been interlocked in life, while in Kukrit’s book there are no connections: each character gets fifteen pages about his or her life. Brief introduction and closing sections wrap up the book, but the characters are strictly isolated. Perhaps this betrays the origin of Many Lives: it was originally serialized, and even in book form it feels strongly episodic. While the reader can’t help but notice the contrasts between the character, there’s little tying them together.

Religion is inescapable. While Wilder’s book is nominally about Catholic theodicy, its argument is more clearly with the idea of predestination inherent in the American Puritan tradition. Though Wilder is remembered as a sentimentalist, his is essentially a world without God, something that Gertrude Stein gets at when she ends “A portrait of Thornton Wilder” with the lines:

He has no fears
At most he has no tears.
For them very likely he is made of them.

Wilder explicated these lines in a letter to Richard Goldstone in 1968:

“For them” means for a large part of the reading public – and for you – The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town are tender, tear-drenched, and consoling. But they aren’t, they’re hard and even grimly challenging, for “He has no fears”(The Letters of Gertrude Stein & Thornton Wilder, p. 307n6.)

It’s worth emphasizing this point, because Kukrit is writing from an entirely different perspective. This becomes clear at the end of the story of the Venerable Sem, a monk whose life has been exemplary:

When his body was retrieved the next morning, everyone marvelled to see that he was still in the posture of Indra’s thunderbolt, or the diamond position. The purity and fullness of his existence had led the god of death to spare him the agony of a protracted illness. The peaceful life paused, then halted, in the water with a coolness which was like water itself. Sem had been swept out on the current to the sea, never to return to the cycle of birth and death. (p. 48)

There’s no obvious authorial distance from the voice narrating this passage; similar conclusions are given to most of the lives narrated here. The reader is asked to understand their deaths as being not senseless (as is the case with Wilder) but as part of the cycle of karma. One also notes that there’s no sense of society as a whole: though Loi, the first character introduced, is a sociopath, his villainy has no effect on anyone else; nor does the presence of the monk save them.

I find myself interested in how Kukrit’s literary career seems to included large numbers of cover versions; I can’t tell exactly what that signifies. A straight translation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey probably wouldn’t have gone very far with a Thai audience; the religious argument that Wilder was making would have seemed nonsensical. Remaking a text, as this book does, might be more sensible. Most of Kukrit’s other reversionings aren’t available in English, so it’s difficult for me to compare strategies.

disclaimer

“So that the reader of these pages may be under no misapprehension I hasten to tell him that he will find in them little information. This book is the record of a journey through Burmah, the Shan States, Siam and Indo-China. I am writing it for my own diversion and I hope that it will divert also such as care to spend a few hours in reading it. I am a professional writer and I hope to get from it a certain amount of money and perhaps a little praise.”

(Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour, chapter IV, p. 8.)

lavoro

Un tempo
la mia vita era facile. La terra
mi dava fiori frutta in abbondanza.

Or dissodo un terreno secco e duro.
La vanga
urta in pietre, in sterpaglia. Scavar devo
profondo, come chi cerca un tesoro.

(Umberto Saba, from Ultime cose 1935–43.)

november 16–30, 2013

Books

  • Germaine Krull & Dorothea Melchers, Bangkok: Siam’s City of Angels
  • Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System, trans. Virginia Jewiss
  • Robin Fulton, An Italian Quartet: Versions after Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo
  • Silpa Bhirasri, An Appreciation of Sukhothai Art
  • William Warren, Bangkok
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Magician
  • M. R. Kukrit Pramoj, Many Lives, trans. Meredith Borthwick
  • S. P. Somtow, The Other City of Angels
  • Antonio Tabucchi, Declares Pereira, trans. Patrick Creagh

Films

  • วังพิกุล (Village of Hope), directed by Boonsong Nakphoo
  • Tabu, dir. Miguel Gomes
  • The Rocket, dir. Kim Mordaunt
  • ประชาธิป’ไทย (Paradoxocracy), dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang
  • Insects in the Backyard, dir. Tanwarin Sukkhapisit

november 1–15, 2013

Books

  • M. L. Manich Jumsai, Understanding Thai Buddhism
  • Don DeLillo, Point Omega
  • Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour
  • Lawrence Osborne, Bangkok Days
  • Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
  • Bernard Malamud, The Fixer

Films

  • It Gets Better, directed by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
  • Christiane F.: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, dir. Uli Edel
  • Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited!), dir. Pedro Almodóvar
  • Raising Arizona, dir. Joel Coen
  • The Buddha’s Forgotten Nuns, dir. Wiriya Sati

Exhibits

  • MOCA Bangkok
  • “Resort,” BACC
  • “Re-Think: Art Exhibition for Reduce ‘Waste’ Renew ‘Think’,” BACC
  • “Oscillation,” Speedy Grandma
  • “Manit Srisuwan: Me My Mind,” Number 1 Gallery
  • “Ekkarat Punyatara: It’s Personal,” Kathmandu Photo Gallery
  • “Jittima Sa-ngeamsunthron: My World,” Numthong Gallery at Aree
  • “Here Is Zine: 7th Bangkok-Tokyo Exhibition,” Next To Normal, Centralworld
  • “Alain Soldeville: Once Upon a Time on Bugis Street,” Kathmandu Photo Gallery

hermann hesse, “the glass bead game”

glassbeadgameHermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)
(trans. Richard & Clara Winston)
(2006; originally 1943)

