Letters from Thailand: Botan
When Botan was a graduate student at Chulalongkorn University during the1960s, she ran out of money and had to leave the treasured privacy of her apartment to move back home with her parents. She had already written and published one novel, which was more or less a romance. Now, she needed to writeanother book in order to re-establish her independence. Lying on her bed oneevening trying to map out the new novel, she tried to ignore the noise of her parents' argument in the adjoining room. Finally, in exasperation she took a fresh piece of paper, and began jotting down the argument. That was the beginning of
Letters from Thailand
, a largely but by no means entirely autobiographical novel.The protagonist, Tan Suang U, is a composite of Botan's father and uncle, whoemigrated from southern China shortly after World War II. Tan Suang U'syoungest daughter, Meng Ju, is more or less modelled upon herself.In 1969, Botan won the annual SEATO literary prize for this immensely popular and controversial novel.
Many Chinese Thais complained that it presented themas greedy, predatory, and unwilling to be fully assimilated, much less to take anactive part in the process. On the other hand, not a few Thai people claimed thatThais had been depicted as shallow, vain, and hypocritical. But, love it or hate it, itseemed that everyone in Bangkok had read it.The world of Botan's tale was entirely limited to Bangkok, to the city of Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok, and to one brief, disastroustrip to the seaside town of Hua Hin. Benedict Anderson has described
as "claustrophobically preoccupied with the small world of Bangkok's'Chinatown...'"
Although in a sense Anderson is correct, in fact "claustrophic preoccupation" is not a fault of this novel, but its very heart. I felt that it wasmandatory that the English translation carry the reader into the narrow, teemingworld of Sampaeng Lane, with its rows of shops down and living quarters above;and into the cramped home where Tan Suang U, his wife, and their disappointingchildren eat, bicker, grieve, and carry on the dialogue through which Botan presents the world in which she grew up -- a world in which no one, however successful, ever thinks of moving away to more spacious or gracioussurroundings.The life of the individual, in this world, is defined first by responsibility to one'sfamily, including, of course, one's ancestors; second, by one's gender; and third, byone's occupation. Among the adult characters in the novel, at least sixteen of everytwenty-four hours appear to be devoted to work. The children study to their capacity; or, in the case of Tan Suang U's only son, somewhere beyond it. Thefather is consumed by the desire to build the family fortune, but lacks any clear idea as to what "success" would ultimately mean. He also is consumed by thedetermination that his family remain Chinese, and although he knows what he