This book is a weird mess. I last read Hesse in high school, at the age when his novels of individuation seem appealing; I started this one then, though I didn’t get very far, perhaps because it wasn’t so immediate. The Glass Bead Game appears with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha on the lists of classics that students are encouraged to read – and has steadfastly remained in print – though it’s difficult to see why. I suspect my abortive high school reading experience is typical. I picked this up because of an offhand mention by John Crowley, who remembered reading it in the sixties; he mentioned that it was boring, but that the book might have seemed relevant than because the game described could be said to describe the conversations that people had then. I added the book to my to-read list; there was a copy at the local library, which I failed to open until I’d renewed it twice; if I hadn’t been in southern Cambodia with nothing to do at night, I probably would have sent it back unread. The conventional wisdom about this might be right: it is a boring book, much longer than it needs to be, but it’s strange, and the strangeness might be worth remarking on.

Structurally, the book is bizarre. There’s a short introduction, setting the scene and claiming the book is notes gathered anonymously telling the story of Joseph Knecht, the once eponymous Magister Ludi; the majority of the book forms a life of Knecht, which begins as a bildungsroman and turns into a hagiography. The introduction claims that this is written in the future about the past (a generation remote) from notes left in an archive; the dialogue and interiority quickly belies this. This might be the novel’s first disappointment: if it were what it claimed to be, the narrative would be more interesting. Instead, the introduction comes off as padding; while there’s clearly a narrative voice, the reader can’t do much with it. The life of Knecht is followed by an appendix of his writing; first, a handful of poems, bad, ostensibly written by the youthful Knecht; the one of most interest to the main text is dissected at depth in the text, and there’s no need to see it again. Then there are three short biographies written by Knecht; as described in the life of Knecht, these are meant to be student writings where Knecht imagines himself inhabiting a historical period. If this novel were being published today, an editor would suggest that this material (over a hundred pages) be interpolated into the main text; as it is, it seems extraneous, worth reading only if the reader can’t get enough Knecht. They do seem more like the more familiar short works of Hesse.

Hagiography is this book’s mode, and perhaps its main problem. Knecht is described in adoring terms; he’s presented as an extraordinary man, perhaps the best created by the system described in the book. After attaining the summits of the Glass Bead system, Knecht gives it up, leaving the academy for the real world; he promptly dies in an accident, and it’s unclear whether his ideas would actually work out. There’s blunt allegory here, of course: the safety of the ivory tower versus the risk and reward of the outside world, and it might be seen as a less pointed reprise of Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs, which might explain the publication date. But the book’s sheer size blunts this: a great deal of work is put into setting up the world Knecht lives in, and the development of his character. A handful of secondary characters exist, though they clearly reflect Knecht’s light; they are types, predictable almost from their introduction. Knecht says words of wisdom to them and their problems are solved. Are we meant to understand Knecht as a saint? It’s very hard to tell. An introduction suggests that we’re meant to find ironic distance in the narration; I can’t find this, in part because the narrative strategy is so clumsy, the putative narrator disappearing whenever it’s convenient.

It might be worth pointing out at this point that this is almost entirely a book about men. Though secular, the educational system described is only open to men, most of whose mothers seem to have conveniently died. The vague idea of women exists – the men of Castalia must not marry, though they need not remain celibate – but it isn’t until p. 409 that a woman is actually given a line of dialogue (“The young gentleman?” asks an unnamed maid). One of the three stories at the end of the book promises a change, with the introductory line “It was many thousands of years ago, when women ruled”; we do finally get a named female character, but the story is entirely about men’s relations with their father figures. There’s nothing wrong with writing an enormous book with almost no female characters to speak of; but taking such a novel’s grand theories about culture seriously seems ludicrous.

This is a novel about the future (the back cover claims “the twenty-third century,” though I’m not sure where they’re getting that) that might conceivably be described as science fiction, though none of the usual signifiers are there: the single suggestion of technology is a device that might charitably be imagined to be something like PowerPoint, though it might simply be an overhead projector. The future is peaceful, though current countries and institutions survive, seemingly unchanged since the 1920s, an odd note as, again, the book was published in the midst of World War II. An odd note is struck at the beginning of the book, where the problems of the past (the “age of the feuilleton”) are described. It’s hard not to be reminded of the chronological structure of The Man without Qualities, which asymptotically approaches the beginning of WWI, of which its characters will remain blissfully ignorant forever. We are superior to those characters because we know (as did Musil, of course) what will happen to their world; but it’s difficult to know what kind of relationship to the characters in The Glass Bead Game we can have. They seem to exist in a parallel universe; though it isn’t one that can be comprehensibly aligned with our own. One argument that’s being made boils down to “always historicize”; but the reader has no position from which to tell whether or not historicizing is actually useful.

six persons

“. . . remember that there is no language more difficult to write than English. In the long history of our literature it would be difficult to find more than six persons who have written it faultlessly.”

(Somerset Maugham, preface to The Gentleman in the Parlour, p. ix.)

october 16–31, 2013

Books

  • Milton Osborne, Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini, Stories from the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950–1966, trans. Marina Harss
  • Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (trans. Richard & Clara Winston)

Films

  • I Married a Witch, directed by René Clair
  • The Killing Fields, dir. Roland Joffé

Exhibits

  • National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh