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The Twenty Best Novels of Thailand

An anthology by Marcel Barang

First published by THAI MODERN CLASSICS, 1994 Marcel Barang
Revised, Internet edition 2006 Typeset in Palatino Linotype

To Khun Khroo Buaphan,
who tutored my stuttering totter into Thai,
and to Mary R Haas, S Seitthabut [So Sethaputra],
and Wit Thiangbooranatham [Thiengburanathum],
authors of the best Thai-English dictionaries,
for services rendered day after day.

This book, and the whole programme of literary rebirth it heralds, would not exist without the foresight and
generosity of Sonthi Limthongkun [Sondhi Limthongkul], head of The M Group in Bangkok and sole sponsor
of THAI MODERN CLASSICS. We both hope that this long-term undertaking will benefit not merely a group
of outstanding Thai novelists but the whole nation. To Sonthi, my employer, nemesis and friend, my most
heartfelt thanks for his unstinting support and complete lack of interference.
In finding my way through the maze of Thai novels, I received precious assistance from ten experts who
were kind enough to handpick the best Thai novels for me to assess: Chaisiri Samutawa-nit, Chamaiphorn
Saengkrajang, Chananao Waranyoo [Varanyou], Darranee Mueangma [Daranee Muangma], Khamnoon
Sitthisamarn, Seiksan Prasertkun [Seksan Prasertkul], Suchart Sawatsee, Thaneit Weitpharda, Tharnthip
Kaeothip [Dharntipaya Kaotipa-ya] and Treesin Bunkhajorn. To all I feel deeply indebted. Chamaiphorn,
Seiksan, Thaneit and Treesin, as well as Nopphorn Suwanapharnit and Witsanu Cholitkun, lent us rare books
and deserve special thanks.
I am thankful as well to the eighteen authors or their legal beneficiaries for allowing me to translate excerpts
of their works for this anthology, as a prelude to a complete rendering of the novels in English. Their kind
words of encouragement have made me feel we are on the right track. Regrettably, however, Khuekrit
Prarmoat [Kukrit Pramoj] has forbidden us to translate his novel See Phaendin.
Throughout the writing of this book, I received invaluable advice from Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-kit, who
corrected my countless mistakes in translation, assisted in the writing of some chapters and generally acted as
an able and caring interpreter of his culture. He and Montree Phoome, the projects logistics manager and a
short-story writer in his own right, were my first sounding boards.
Thomas A Wingfield and Clare L Griffiths in London gave the text its final polish, and their corrections and
suggestions were priceless. Be they all thanked here and share in whatever praise this book may earn. Of
course, I am the only one responsible for the books shortcomings.
Finally, I would like to thank my life companion, Orn-anong Sa-artphak, and our daughter, Orramart
Aurore, for putting up for so many long months with an absentee lover and dad.

Romanisation code

Thai, a language with five tones, has no generally accepted system of transliteration. Most systems in use
follow the conventions of written Thai, which leads to mispronunciation of a great many words a most
deplorable state of affairs when it comes to names of places and people. To give non-Thai readers a chance to
pronounce Thai words almost correctly, THAI MODERN CLASSICS has adopted a transcription code based
solely on pronunciation, ignoring, however, the all-important tones only an adaptation of the international
phonetics system, which itself is too complicated for the average reader, would take care of tones satisfactorily.
Pali or Sanskrit words such as Dharma or Buddha will not be transliterated, unless they are part of a Thai
phrase. The words Siam, Bangkok and Baht (the Thai monetary unit), of current use in English, will be
transliterated as Sayarm, Bangkork and bart in Thai phrases.
Whenever we are aware of it, the official spelling of place names and preferred spelling of peoples names
will follow our transcription in square brackets on first appearance: for example, Theiweit [Dheves] and
Khuekrit Prarmoat [Kukrit Pramoj].
The basic elements of transcription are as follows:
all consonants are the same as in English, except k, p and t, to which h is added to distinguish the hard
sound (the standard English k, p and t sounds) from the soft sound (the standard k, p and t sounds of most
other European and Romanised Asian languages); Thai has no v sound: we use w (ie, Sukhumwit);
vowel sounds are as follows: a as in pat; ar as in far; e as in the or as in bed or as in the French word et; eu as in
the French word peu; eur as in fir; ei as in grey; ae as in bear; i as in hit; ee as in heat; o as in hot or as in the French
word haut; oa or o- as in own; or as in or; u as in pudding; oo as in good;
ai as in bite or fly [short and long]; ao as in pout or now [short and long]; eui as in the French word il; ia as in
fear; oi as in boy; ua as in tour; uay as in gooey;
the Thai sounds ue (a short, strangled ugh!), uer (same, but longer), uey and uea have no equivalent in
European languages;
to lengthen a, o and e sounds, r is added to the vowel, except when the vowel is at the end of a word: narna
but sapharn;
r is replaced by a hyphen in the case of wa- to avoid the o sound of war (and by h in the name Waht for the
same reason); r is left out when there is a double consonant at the end of a syllable (hence, bang, not barng);
finally, in rare cases of words ending with a short, open o sound (hot), h is used after a vowel to distinguish
it from the other o sound (memo): for example, phroh.

romanisation code
thai titles of royalty and nobility
part one
books in a bind
before the novel
in the water there is fish...
the kings three worlds
seeprart, the prince of poets
sunthorn phoo, the peoples poet
from sighs to histrionics
legacies of the past
marie who?
the birth of the novel
in the darkness before dawn...
the pioneers
the lost generation
the baby boomers
2004 update

part two
arkartdamkeung rapheephat
the circus of life
behind the picture
dorkmai sot
a person of quality
k surangkhanang
the woman of easy virtue
thanorm maha-paoraya
an elephant named maliwan
marlai choophinit
the field of the great
seinee saowaphong
wanlayas love
khuekrit prarmoat
four reigns
utsana phleungtham
the story of jan darra
bunluea theipphayasuwan
chart korpjitti
the judgment
mad dogs & co
nikhom raiyawa
high banks heavy logs
wimon sainimnuan
praphatsorn seiwikun
time in a bottle
atsiri thammachoat
of time & tide
wa-nit jarungkit-anan
the hood of the cobra
sila khoamchai
the path of the tiger
daen-aran saengthong
the white shadow


To present the twenty best novels of any European country or even of a relatively young
nation such as the United States would be preposterous. To select the twenty best novels
of Thailand arguably is not. The novel in Thailand is a recent western import; the first
truly Thai novels were written only seventy years ago. The body of available work is
relatively small, a few thousand volumes, the bulk of which were scribbled to offer (very)
light entertainment

and can be dismissed outright. Sorry to say, Thai novels of high

literary octane number only in the hundreds.
I have endeavoured to select the best twenty, out of a first selection of a hundred
provided to me by ten professional readers (professors of literature, literary critics,
writers) and from my own reading, which was guided by the novels featured in various
manuals of literature and literary criticism written in Thai, English or French. I also read
most of the novels written by each of the eighteen authors selected, to check the validity of
the selection and understand the evolution of each writer, as well as most of the novels
published since our project started in January 1993.
The choice of Thai literary experts was both deliberate and happenstance. I asked for and
received the help of several recognised authorities in the field of literature and I do
apologise to those I failed to identify due to ignorance on my part at the time. A few
university professors of literature attending a seminar on translation of Thai short stories
organised by linguistic activists from the cultural team of the French embassy were also
kind enough to forward their own contributions. The eclectic choice of these women was
substantially different from that of the acknowledged experts in that it strongly favoured
female romance writers of popular appeal, whose novels came to account for a good third
of the hundred titles first selected.
I assessed all the novels which were recommended, as well as about another hundred
novels. By assessing the novels, I mean that I read them as discriminatingly as I could, with
the rule that, no matter how dull or lame they would turn out to be, I would read a
minimum of one hundred pages. If, within one hundred pages, a novel is unable to show
its mettle, capture and hold the readers attention, then why bother with it. And so it was
that I read about two thirds of all the novels from start to finish, even though in too many
cases it was merely to see how the disaster would end.
To my distress, I found it easy to discard a great many works, even among those
recommended by more than one expert. The reasons, I believe, had less to do with personal
talent than with the lack of a proper literary environment. Too many seasoned Thai
novelists make beginners mistakes. Put bluntly, from a literary-minded foreigners point of
view, no more than fifty Thai novels of any genre or period qualify as flawless classics to be
read by this and future generations for pleasure and intellectual profit, as distinct from
yarns that are leafed through to kill time or perused out of academic or otherwise
specialised interest.

The Thai have an overwhelming predilection for bao samong entertainment, i.e. entertainment light on
the brain, so light indeed that much of what foreigners consider light reading is heavy going for Thai
readers, prompting a respected Thai critic to poke gentle fun at those learned professors who expound in
earnest on the hidden messages of the likes of Daphne du Mauriers Rebecca or AJ Cronins Citadel.
With the aim of selecting the very best Thai novels, not merely the good ones, in order to
translate them into English over the next few years the raison dtre of the THAI MOD-
ERN CLASSICS programme I trimmed the list down to twenty titles. Why twenty rather
than ten or thirty? Because I decided to make the selection broad but to keep it of man-
ageable size and also because I am not sure I could find an extra ten titles I would care to
I have tried to choose independently of my own tastes. Among the novels selected, I have
a few favourites, and a few others are not entirely to my liking. Nevertheless, the critic in
me believes that all are outstanding and definitely worth translating for the world to read. I
am not naive or cocky enough, though, to profess that mine is the definitive choice,
because, in the final analysis, there is no such thing: objectivity, like perfection, is an aim
man tries to approach but never reaches. Personal taste aside, ones choice is valid only to
the extent of ones own knowledge and sensibilities. Discriminate reading, like literary
criticism, is an exercise at once objective observing the various elements of a tale like a
mechanic takes apart a car engine and subjective: keeping attuned to feelings, musings
and undercurrents as imponderable as the music of the spheres. To the extent that subject-
ivity is involved, these are indeed the twenty best novels of Thailand according to Marcel
The basic literary criteria that guided my choice are familiar to most western readers but
still appear to elude many Thai readers, writers and even critics. These criteria are strictly
literary, not political or moral. Politics and morals have their own media. Propaganda and
zealotry are the death of fiction. A novel may well preach social revolution or salvation of
the soul (or damnation or conservatism, for that matter) but it is neither a poster nor a
pulpit and should not be assessed as such. To measure literature with moral or political
yardsticks is more than irrelevant it is misguided and harmful.
The first criterion is quality of language, by which I mean not merely correct syntax and
precise semantics (youd be surprised, even by some of the best pens!), but more import-
antly style, a certain way with words that enchants, tickles or stuns and creates by its very
magic a world of its own, complete and unique.
A novel is a work of art crafted with words only, to which sloppy syntax or pedestrian
prose are terminal diseases; prosaic language, pest; euphuism, cholera. Style is a rare gift
that knows neither sex nor social origin. Some of the best stylists in the kingdom are
women writers, who, alas, waste their talent in otherwise insipid yarns that tabulate
heartbeats and propound lofty views about dripping faucets. Elegance of the pen is neither
a prerogative of the aristocracy (indeed the best Thai writers these days belong to the
middle class) nor a matter of high-sounding phrases and big words. If the tone and context
are right, there is nothing wrong with slang terms or swearwords the froth of the
language broth and nothing wrong either with newly coined words that make sense, if
used sparingly. In any case, good style of whatever grace smooth or crunchy, spicy or
fragrant, earthy or ethereal, baroque or terse, jazzy, funky, racy or classic is a sine qua non
for good fiction.
With one of the most musical and subtle languages on earth, and centuries of popular
and courtly juggling with words, Thai writers have an innate feel for the phrase that flows
(too much or too fast sometimes), and hundreds of Thai novels would qualify in terms of
style, but the trouble is, too many qualify on that count only.
The second criterion is internal coherence, the difficult balance between form and content
and between the various components of the work. A novel is a story (plot) told by means of
description (of things, places, people), narration and dialogue (or monologue). In mixing
these elements, there is no set recipe, and creative writing consists precisely in coming up
with new organic blends, in which the total is more than the sum of its parts. That more
is the literary charge; the greater the charge, the greater the novel. If the total is equal or
nearly equal to the sum of its parts, then forget it, the novel is a waste of time.
Plots provide plenty of occasions to flounder. A plot can be strong and gripping or weak
and potentially boring, but it must be coherent: you cannot launch a story in one direction
only to change course and start all over again (unless this keeps recurring as part of a clear
pattern which eventually tells a different tale altogether); or ditch the hero or heroin way
before the end (unless it happens to be a family saga in which new heroes take over as a
matter of course); or build one half in a smooth blend of fictitious elements only to cram the
other half with official documents, newspaper clippings and the like, stalling the action and
smothering the characters. Authors can get away with the most outrageous views if they
manage to blend them with the narrative, but to interrupt the action with solid chapters
expounding even the most cogent thoughts or with side plots of little or no relevance to the
main course are sure ways to kill the balance of a novel: these adjuncts stick out like sore
thumbs, and do indeed rate thumbs down.
In telling a story, the pace, whether slow or fast, must be sustained although the slower
the pace, the more likely the reader will be bored, which definitely happens every time a
plot gets sluggish or stalls.
Settings and characters also must be coherent, both within the story how consistent are
they? how indispensable to the plot? and by comparison to the real world: are they
lifelike? are they believable? Only a mad character may behave in an erratic manner: it is
expected of him; when a sane one does, the reader is shocked unless he is told why, or at
least forewarned. That people in real life do behave erratically all the time is no excuse:
verisimilitude, the stuff of fiction, is not truth, merely its appearance; happenstance is part
of real life, yet artificial in fiction if unannounced. It is the authors job to make the erratic,
the fortuitous, the incongruous plausible. A man who does not believe in spirits yet wakes
up one morning as a medium is not credible without some sort of explanation or warning.
Endings sometimes ruin very good yarns, when for the sake of a final fillip, the hero is
made to do the opposite of what, on the evidence of the rest of the story, he must do.
A novel is an exercise in make believe which presents not the real world but a world that
could be real complex, lively, three-dimensional. Not all novels are realistic in treatment
but all, even the most ethereal, must be grounded in hard fact to be at all credible. Without
a realistic base, the most wonderful flight of fancy wont take off. Ghosts need houses to
haunt, and the closer they come to your bedroom, the better they scare you; so, lets see the
bedroom first, and hear the floor creak. Even magical realism, so fashionable these days,
starts from a recreation of the real world before magic takes over. Stream of consciousness,
automatic writing and other hip writing techniques make for exciting pyrotechnics but
they become gratuitous exercises if they are not harnessed to a realistic frame of reference
something the proponents of art for arts sake never seem to grasp.
Too many Thai novels, I found, are dripping with honey and rosy beyond belief. There
are cultural and ideological reasons for this. Thai culture is non-confrontational in essence
and, for the sake of social harmony, the Thai will always try to see only the good side of
things and feign to ignore problems as long as they can: this works to some extent in real
life, but applied to the novel, it means fatal blandness.
Countless romances fall into this credibility trap, as do most autobiographical works
recalling early youth out on the farm or up on the range. Besides being usually plot-less,
these recollections of days past are so full of nice souls caught up in petty dramas that they
end up sounding at once rosy, drab and trite. Furthermore, politically minded writers left
and right tend to create heroes that are truly out of this world. When a hundred radical
students are locked up in a tiny cell for a month over two hundred pages and not one of
them goes mad at his sweaty and stinking fellow inmates, we are indeed in the presence of
saints or angels, not of full-blooded young men. When every ten pages or so the
protagonist of a novel swears dedication to Duty and praises Nation, Religion and King,
we yawn and close the book. In this type of crusading literature, angels are wont to
confront devils and heroes to tackle villains where are the real men? Novels should never
be studies in black and white, but as multicoloured as life itself. For all their good
intentions and bleeding hearts, the disembodied zombies of most literature for life
offerings are less believable than ET or Mickey Mouse, and a lot less endearing.
The same principle of coherence and verisimilitude applies to dialogue, which is a
paramount device to enliven a tale, speed the action along and give depth to the characters
involved. If there is nothing more dreary than contrived conversations, and nothing more
exhilarating than spirited ones, too much of even excellent dialogue is not such a good
idea, as you end up with a hamburger without beef a play or film script rather than a
As for specialised knowledge, too little is just as bad as too much. A novel involving
lawyers should explain the law and court proceedings well enough to have us rooted to the
bench until the trial ends, yet nobody wants to read the civil code chapter and verse.
However well written, the exchange of blows between kick boxers over dozens of pages
will thrill but the most dedicated fans, and all but cultured cattlemen will enjoy an offering
of a thousand and one tips on how to raise buffalos.
The third criterion is vision, meaning both scope and originality. Scope applies not only
outward as a macroscopic view of society revealing the breadth, depth and specificity of a
fictional world, but also inward, as a microscopic study of the self exploring the depth and
complexity of man. The world outside and the world within are both legitimate raw
material for fiction, and as in life are best combined which is why the art for lifeart for
arts sake debate is so debilitating, impoverishing fiction by oversimplifying and setting up
fences where there should be none.
The greatest works of fiction change your perception of the world and of yourself. They
may not have great numbers of characters, cover huge geographic or historical grounds, or
depict outstanding events such as war or epidemics: great literature is not a question of
numbers or bulk; it is merely a matter of sharpness and originality of vision, reaching far
out there for the truths and ways of the world as well as deep inside for the lies and
emotions of man.
Each generation begets a few novels that seem to encapsulate the perceptions of the
times, but these works only last if they remain relevant to later generations by offering
them values common to all of mankind: you do not keep reading Cervantes, Richardson,
Tolstoy, Balzac and all the other greats for what they tell you of their times but for what
they tell you about yourself. Too many novels, though magnificently written and expertly
balanced, lack scope and intellectual seasoning. They feel hollow and flat. Once you have
read them, you are none the wiser and wonder what all the fuss was all about.
The last criterion, specific to this undertaking, is international compatibility. None of the
novels selected is culture specific. Even though some of them have an important Thai
cultural dimension, this Thai texture can be translated, with the help of the odd footnote, in
such a way that foreign readers can still relate to the stories without missing a quiver of the
local bamboo mouth organ (notice I didnt write khaen).
There is, however, a small body of very good but culture-specific novels which defy
translation or even transposition and which I had to reject. This is the case for example of
Bunluea s Suratnaree, published in 1971, a fantasy which tells of an island-state in which
women hold power and men are relegated to womens traditional duties save child-
bearing. To readers familiar with Thai cultural mores, it is a very funny, thought-provoking
satire of male-dominated society, but it would be meaningless to outsiders without a surfeit
of learned footnotes which would spoil reading pleasure.
Another example is Jao Jan Phom Horm, which I would translate as Lady Jane of the
fragrant mane to respect the spirit if not the letter of the title. Written by Marla Khamjan
[Mala Kamchan] and crowned by the 1991 SEA Write

award, this short but difficult novel

written in sonorous prose tells the story of a northern Thai princess who makes a
pilgrimage through the jungle to Burmas Golden Rock to decide which of her two lovers
she will betroth. This highly literary exercise is written in a mixture of Thai and northern
Thai dialect (the text is littered with linguistic footnotes) and all along plays on central and
northern Thai myths and legends. This amazing cultural maze defies transposition in
another language though I understand one learned daredevil is attempting a French
version of it

The so-called Sea Write Award (Southeast Asian Writers Award), sponsored by the Oriental hotel in
Bangkok, Thai Airways International and a few other business concerns, has been given every year since
1979 to an outstanding literary work from each of the six (now ten) countries of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the
Philippines, plus Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. For each country, prizes are given on a rotating
basis to a novel, a collection of short stories and a book of poems published in the last three years
(formerly five years). Thus, a Thai novel is crowned every three years. In Thailand, a seven-member
selection committee assesses the dozens of works submitted and short-lists four or more of them. Out of
this list, a seven-member jury makes the final choice. Both committee and jury are composed of writers,
literary critics and academics. The award triggers sales in the tens of thousands, which means instant
wealth for both the author and the publisher. No doubt because of the high financial stakes, the award
has become very controversial in recent years, although much of the objections raised are unfair, not to
say self-serving.

Grard Fouquet, a French lecturer at Thammasat University, who did a creditable translation of
Khamphoon Boonthawees mediocre Look Eesarn Fils de lI-sn, Fayard, Paris, 1991 the only Thai novel

The twenty novels presented here are extremely varied in form, content, atmosphere and
import, and by and large mirror the richness and ebullience of the Thai novel, which is still
in its adolescence.
The first part of the anthology provides a birds-eye view of todays literary
environment or rather lack thereof as well as a brief presentation of Thai classical
literature and of each of the twenty novels, from a social, political and literary perspective.
Fiction is not produced in a vacuum: every novel is a result of and contribution to literary
history and has its own way of reflecting both the personality of the author and socio-
political realities at the time of writing.
To write a comprehensive history of the Thai novel was not my purpose. There are
dozens of minor masters out there whose novels would be instructive to appraise and take
apart; some writers have had an influence in the world of letters out of proportion with the
quality of their works; literary schools and groups have come and gone, not necessarily in
step with historical changes but to record all this in some detail would have meant at least
another tome, which might not be of great interest outside of Thai studies.
It was only once I was done selecting and putting these novels into perspective that I was
struck by two facts: one is that a whole generation of good novelists has gone missing. I did
not engineer the disappearance or rather the literary mediocrity of authors born between
1921 and the end of the Second World War a string of paternalist field marshals saw to
that, so much the pity. Maybe there is a lesson here for all to ponder. The other is that,
contrary to a fashionable feeling in Thai literary circles these days, the contemporary novel
is neither dead nor moribund: nine major works have been born in the last fourteen years,
appearing almost on a yearly basis, and there is no compelling reason to fear that the well
is about to dry up.
The second part of the anthology presents each of the twenty novels, with a brief
biography of the author, a summary of the plot laced with short extracts to wet readers
appetites, and a brief critical assessment of each work to show its social relevance, main
strengths and shortcomings. In writing the biographies of dead novelists, I have had to
depend on existing documentation, which is abundant on celebrated authors but scarce
and vague on others who have long been ignored or neglected. Hence differences in
treatment which are all too obvious and regrettable.
The two parts of this anthology can be read independently, as can each book section in
the second part. So do browse around by all means! As this is not an academic work, I have
dispensed with a bibliography, but all the books I have found useful are duly mentioned in
footnotes. The back issues of two defunct literary magazines, Loak Nangsue (Book world)
and Thanon Nangsue (Book lane), and of one ongoing one, Writer Magazine, have been of
particular use, including as a source of most of the photographic portraits of writers on
which the sketches illustrating this book are based.

translated into French so far, besides Chart Korpjitti *Korbjitti+s sophisticated tale, Rueang Thammada,
translated by Marcel Barang as Une histoire ordinaire, ditions Philippe Picquier, Paris, 1992.

The translation of all the excerpts are my own, except one, Nikhom Raiyawa
*Rayawa+s High banks heavy logs (Taling Soong Sung Nak), for which I used and very slightly
edited Richard Lairds excellent version

This brings me to the sorry topic of translation into English not to mention other
languages I know nothing about, such as German and Japanese, which seem to have
welcomed a greater body of Thai fiction than English.

Thai literature, and more specifically the Thai novel, has been very unlucky in terms of
exposure to the outside world. Despite the massive presence of Westerners on Thai soil for
the past forty years or so, few have become fluent enough in the vernacular to read Thai
fiction with discerning pleasure and fewer still have felt the need to share their enthusiasm
with fellow English speakers.
As a result, besides a handful of collections of short stories, less than ten novels have ever
been translated into English. It is only in recent years that two good translations of excellent
novels have seen the light of day

. As for the rest, either the novels that were well

translated were far from outstanding

or those that were outstanding were maimed in


. At the time, the few thousand expatriates who were able to lay their hands

High banks heavy logs, Penguin Australia, 1991

High banks heavy logs and Seeboorapha s Khang Lang Pharp, translated by David Smyth as Behind the
Painting [and Other Stories] (Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1990).

Gehan Wijeyewardene did skilful translations of two bad novels by Khammarn Khonkhai: The Teachers
of Mad Dog Swamp (Khroo Barn Nork Rural schoolteachers), published in 1982 by University of
Queensland Press, St-Lucia, Australia, and Teacher Marisa (Kha Rarchakarn Khroo), Pandora, Bangkok,

In Four Reigns, the English rendition of Khuekrit Prarmoats See Phaendin, published by Duangkamon
*ditions Duang Kamol or DK+ probably in 1981 (no date given), noted Thai translator Tunlajan
[Tulachandra] did a creditable job of condensing the masterpiece, but spoiled it by taking upon herself
the role of cultural tour guide, peppering her text with mentions such as At that time, we Thais thought
that... that are not in the original and leaving behind more than one hundred Thai words and phrases for
foreign readers to memorize, I presume from countless repetitions of the basic mai pen rai (never mind)
and sanuk (funny) to convoluted formulas in court language.
With Letters from Thailand, DK, 1977, American Susan Fulop Morell took an ego trip on Boatan
[Botan+s Jotmai Jark Mueang Thai by rewriting this less-than-wholesome novel to her satisfaction, padding
up a wee bit here, pruning a big chunk there. Since the main weakness of the book is in the unbelievable
about-face of the hero who, widowed at the end, decides to wed his sister-in-law, of whom he has disap-
proved all along, the translator went about correcting that, and presto! added to the heros reactions to
show that his feelings for the lady were actually not so simple. Under the name Susan Fulop Kepner, she
took similar liberties with Khamphoon Bunthawees Look Eesarn, a good introduction to North-eastern
food fare but a boring and trite novel crowned by the 1979 SEA Write Award nevertheless. Her version, A
child of the Northeast, was published by DK in 1988.
As for Australian Laurie Maunds semiliterate translation of Chart Korpjittis Khamphipharksa, which he
published in Bangkok in 1983 under the title The Judgement, the least said about it the better.

on these English versions were so grateful that they existed at all that they closed their eyes
to their shortcomings, but the world at large may be forgiven for thinking that there is no
such thing as good Thai literature.
By publishing accurate literary translations of Thailands top twenty novels, THAI
MODERN CLASSICS hopes to change such a perception.
Because these translations are meant to be read primarily for enjoyment by people who
may not even know where Thailand is located left of Vietnam, man, below Chinas
paunch I have opted to use as few words in Thai as possible and keep footnotes to the
bare minimum. These novels are rich enough in local colour without having to doll them
up with allegedly untranslatable terms for cheap effect unmeant by the author. So, words
used to designate people (ai, ee, yai, noo, phor, mae, phee, nong and the like), which are so
much part of the way the Thai express themselves but tell nothing to outsiders, have been
and will be deleted as a matter of course (or translated in a roundabout way whenever
possible), and titles of nobility will be translated with rough equivalents on an ad hoc basis.

Thai titles of royalty and nobility

Thai royal lineage fades out over five or four generations, from Jaofa (Crown Prince[ss], child of a king)
and Phra Ong Jao (child of a king born of a minor wife or concubine; also, child of a Jao Fa, hence grand-
child of a king), Morm Jao (child of a Phra Ong Jao [Mom Chao or MC]) to Morm Rarchawong (MR) and
Morm Luang (ML). Future generations are allowed to add na ... (na Ayutthaya, na Songkhla...) to their
surname to denote royal origins. All of the above titles translate as Prince or Princess. The children of a
prince and a commoner (addressed as Morm) lose one rank.
Titles of nobility, which were created in the mid-15th century, were abolished in 1932. They were, by
descending order of importance: Jao Phraya, Phraya, Phra, Luang, Khun, Muern, Phan and Thanai.
Rough European equivalents would be Duke, Marquess, Earl or Count, Viscount, Baron, Baronet and
Knight. These titles were bestowed according to the importance of the administrative office held. Unlike
European feudal titles, they were not hereditary and could be revoked at the kings pleasure. All titles
came with land, 8 000 acres for a prince, 4 000 for a Jao Phraya, down to 10 acres for a commoner. At
the end of the 19th century, government officials began receiving salaries instead of land.

Literary translation is a difficult exercise demanding probity and modesty on top of a
good command of both languages involved. Traduttore, traditore. The Italians got it right:
the translator is a traitor; to translate is to betray to betray words and phrases in one
language for different phrases and words in another, in the name of the higher loyalty due
to the original meaning and to the original style. Each language has its own genius, its own
way of composing a sentence, its own idioms, colloquialisms, etc, and a certain amount of
grammatical and syntactic manipulation is inevitable to achieve a fair transmutation. But
there are limits to what a translator is allowed to do, as his paramount task is to stick to the
original as much as possible. Literary translation is not a mere question of rendering the
meaning accurately, as for any official or commercial document: it is also a crucial question
of style. Real writers are style-conscious and agonise over the right word and the right
rhythm, and they are entitled to a faithful rendition, which seldom goes word-for-word, of
course, but should not extend to the complete rewriting some translators try to pass off as
creative translation.
The only creativity I know in translation is in sticking to the original phrasing as much as
possible and yet managing to produce a text that flows like the original but does not sound
translated that does not smell of milk and butter, as the Thai say. It is a craftsmans labour
of love, not the legerdemain of a failed creator squatting over someone elses text. And it is
the only approach that allows not just the tough yet manageable performance of one
translator translating one novel with one style but the damn near impossible exploit of one
translator translating twenty different novels with twenty different styles. How successful I
have been in such a foolhardy undertaking is for readers to judge.

A quarter century ago, my mentor Claude Julien, then editor of Le Monde diplomatique, a
man and a professional for whom I have the greatest admiration and respect, used to teach
us, cub reporters, that our foremost duty was to be disrespectful not that he wanted us to
be impolite or unduly aggressive, but that we should take nothing at face value and never
fear sacred cows.
This duty of disrespect lesson has stuck, perhaps only too well. The flippant and at
times sarcastic tone I have adopted in these pages is meant to lighten serious matters and
should not be mistaken for disrespect in the common sense. Rather the opposite, in fact: I
would like readers everywhere to share my passion for literature, impatience with local
sacred cows and faces without value, and admiration for those writers who have achieved
excellence against so many odds. And I would like the Thai among them to realise how
sanuk literature can be once it is free of the boring drone they remember from their days of
forced labour on school benches.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are in this country too why not say so? And if they still
shoot the messenger and his horse, well, so be it. Chang khao parai oops, I mean: mai pen

Bangkok, 31 August 1994
Books in a bind

A foreigner with a modicum of Thai entering a large bookshop in Bangkok today will be
er disconcerted. No collection of classics. No Penguin, Pelican or Bantam equivalent. No
complete works of important writers in one volume or one set. No literary criticism section.
None of what all Westerners and many Asians take for granted at home.
Skirt the mountains of technical manuals written mostly in English on all kinds of
subjects, and the ever growing tide of computer gobbledibooks, management how-tos and
self-serving why-not-yous promoted at the foreground yes, Dale Carnegie and Vance
Packard are alive and smiling more than ever on Bangkok shelves amid their prolific
yuppie progeny.
Turn to the literature section. In one corner, a hodgepodge of cheap, mean paperbacks
cater to students required-reading chores. In another, religious pamphlets fight for light
with ghost stories. In a third, Chinese epics in translation, two or twenty tomes per set,
offer pigs-blood-red covers with huge gilded scratches for titles. Between the racks of
glossy Thai mags with English names and displays of Japanese cartoons with Thai blurbs
spread flowery acres of homespun hardback romances usually sold at a hefty discount.
Serious modern literature comes in increasingly expensive paperbacks of all sizes merely
dumped by genre three shelves of skinny collections of short stories or poems to perhaps
two of local novels and ten of contemporary foreign blockbusters in translation. Most of the
paperbacks are less than two years old and few older than five.
Our standard bookshop is a fairly accurate reflection of what Thai reading tastes are all
about: India-spun dharma, home-grown ghosts, China gore, local soaps, and the West
without a past and, oh yes, some local novels too.
Thats not all. When we mooted the THAI MODERN CLASSICS project in January 1993,
we asked thirteen Thai professors of literature, literary critics, writers and other discrimina-
ting readers to each provide us with a list of what they deemed to be the best novels ever
published in Thai, irrespective of length, style or trend. Ten of them complied, sending us
lists of between ten and thirty-five stories, which, once collated, amounted to ninety-nine

. Half of these novels we readily found in neighbouring bookshops, but it took

Between five and eight of the ten respondents agreed on nine titles (out of which I selected eight); 24
novels were recommended by two to four respondents (I kept five of those); the other titles were
individual choices (I chose another five among them). I discovered two more remarkable novels through
supplementary reading, and thus came to a total of 20 novels written by 18 authors.
Authors who had one or more novels considered but rejected are Arjin Panjaphan, Boatan, Chatcharin
Chaiwat, Jamlong Fangchonlajit, Jintana Pinchaliao, Karnjana Narkhanan, Khammarn Khonkhai, Kham-
phoon Bunthawee, Kritsana Asoaksin, Lao Kham-horm, Manat Jan-yong, Marnop Thanormsee,
Marla Khamjan, Nimitmongkhon Naowarat, Nippharn, Orrawan, P Intharaparlit,
Phanomthian, Pheinai Phiangsoon, Phiriya Phanarsuwan, San Theiwarak, Seedaorueang, Seefa,
Seerat Satharpanawat, Soaphark Suwan, Sot Kooramaro-hit, Suwannee Sukhontha, Suwat Worradi-
lok, Theip Maha-paoraya, Thommayantee, W na Pramuanmark, W Winitchaikun, Wasit
Deitkunchorn, Wat Wanlayangkoon, Wijit Wathakarn, Yarkhorp, Yok Boorapha and Yong Yaso-

months of assiduous shopping, borrowing and photocopying to gather the other half. We
roamed all main bookshops in town and the network of shops lending out novels for one
or two baht a day; had hardly any luck with the second-hand booksellers at the Jatujak
[Chatuchak] weekend market and just a little more with the romance peddlers around
Wang Boorapha; came back with heavy booty from two national book fairs; borrowed a
couple of volumes from Thammasart [Thammasat] and Jularlongkorn [Chulalongkorn]
universities libraries; went in vain to the National Library, whose novel section is a
national disgrace; then asked friends, who asked their friends and, as we neither stole nor
begged, we are still five titles short, including one of the very first Thai novels, published
only some eighty years ago

. Such is the health of Thai literature today that half of what ten
specialists deem to be the countrys best novels are just not readily available. It is easier to
buy Chteau-Lapompe 57 than Bunlueas Thutiyawiseit, published in 1966.
The book cult and bookish culture that any Westerner inherits at birth simply do not exist
here, except in very narrow circles. There are three reasons for this. The first is the weather.
The second is the present rush to riches. The third is the past and its many legacies.
The Thai have known none of the long cold evenings that have forced generations of
northern barbarians indoors and into the habit of killing time with parchment and quill, till
they got hooked on words and every bum with a bun believes he can be Proust, publishing
houses force-feed a bloated market with impeccably crafted bores and all-time
masterpieces that dont last the season, and too many literary critics are as blind as Borges
and Ved Mehta though they still have eyes to read. Tropical nightlife has indeed other
charms, and now that the moneyed urban class has turned on the air-conditioning, it may
be too late for such sedate pastimes as reading and riting, when home means videogames
and TV soaps, and the office, mere rithmetic.
In its rush to become an economic wonder of the world, Thailand today has little time for
wordmongers that dont make money. Junior executives on expense accounts may
creditcard a Baht 1 437 treatise on cybernetics to great prestige, but how could they justify a
B90 expense for a novel by Seeboorapha?

In Thailand as elsewhere, book publishing is a business, and many of those who run it
seem to be more concerned with turning a safe profit than taking risks for the sake of
promoting literature, that elusive yet exacting whore.
Less than a dozen printing houses churn out popular novels romances by ladies for the
ladies, goons-guns-and-gore sagas for the armchair supermen usually presented in packs
of two volumes per story. These form the bulk of fiction ingested in this land but they are
to literature what flour is to cake: unleavened words in need of breadth, depth, vision or,
quite simply, talent.
In the narrow clearing where real literature sprouts, a few mammoths trample the grass
frail upstarts are trying to nibble. On the foreign books side, Asia Books and Duangkamon
[Duang Kamol or DK] handle most imports, commission a few books in English and
distribute small, locally based, European-language publishers, who know only two gods,

Khwarm Mai Phayarbart, by Khroo Liam (Luang Wilart Porriwat). [PS: A copy of the 1915 original
edition was found in the late 1990s and finally republished in 2001.]

Count B25 to the US dollar, and remember that the miniMom daily wage is B137 in Bangkok, less
upcountry, a bowl of noodles costs B15-20 as does a packet of cigarettes.
the Past and the Groin. On the Thai side, DK, which once impulsed the literary scene by
subsidizing a remarkably wide-ranging and meaty literary review, Loak Nangsue (Book
world), and did publish some books of note before turning to more juicy, megalomaniac
ventures, has long been upstaged by Dork Ya, which is milking affluent fiction lovers for
whatever they are worth by reprinting old novels in pretty, hence pricey paperbacks and
convincing growing numbers of short-story writers and novelists beginners as well as
best-selling authors to adopt the same format.
For its impressive output, Dork Ya relies on its own network of bookshops, which
practise all of the marketing tricks in the book a marker and transparent plastic cover
with each book purchased, a B500 membership card with coupons entitling one to special
discounts, trinkets suggested as (onerous) gifts during holiday periods... you name it, they
are doing it. By distributing its own books, Dork Ya avoids the major hurdle small-time
publishers face: the need to go through distribution companies, which dispatch books to
the bookshops in town but simply do not monitor sales.
Actually, nobody does, which explains why authors prefer to sell their stories to
publishers for a relatively modest lump sum rather than accept a potentially more lucrative
percentage on sales. This type of contract, compulsory in the West, is also discouraged by
the standard practice of launching novels and volumes of short stories with a print run of 2
0003 000 copies (it used to be ten times as much twenty years ago, old timers grumble,
without specifying for what kind of novels). Books in demand will be reprinted time and
again in the same quantities over a period of weeks, months or years. A novel or collection
of short stories that sells more than a hundred thousand is a phenomenal success in
Thailand, a country of nearly sixty million inhabitants, two thirds of whom are going or
have gone through at least seven years of schooling. Contrast this with South Korea
(population: 45 million), where, I am reliably told, even difficult novels sometimes reach
the half million mark.
The desktop publishing revolution has prompted many would-be and confirmed writers
to set up their own shoestring operations, too often without bothering to have their
manuscripts properly edited there arent that many competent editors around anyway.
Their output has not reached tidal wave proportions yet, far from it, but growing numbers
of shoddy works tend to give good fiction a bad name and confuse and waylay readers
all the more so as the press generally fails to assess the quality of the works published.
When they report at all on books, most newspapers and magazines take the easy way out
by presenting the new publications of the week or the month of whatever genre in equally
brief notices usually culled from the cover blurbs. A few weekly magazines or supplements
of daily newspapers (Sayarm Rat and Matichon essentially, sometimes Phoojatkarn daily and
weekly) offer a little of their precious space to literary columnists and critics, who also find
the odd page in a few glossy monthlies (Sarrakhadee, Lalana <). Professional critics rightly
complain of a dearth of outlets outside of academe, though recently the same desktop
publishing revolution has brought about two literary monthlies, Writer Magazine and
Phuean Nak Arn (The readers friend)

, and a third, Chang Wannakam (The wordsmith), was

Writer Magazine was launched in Oct 1992. Phuean Nak Arn, which published seven issues in 1986, was
re-launched in Oct 1993 and discontinued in May 1994 after four more issues, and its team is working on
due to be launched in late 1994

. Though the first two are a far cry from their forerunners,
Loak Nangsue (1977-83) and Thanon Nangsue (Book Lane, 1983-87), in terms of
craftsmanship, scope and depth, they have been warmly welcomed in the circles that care
about fiction and books in general.
Bangkoks English-language press isnt helping much. Not so long ago, The Bangkok Post
surprisingly dropped its weekly Bookmarker page, which offered one of the best critical
assessments of Thai literature in the land, and then The Nation started a weekly Book
Focus page, whose idiosyncratic editorial approach is seemingly little concerned with the
Thai scene.
Despite the earnings to be gained from movie or TV adaptations, few novelists are able to
live off their writings. Those who do are either word processors running overtime as they
cater to the popular market and simultaneously churn out three or more novels published
in magazines which pay them by the line, or part-time novelists who spend too much of
their time and talent on writing chores, as columnists, reporters, feature writers and the
like. To my knowledge, the only novelist and short-story writer who hasnt bowed to
market demands yet is doing reasonably well is Chart Korpjitti.
The market for the novel is narrow indeed, yet this is not to say that writers are not well
considered. On the contrary. Educated Thais have taken to heart Rama VIs injunction:
Respected in countries the world over
Are those who can read and write books
Only fools cringe at the written word
And no one but a clot would scorn a poet.

This was proclaimed some time around the First World War, when poets had blue blood
or the blue chips of courtly office. In todays plebeian Thailand, the literary scene has
grown hectic to a fault. Though there are a few loners, Thai writers are a most egregious
lot. They congregate at all manner of cocktail parties, forums and vanity fairs, attend
learned seminars, regroup in sundry chapels that booze eloquent on one and all, and they
have their own guild, the National Association of Writers of Thailand. The youngest
among them pay tribute to their elders in the best patronage tradition, when they are not
busy bad-mouthing literary prizes that keep eluding them.
The powers that be have been making meritorious efforts to add to the corporations
aura, notably by liberally bestowing each year the title of National Artist (and a yearly
stipend unto death) to a couple of sexagenarians who have blackened their weights worth
of paper prompting one wit to hiss, Why fret? The way they go about it, well all be
National Artists one day

. Since 1972, as part of the many activities of the yearly National

Book Week, the government-sponsored National Committee for the Promotion of Books
chooses the most outstanding novel of the year and, for good measure, like in beauty
pageants, one to four runners-up. Almost unfailingly, this eminent jury swaps quality for
market weight, though on some years it feels self-conscious enough to withhold its most

a new, more commercial formula, Sue Nangsue (Book medium), to be supported by Duangkamon. [PS: All
those publications have long folded, even before the 1997 economic crisis.]

This magazine is awaited with trepidation as it is to be edited by Suchart Sawatsee, the much-respected
first editor of Loak Nangsue and chief justice of the short story in Thailand. [PS: The project was stillborn.]

From Phra Non Khamluang

Pratheep Mueannin, Writer Magazine, March 1993, p37

outstanding label. Of the ten novels in our selection that pertain to this period, only two
received the distinction and one a second-best commendation

. It may be no accident that

the two award-winners also received the commercial SEA Write Award, which has
generally better selection criteria, hence a credibility that translates into hefty sales the
National Committee for the Promotion of Books fails to generate. A couple of banks have
also instituted their own tax-deductible literary dos that betray good intentions and
accountants tastes.
The glamour and the gloom of literary activities in present-day Thailand are both legacies
of the past. The Thai literary tradition is only seven hundred years old, and for much of this
time, was confined to the palace and a small elite of rulers and their entourage. The corpus
of works is relatively small. Writing on palm leaves or on handmade, folding bloc-notes of
rough paper was no sinecure, so few copies were made and, through wars, carelessness,
bugs and the sultry heat, manuscripts were easily damaged and destroyed. The Chinese
perfected silk writing more than two thousand years ago; they never told the Thai. The
French had their first manuscript on paper by 1240, half a century before the Siamese
engraved their first stone. The German Gutenberg printed the first book in 1436, yet
printing presses only reached Siam three hundred and ninety-nine years later. The
technological gap, which in the last century and a half has been reduced to zero thanks to
the instant communications of our global village, was compounded by radically different
socio-political conditions and resulted in an inordinate delay in the spread of education
among the people, for which Thai literature is still paying the price in terms of anaemic
markets and rock-bottom standards.
Education for all became compulsory on paper only after the First World War, and a
reality after 1932. Teaching of literature in the last two years of elementary school began in

. In secondary school, a two-step reform in Thai-language teaching in 1978 and 1981

reduced the study of Thai classics in favour of more modern works and tried to promote
critical assessment of literature. Good move, but many academics were up in arms, and
they also complained that, in higher education, only those who specialise in the language
field can really study Thai literature. Obviously, the country needs more engineers and
computer nerds than word wizards, or so the short-sighted profess. So they reap what they
sow. Although people at large do read fiction (how else can you explain the phenomenal
success of Bangkork [Bangkok] and Bangkork Sa-khwae [Bangkok Square]

?), fiction lovers

remain an elite of a few thousand urbanites.

Chart Korpjittis Judgment in 1981 and Nikhom Raiyawas High banks heavy logs in 1984; the second-
best awardee is Wa-nit Jarunkit-anan, for The hood of the cobra (Mae Bia) in 1987.

Through selected extracts from Phra Ruang, Phra Aphaimanee, Khun Chang Khun Paen and the Rarmakian.
See below.

These weekly and fortnightly magazines print almost exclusively serialised novels, of the lowest
possible literary quality, yet Bangkork, the oldest of the two, is said to achieve sales in excess of a hundred
thousand (take this with a fistful of salt, though).

Chor Karrakeit, Suchart Sawatsees quarterly selection of short stories written mostly by budding
writers from all over the country, sells between 1 500 and 3 000 copies. These figures and those of
Bangkorks circulation are probably the best indicators of the size of the market for fiction in Thailand
today, and of its potential for growth.
Judging from available university manuals, including the most exhaustive to date,
Development of Thai literature

, current teaching of literature at university level remains to

an inquisitive western mind overly scholastic, nomenclature-oriented, ignorant of the
lives of the writers, seemingly reluctant to openly appraise and grade the literary value of
the works studied and strangely bereft of alternative critical viewpoints, which are at best
mentioned in passing but never explained or used.
Some savvy critics go on delightful chopping sprees: they show their mettle by slicing up
the novel into so many types as they would sausages. One holds for thirteen literary schools
and ten types of novels; twenty-two types, counters another; not at all, thirty-six, raves a
third all of them unbelievably blind to the evidence that the single most important trend
in the Thai novel is zoological: does not our selection include two novels about elephants,
two more about snakes, one about a tiger and one about a gang of mad dogs? Seriously,
what is the use of categories such as family-life novels, aristocratic novels, new-elite
novels...? Great fun, perhaps, but no dice.
Periodically, the Ministry of Education updates a list of suggested off-hours reading material
for secondary school students. The criteria used for that list are certainly legitimate and
praiseworthy (adequacy to the age group, promotion of love of the motherland, love of
nature, etc, perhaps even syntactic correctness and nobility of characters), but the strictly
literary merits of the works chosen seem to hold low priority. Of the current list of twenty-
seven novels thus suggested, only five are in our own selection but then the moulding of
young Thai minds was not our immediate concern.
Criticism is easy, but it should be kept in mind that the Thai have come a long way in
practically no time the past century or so. To better understand this, let us stroll down
history lane and watch the flowering of Thai letters as we go along, as there is much to be
gleaned that will help us understand the moods, manners and themes of the Thai novel,
that belated western import grafted under peculiar circumstances.

Before the novel

Even though the origins of the Thai people remain a matter of speculation

, it is accepted
that they came into their own in the 13th century, when they set up their own state at

Phatthanarkarn Wannakhadee Thai, 2 vol., 1992. I am much indebted to this collective work by nineteen
professors of the open university of Sukho-thai Thammarthirart for its detailed presentation of Thai
classical literature, of which I have little first-hand knowledge. I have drawn primarily and freely on this
manual in the historical summary that follows.
The choice of classics I present was also influenced by Bunluea Theipphayasuwans various relevant
writings; Plueang na Nakhorn's Prawat Wannakhadee Thai Samrap Naksueksa (A history of Thai literature
for students), Thai Watthana Pharnit, Bangkok, 3rd ed 1960; Katanyoo Choochuens Prawat Wannakhadee
Thai (A history of Thai literature), O-diansto [Odeon Store], Bangkok, 1984; South-East Asia Languages &
Literatures: a select guide, Patricia Herbert & Anthony Milner ed, Kiscadale Publications, Scotland, 1987;
The Domain of Thai Literature, Montree Umawichanee [Montri Umavijani], Bangkok, 1978; and Florilge de
la littrature thalandaise, ditions Duangkamon, Bangkok, 1988.

The only sure thing is that the Thais, formerly of south-eastern China and upper Vietnam, did not flee
Kublai Khans conquest of the Nanjao [Nan Chao] kingdom of southern China in the mid 13th century, as
had long been believed. They probably trickled down some two hundred years earlier to carve
themselves a place in the fertile lowlands of the upper Jao Phraya [Chao Phraya] basin, absorbed the
Sukho-thai, under an absolute ruler. The fledgling state expanded fast under its fourth
king, Rarmkham-haeng who had the good idea to tell us about it in stone. By then, the
Thai were growing rice and fruit trees and crafting pottery. There were two classes: the
rulers (royal family, palace officials, Brahmin priests, top Buddhist monks) and the ruled
(servants, and slaves, i.e. prisoners of war), bonded by a patronage system of reciprocal
obligations loyalty in return for protection. Their vision of the world stretched as far as
China for trade and Lanka for religion. Without discarding their ancestral animism or the
Brahminic practices of their Khmer former masters and neighbours to the east, they
espoused Buddhism. Starting with the eighth king, Lithai (1347-68?), the monarchs called
themselves Maha Thamma Rarcha, or great dharma kings. In the early 15th century, Sukho-
thai allied itself with its more dynamic southern neighbour, Ayutthaya, by which it was
eventually absorbed.
The literature of Sukho-thai was inscribed on stles, stone slabs, metal plaques, and later
monastery or palace walls. The first inscription is traditionally considered to be a stle
Rarmkham-haeng had made in 1292 and King Mongkut discovered in 1833 (see below). In
the last decade, however, revisionist historians have argued that it was forged by Mongkut
in the 1840s or 1850s to legitimise his rule

. The four-sided stone, 111cm tall, bears 124 lines

in what is considered to be the earliest example of written old Thai, derived from Khmer,
itself derived from the ancient Pallavan script of Southern India. Like the dozens of stone
inscriptions found throughout the northern part of central Thailand the cradle of Siam it
is in (often rhythmic) prose (see below).

In the water there is fish...
[Inscription one of Sukho-thai first 40 lines]

My father was named See Inthararthit, my mother Lady Sueang and my elder brother Barn Mueang. We were
five siblings: three boys and two girls. My eldest brother died when he was still a child.
When I was nineteen years old, Lord Sarm Chon, the ruler of Mueang Chort, came to attack Mueang Tark.
My father went to fight him on the left; Lord Sarm Chon drove forth on the right. Lord Sam Chon moved his
troops forward. My fathers men, defeated, dispersed and fled in confusion. I did not flee. I mounted my
elephant, forced [him] through the troops and pushed him ahead of my father. I fought an elephant duel with
Lord Sarm Chon. I fought Lord Sarm Chons elephant, Mart Mueang by name. Defeated, Lord Sarm Chon
fled. Then my father named me Phra Rarm Kham-haeng [Rama the Bold] because I had fought Sarm Chons
During my fathers lifetime, I tended on my father and on my mother. When I caught game or fish I brought it
to my father. When I picked up sour or sweet fruits that were edible and delicious, I brought them to my father.
When I went hunting elephants, either by lasso or by [driving them into a] corral, I brought them to my father.
When I raided a village or a town and captured elephants, men or women, silver or gold, I turned them over to
my father. When my father died, my elder brother was still alive, and I served him steadfastly as I had served
my father. When my elder brother died, I received the whole kingdom for myself.
In the time of King Rarm Kham-haeng this land of Sukho-thai is good. In the water there is fish, in the fields
there is rice. The lord of the realm does not levy toll on his subjects; they freely lead their cattle to trade or ride
their horses to sell; whoever wants to trade in elephants does so; whoever wants to trade in horses does so;
whoever wants to trade in silver or gold does so. When any commoner or man of rank dies, his house, trained
elephants, wives, children, granaries, rice, retainers and groves of areca and betel trees are left in their entirety
to his son. When commoners or men of rank quarrel, [the King] examines the case to get at the truth and then
settles the case justly for them. He does not side with thieves or favour receivers [of stolen goods]. When he

Mons and pushed back the Khmers of Lawo (Lopburee) and merged with other proto-Thai communities
that had peopled the region since time immemorial.

See The Ram Khamhaeng Controversy, Collected Papers, James R Chamberlain ed., The Siam Society,
Bangkok, 1991, 565pp.
sees someones rice he does not covet it; when he sees someones wealth he does not seethe with anger.
Whoever comes on an elephant to see him and ask him to protect his country, he takes care of generously.
Whoever has no elephants, no horses, no men or women, no silver or gold, he gives [some] to him and helps
him restore his authority. When he captures enemies or their commanders, he does not kill them or beat them.
A bell is hung over the opening of the gate yonder: if any distraught commoner in the city has a lawsuit, feels
gripe in his belly and pain in his heart and wants to make it known to his ruler and lord, it is not difficult: he
strikes the bell which the ruler has hung there; at the call, King Rarm Kham-haeng, the ruler of the kingdom,
goes and examines the case impartially. So the common people of this city of Sukho-thai praise him. They
plant areca and betel groves all over this city; there are many groves of coconut and other fruit-bearing palm
trees in this city, as well as groves of mango and tamarind trees. Whoever plants them takes possession of

[This translation is based on the combined works of Bradley, Coeds and Griswold, modified in the light of Piriya Krairuek [Krairiksh]s
remarks in The Ram Khamhaeng Controversy.]

The only significant piece of poetry of the period is the Royal Precepts (Supharsit
Phraruang) attributed to Rarmkham-haeng or was it Lithai? and inscribed on a wall in a
Bangkok temple during Mongkuts reign. In simple Thai, the ruler teaches his subjects how
to be loyal, friendly and considerate, and insists on the importance of knowledge.
The outstanding work of the period is Lithais Traiphoom Phraruang (The kings three
worlds), transcribed on palm leaves in 1778 from an old version from Phetburee [Phetcha-
buri]. It is the Buddhist Divine Comedy; its purely descriptive approach presents an
extraordinarily detailed and vivid vision of the universe and the place of man in it (see
Didactic or rhetorical, the works of the time were meant to glorify, testify and edify. They
were paeans to the rulers recording nation-building efforts and offer glimpses of traditions
and social conditions.

The kings three worlds

The three worlds nether world, corporeal world and ethereal world hold 32 realms which together constitute the
universe. The first world, a world of woe, comprises the various hells and the realms of supernatural creatures, tormented
spirits (preta) and starving souls (asura). The second is the world of man, from which one can reach, through meditation, the
ethereal world that culminates in Nirvana, to escape the cycle of reincarnations. This excerpt focuses on the gestation of

The material qualities that are born male or female all begin as kalala [infinitely small, initial corpuscles] and
gradually grow in size day by day. On the seventh day, it is like water used to clean meat and is called
amphutha. That amphutha grows every day. After seven days, it thickens like lead in a melting pot and is
called peisi. That peisi grows by the day. After seven days, it hardens in the shape of an egg and is called
khana. That khana keeps growing day by day. After seven days, bumps appear in five places like warts and
this is known as the pentamerous-wart stage two for the hands, two for the feet and one wart for the head,
and from then on they gradually take shape day after day. After seven days, palms and fingers are formed. By
the forty-second day, there is hair, there are nails on the feet and on the hands and all the organs that make a
human being are accounted for. [...] that child sits in the middle of the mothers womb and has its back against
the coating of the womb. The food the mother has digested is beneath that child. The food the mother takes
anew is above that child. All the time the child sits in the mothers womb, it suffers a great deal, hating and
loathing beyond endurance the dampness and the stink and the worms with 80 rings which reside in the
mothers womb, a fetid place where they reproduce and grow old and die and decompose. Those masses of
taeniae and worms are seething in the mothers womb. Those taeniae and worms are all over the body of that
child, like maggots dwelling in rotten fish or in refuse and faeces. The umbilical cord of that child is hollow like
the stem of the water-lily known as blue lotus. The end of this hollow cord is suspended and connected to the
back of the mothers stomach and all the delicious, nutritious foods and liquids drip through that cord into the
stomach of that child, and the little one is fed day and night. [...] That child [...] sits crouching in the mothers
womb, with both fists clenched, its body bent double on its knees, its head resting on both knees. In this
position, blood and lymph drip all over his body continuously, and it looks like a monkey sitting dejectedly in the
hollow of a tree with clenched fists during the rain. Inside the mothers womb, it is very hot as when we take
banana leaves to boil them in a pot. Everything the mother eats is burnt and digested by the power of that
burning internal fire. The body of that child is not burnt, though, because it is in the order of things that that
child has enough merit to be born as a human being, and that is the reason why it neither burns nor dies. But
while it is in the mothers womb, it does not breathe nor does it even once stretch its arms and legs as we do.
Therefore that child hurts all over like someone locked up in a very narrow jar [...] and whenever the mother
walks, sleeps or lies awake, the child in her womb suffers agonizing pain like a newborn fawn in the hands of a
drunkard or like a snake mishandled by a charmer. Its suffering does not last a few days. Its suffering lasts
seven months, sometimes eight months, sometimes nine months, ten months, eleven months for some, and
there are even some that take a full year to be born. Whoever stays in the womb for six months and is born will
not live. Whoever stays in the womb for seven months and is born, for all the mothers efforts will never be
healthy or resistant. Whoever comes from hell to be reborn is born with a burning body and, while still in the
womb, feels listless and ravenous. Moreover, the mothers flesh contributes to the heat. Whoever comes from
heaven to be reborn is born cool in body and soul and, while still in the womb, feels happy and pleasantly
disposed. Moreover, the mothers flesh is refreshingly cool. At the time of birth, karma turns into a wind in the
mothers womb which blows the childs body upward and lowers its head to face the exit, like the damned [that
the] devils grab by the ankles and throw headlong into the wells of hell one hundred fathoms deep. When that
child comes out of the mothers womb, it cannot avoid great pain and suffers all over, like a male elephant
tugged and pushed through a narrow back door...

In the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767), however, pedagogy took second place to
entertainment, and sturdy prose turned to light-headed poetry. By then, the kings called
themselves Theiwarart or god-kings. At first, their power radiated outward from the palace
to the inner city, to the rice fields and to the towns beyond. Later, the realm expanded and
consolidated through war, marriage, diplomacy and trade. The aristocracy and the state
apparatus grew accordingly. By the mid 17th century, separate administrative structures
were created for soldiers and civilians, who nonetheless fought together in times of war.
The first two kings of Ayutthaya encouraged literary endeavours, and an unknown author
during the first reign, inspired by a northern tale, penned Phra Lor

, the first tragic and

gracefully erotic love affair written in Thai. But it was under Narrai (1656-88) that art and
literature reached their golden age in the Sukho-thai period.
The world perception of the Thai had never been so broad. Europeans had discovered
Siam, and they eyed its riches and frowned at its idols.

The Dutch in the southeast, the

English in the south and west were running trading outposts that would soon turn into
colonial empires. The Persians wanted to convert Narrai to Islam, the French to
Catholicism. Narrai and Louis XIV exchanged embassies. A Greek adventurer schemed his
way to the top of the Siamese administration, only to be executed when his royal protector
passed away.

During these three decades of relative peace and growing prosperity, art

Phra Lor tells the story of a handsome prince who becomes ruler of his northern fief at the death of his
father and gets married. Word of his beauty reaches two princesses of a rival state who, thanks to the
magic powers of a jungle hermit, succeed in having him come to them. The threesome would have
romped happily ever after were it not for the princesses grandmother, who hates Phra Lor because his
father killed her husband during an attack on the state. The nasty old woman sends an army which kills
the three lovers and their helpers. The father of the two princesses has her executed and, in their common
grief, the two states are reconciled.

The Portuguese came way ahead of everybody else: they sent a mission to Siam in 1511. The Dutch
opened an embassy in 1605, the English in 1612 and the French in 1662.

Two highly readable novels, one in English, the other in French, have been written on this period and
the machinations of Constantine Phaulkon Axel Aylwens Constant Falcon trilogy (The Falcon of Siam,
1988, The Falcon Takes Wing, 1991, and a third volume to come) and Morgan Sportss irreverent Pour la
plus grande gloire de Dieu, Le Seuil, 1993; the latter is being translated into Thai, and will be much
bowdlerised no doubt.
and literature blossomed. Narrais favourite minstrel, the legendary Seeprart, earned
himself the title of Prince of Poets.

Seeprart, the prince of poets

Nurtured on his fathers primer (the Jindarmanee), he breathed in verse and had lightning wit. See was nine
when his father came back from court one night with two verses King Narrai had been unable to turn into a
What is it that tarnished your cheek, my beloved?
Did some mosquito, fly, gnat or midge furtively bite you?
When Phra Ho-rarthibordee woke up the next morning, he found the stanza completed. Respecting rhythm,
rhyme and tone, his son had added:
Who could possibly brag of touching your fair skin?
Who would dare bruise the flesh I cherish?
The king was so impressed that he insisted on See entering his service at once and, to assuage the fathers
fear that the unruly boy would fall foul of the drastic palace law, he promised that, no matter what See did, hed
never be condemned to death. See proved so gifted that Narrai bestowed on him the patronymic of Seeprart
or Glorious Sage. The boy grew into a gallant young man. One day, the king asked his courtiers to make
poems in praise of the floats the ladies of the court had made for a water ceremony. Seeprart had his eyes on
a lady-in-waiting who was somewhat older than himself, and this led to the following exchange:
How deftly you pleated nipa palm
Into this fine floating junk!
Shall we sail and bail in it heart to heart?
Young as I am, Im eager for the trip
Tut tut! Foolish rabbit prancing at the moon
Forgetful of his lowly lot
Peacock spreading his tail for the clouds
Oblivious of the beast in him
Ah ha! Foolish rabbit indeed who prances at a moon
So lofty that the eye must search sky-high
Come loving season beast goes to beast you know
Mistress and slave, nay, I say we both belong to earth
When Narrai learned Seeprart was sending inflamed poems to one of his concubines, he commuted the
death sentence, which was mandatory under palace law, into exile to Nakhorn See Thammarart*. There,
Seeprart became the star of poetic contests. But soon rivals accused him of sleeping with one of the
governors minor wives, and the governor ordered his execution. Before he died, Seeprart wrote on the sand
with his foot:
Mother Earth be my witness
A masters disciple I still am
If wrong let me this blade deserve
But if you slain an innocent
May this sword strike you back
As soon as Narrai hears of this, he has the governor executed.
As well as his improvised poems composed during poetic jousts, Seeprart left two major works, Kamsuan
Seeprart or Seeprarts lament, composed during his journey to Nakhorn See Thammarart, and Anirut
Khamchan, the story of a young monarch who while asleep is taken by the gods to the daughter of the king of
a distant land and, when he wakes up, goes through hell and high water to finally be reunited with her.

* Seeprart was lucky. One of Narrais successors, King Borromakoat, had his own son, Crown Prince Thammathibeit, a
most gifted poet, beaten to death for loving one of his concubines. It took 180 strokes, history records. The lady was
similarly dispatched.

The first Thai primer, Jindarmanee, was culled from a Pali manual. Soon, even young
princesses learned to read and write. Some of the best poems of the period drew their in-
spiration from the Jataka tales

At Narrais death, European interlopers were kept out of the country for 150 years. The
world of the Siamese shrank accordingly, but poetry went on flourishing, and developed
increasingly sophisticated forms

. Distinctive new formats were born, such as the nirart

narrative of a journey and the phleing yao or elegiac love epistle. The first dramas were
performed at court, mixing monarchs, myths and magic, with enough coarse words and
sexual innuendos to please the village crowds. Education became so important that
families of note set up and sponsored their own temples to ensure the schooling of their
Yet, even before Narrais death, the kingdom had entered a period of palace intrigue and
rebellions, and the rivalry between members of the royal family and titled officials weaken-
ed the realm and contributed to its demise after repeated assaults from the Burmese. In
1767, Ayutthaya burned and so did most of its palm-leaf manuscripts.

After an interlude of fifteen years in Thonburee [Thonburi], the first of the Rama kings,
founder of the Jakkree [Chakri] dynasty, set about building Bangkok and the kingdom we
know now.
The year was 1782, and Siam was about to languidly enter the modern age. There were
more tussles with the Burmese during the first reign, three decades later some unpleasant-
ness with the French over Cambodia and Laos and, later still, with the English over the
Malay states, but by and large the central administration was left to get on with the work of
building a modern state.
At first, nothing much changed: same administrative system as in Ayutthaya; same dual
social structure of rulers and ruled. For most people, life still centred on the house and the
temple. There was little formal education outside the palace. Yet, a legal system was
cobbled together in 1804.
By the third reign (1824-51), however, things began to move. The state-controlled foreign
trade with China, India, Java, Portugal, England, etc grew rapidly, fuelling an economic
boom, until the Sino-British Opium War (1839-42) undermined export income. The tax sys-
tem was overhauled and state coffers were full. The first formal centre of higher learning

The 547 Jataka tales (Chardok in Thai) in the Buddhist scripture tell of the Buddhas reincarnations before
he became the Enlightened One, though some of them are probably based on tales that existed before the
time of the Buddha, born 543 years before Christ by Thai reckoning (544 for the Indians). The Thai
consider the last ten reincarnations as the most important, especially the last one, whose story was
translated collectively from Pali to Thai in 1482 as the Maha-chart Khamluang or Official version of the
great birth. In it, the future Buddha is born as Prince Weitsandorn, who loses his throne after he gives
away his magic white elephant. Later, he is willing to part from his two children and wife, whereupon
the god Indra returns him to the throne. The edifying chardok tales were known to the Thai of Sukho-thai;
they have generated many other popular and classic works and are still told and retold to Thai children

The main poetic forms are khloang, rai, chan, karp and klorn, with various sub forms and combinations
such as lilit (khloang + rai) and khamluang (khloang + chan + karp + klorn).

A long lyric poem on the theme of departure, separation or banishment. The best nirart is reputedly
Sunthorn Phoos Nirart Phookhaothong, Journey to the Golden Mound monastery in Ayutthaya.
was created at the Phra Cheithuphon monastery in Bangkok. While the first Thai princes
were sent abroad to learn English, the first English and American missionaries entered
Siam, Bibles and medicine in hand.
This early Bangkok period saw feverish efforts to write anew the lost works of the past,
by relying on vivid oral traditions. This yielded the major classics of Thai literature the
best version of the Rarmakian

, inspired by the Ramayana, Inao

, Khun Chang Khun Phaen and

Phra Aphaimanee (see p47). All but the latter, written by the Peoples Poet, commoner
Sunthorn Phoo (see below), were collective efforts, in which the kings themselves were
both orchestrators and major contributors. Rama I wrote several plays, including episodes
of the Rarmakian and Inao, various nirart and a prcis of moral precepts

. Rama II, Rama III

and Sunthorn Phoo contributed to Khun Chang Khun Phaen, generally held to be the classic
of classics, for the perfection of its style, its true-to-life characters and its depiction of not
just the palace crowd but ordinary folk and their foibles, frolics and festivities. Based on a
local tale inspired by a real story that took place at the end of the 15th century, it tells of the
love triangle between noble Phaen, wealthy Chang and the woman Phim-Wanthong, the
only daughter of a well-to-do merchant, who has become, quite unjustly, the epitome of the
wanton wife.

Sunthorn Phoo, the peoples poet

Sober now yet still drunken with love
How can I my true yearning deny
Liquor fumes in late morning fade
But love keeps me drunk day and night
Nirart Phookhaothong

Do not in mankind trust, he preached,
So fickle and unfathomable.
Warped and wrought creepers
Arent as crooked as the human mind.
Phra Aphaimanee

For all my friends, I feel I have no friend
As nones like thee, o my absent sweetheart
Chums cannot to a wife compare
Nor pals to a life partner

The sacred canon of Hinduism has had a widespread and deep influence over popular lore and palace
literature and art all over Southeast Asia, even before the Sukho-thai period through the shenanigans of
this super-Illiad of the East and the identification of Rama to the reigning king rather than because of its
mystic and metaphysical import. The wondrous war tribulations of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Tosakan & Co
have inspired versions in local dialects as well as numerous poetic works at the Thai court since
Ayutthaya times. The most complete version of the Rarmakian was written under Rama I. It was rewritten
and shortened under Rama II to accompany court dance performances. Though versions of some
episodes were penned later, notably under Rama IV, the Rama II version is considered to be the most

Two versions of Inao, a story of princely love inspired by Javanese chronicles, were written during the
first reign, but it is the version rewritten during the second reign which is deemed to be the best.

Nitharn Irarn Rarchatham (Moral duties of the kings of Iran), 1782, thirteen tales from an old version probably
translated in Ayutthaya times.
Sunthorn Phoo was born four years after Bangkok, and his seventy years (1786-1855) spanned four reigns,
with greatly changing fortunes. His parents divorced before he came to life. His father, some commoner hailing
probably from Ayutthaya, married and settled down in Rayong Province. When the couple divorced, his father
became a monk and his mother returned to the employ of the kings brother, in the Back Palace, at what is
now (thanks to Allied bombing during World War II) the Bangkok Noi railway station on the Thonburee side of
the Jao Phraya river. There Sunthorn Phoo was born, and introduced to the prince as a child. He was
educated at the Seesudarrarm monastery nearby.
The next we hear of him, he is in his teens and in jail, either for the crime of being smitten with a lady-in-
waiting of the prince or for riotous behavior while under the influence of alcohol. It was behind bars, in any
case, that he started his masterpiece, Phra Aphaimanee, which would be twenty years in the making. At the
death of the prince, he was freed, and soon Rama II made him his amanuensis and official court poet, with the
title of Khun Sunthorn Wo-harn (something like Baron Gift of the Gab). He had three wives in quick
succession, who each gave him a son. When his protector died, Sunthorn Phoo, then 38, lost royal favor and
became a monk, visiting various royal temples, writing a great deal, until he disrobed and fell on even harder
times and had to beg for little mercies from noble admirers. When Mongkut ascended the throne, Sunthorn
Phoo, in the employment of the kings brother, was reinstated, as Phra Sunthorn Wo-harn, five years from his
In the course of his long life, besides his contribution to such collective works as Khun Chang Khun Phaen,
he wrote no fewer than nine nirart or elegiac travel poems, five very long and very tall tales, four lengthy
lullabies, three sets of precepts and maxims all Thai know, two lyrical dramas and a play.

Phra Aphaimanee

This wondrous flight of fancy defies summarizing. It tells of two young brothers, prince Aphaimanee and Prince
Seesuwan, who were sent out in search of broad knowledge and military skills as was the custom for young
sires in those days. When they return, one an expert (magic) pipe-player, the other a champion fighter with
wooden sticks, their father chases them away. A series of adventures follow, involving, among sundry mythical
creatures, a sea ogress who gives Aphaimanee a son; a family of mermaids gobbled up by the ogress except
for one daughter, who bears Aphaimanee a son as well; a sweet eastern princess in distress who, after many
twists and turns (piracy, flight, nunhood), bears him twin daughters; and a gorgeous but nasty Lanka princess,
who gives birth to yet another son, who turns into an awful brat. When a hermit puts an end to all quarrels, the
tired heroes become monks at long last.
This extraordinary tale is a shimmering ode to love, women, knowledge and modern science. Aphaimanee
learns English. The poem bristles with futuristic weaponry, airplanes and even a (yellow?) submarine. The
princesses handle weapons, run armies and countries, and show little of the modesty expected of ladies of the
Experts say that Sunthorn Phoo, besides putting much of himself and the women of his life in this work,
borrowed freely from Indian and Chinese tales and from local lore, but they agree that never had a work of
fiction been so highly personal and inventive. Immensely popular from the start, Phra Aphaimanee is an
essential component of Thai culture even today, and is repeated in proverbs, sayings and cartoons.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen

When war breaks out between Ayutthaya and Chiangmai, handsome Phaen has just wedded lovely Phim,
whom ungainly Chang (Elephant) also loves. Phaen, a warrior, is away for so long that Chang is able to
convince Phims mother that Phaen is dead, whereupon he marries Phim, who takes the name of Wanthong.
When Phaen finally returns with a beautiful prisoner in tow, his ex-wife refuses to see him. Peeved, Phaen
goes away, but, in spite of his many good fortunes, he cant forget her. He goes back and convinces her to flee
with him into the jungle. Chang tries all the tricks he knows to get her back and finally goes to the king and
accuses Phaen of high treason. The king orders Phaens arrest. Long battles ensue, in which Phaen maintains
the upper hand, but when Phim becomes pregnant he decides to surrender. He is jailed, and Chang resumes
life with Wanthong, who delivers a boy.
Phaens son grows into a worthy warrior, who convinces the king to have his father released. Father and son
go to war against Chiangmai again and win a decisive battle. After the son marries and takes his mother to live
with them, Phaens love is rekindled and a jealous Chang petitions the king to get his wife back. Unable to
decide whose wife Phim-Wanthong is, the king enjoins her to choose. She cant and the king orders her to
be beheaded.

The period also saw a translation of Mon chronicles

and a shift from India to China as

the main source of inspiration. Chinese immigration had started under Tarksin, ruler of
Thonburee and himself a Sino-Thai. Chinese influence on Thai literature started in 1865,
when Jao Phraya Phrakhlang (Hon)

wrote Sarm Kok, translated from the 15th century San

Guo, known to the western world as The Romance of the three kingdoms. This protracted
struggle between warlords in ancient China captured the fancy of the Siamese, who found
in its exciting episodes, written in beautiful yet easily understood language, a kind of soft
manual for everything from good government to moral precepts

. To this day, Sarm Kok

has inspired an amazing amount of exegesis and paraphrastic versions as well as the
translation of a huge body of Chinese chronicles and romances.
Throughout the period, literary works became increasingly entertaining, with nirart, love
epistles and the writing of the countless tales and legends of the popular Buddhist tradi-
tion. Surrounded by mythological creatures, the characters nonetheless had flesh and
blood, and their passions evolved with the plot. Greater sophistication was leading to a no-
ticeable diversification of styles. The period saw many new poets, nobles and commoners,
male and female, and under Rama III two satirical works appeared. They were written by a
woman, Khun Suwan, who was poking fun at some officials. There was also a parody,
Radein Landai, which transposed Inaos aristocratic love triangle among the lowest of the
low an Indian cowgirl, her husband and an Indian beggar. All were indications of an
unprecedented independence of thought.

When radical reformist King Mongkut ascended the throne in 1851, he opened up Siam to
the West. As a result, many changes took place in Thai society. Administrative reform
along western lines revolutionised daily life, right down to the way of behaving and
dressing. Slavery was eventually abolished in 1905, and everybody given (high-sounding)
family names.
As England took over the Indian subcontinent, Burma and the Malay states, and France
grabbed Indochina, the two colonial powers agreed to leave Siam as a cushion between
their dominions, but not without kicking up much dust at her borders. Germany, Russia
and Japan became new stars in the Thai cosmogony. Foreign trade was no longer state con-
trolled. Siam exported teak, tin and increasing amounts of rice. Banking and land
transportation were born. More young Siamese aristocrats were sent abroad; the palace
called in foreign female teachers

. Literacy increased, textbooks were ordered, and the body

of reference texts in Thai continued to grow.
The first foreign missionaries ushered in western values and methods. In 1835, Dan Beach
Bradley, an American medical doctor and evangelist, imported a printing press and

Rarcharthirart, chronicles of Rama I time, a three-man endeavour in 1880.

Jao Phraya was a nobiliary title equivalent to Duke; Phrakhlang, the function: Kings treasurer and
minister of foreign affairs the barcalon of early, stiff-tongued European interlopers; Hon was the mans
name as a commoner.

Yuphorn Saengthaksin, in Development of Thai literature, op cit, p238

See The English Governess at the Siamese Court, by Anna Leonowens, (first ed. 1870) Oxford University
Press, 1988. In the 1950s, this self-serving account of Ms Leonowenss 1862-67 experience as the teacher of
King Mongkuts children loosely inspired the even more fanciful movie Anna and the King of Siam and the
Broadway musical The King and I.
Siamese type that had been cast in Bengal to answer both his Lords and the Thai
bureaucracys demand for printed material. Thirty years later, he was to launch The Bang-
kok Recorder, after which the local press developed exponentially: under Rama V (1868-
1910), there were 59 publications in Thai, English or Chinese, from daily newspapers to
quarterly journals, including a womens fortnightly magazine and 133 under Rama VI
(1910-25). The first all-Thai daily

started on 26 September 1875. These publications as a

rule did not last long, but they were breeding grounds for writers, sealing the unholy
alliance between the fact-chasing press and modern fiction.
The belated introduction of printing was a decisive turning point. From then on, prose
would recover the primacy it had lost four centuries earlier. Thai writers would finally
come down to earth and discover realism. They also discovered another way of writing,
concise, factual, efficient, yet with its own beauty. Non-fiction helped form generations of
writers, and fiction (short stories, plays and then novels) rapidly relegated poetry to has-
been status.
For a few decades longer, however, poetic works of note were still being composed. In
1906, Rama V wrote Ngoh Pa

in eight days, as well as the much praised documentary Phra

Rarchaphithee Sipsong Duean (Twelve months of royal ceremonies), and Rama VI more or
less closed the classic poetic era with Phra Non, the last khamluang, which he finished in

During Jularlongkorns long reign, as part of a new administrative structure modelled
largely on the British colonial system, education grew by leaps and bounds, making
inroads in urban areas. A school for royal pages (scions of the nobility and of commoners in
high charges) was created within the palace in 1871; a cadet military school

opened ten
years later; in 1884, the first university, Jularlongkorn, was created

; Bangkok temples
opened the first formal schools. By the turn of the century, Siam adopted a copyright law,
the Siam Society was founded in 1904 and the first public library was inaugurated.

Khao Rarchakarn (Official News), previously Court. It only lasted until Dec 1876.

Ngoh pa is Thai for Sakai or Moken, a primitive tribe of Southern Thailand. The versified play tells the
sad story of beautiful Lam-hap, who is promised by her parents to Hanao. Her brother, however, would
like her to wed Somphla, a poor yet daring young man he admires; so, he arranges for her to go and pick
flowers in the jungle, where Somphla will be waiting. When a snake appears and coils itself around Lam-
haps arm, she swoons. Somphla comes out of hiding and kills the snake. When she comes to, he
proclaims his passion and she falls in love with him. As the time of her wedding approaches, Lam-hap
and Somphla elope to live in a cave. Hanao searches for them high and low and finally he and his party
find the cave. A fight ensues, in which Somphla is killed, whereupon Lam-hap kills herself. Seeing this,
Hanao realizes the depth of their love and, out of grief and guilt, kills himself.

Poetry has not disappeared altogether. It still fills a page or two in general-interest weekly magazines,
and several literary awards help keep the flame burning. Poets have been experimenting with free verse
and loose forms, though the best among them tend to prefer the constraints of classic formats. Their
themes have broadened to social protest, womens rights, free sex and other concerns of the times. The
best-known poets of today are Angkarn Kanlayarnaphong, Naowarat Phongphaiboon and Jiranan

Suan Kularp, later turned over to civilians to recruit civil servants.

Jularlongkorn University started accepting female students in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, more students were sent to Singapore and Europe sons of the elite, no
doubt, but soon grants were available to deserving commoners. These young men, directly
exposed to western values, in time brought them back home, and, in the field of literature,
introduced the short story, plays and the novel.

Legacies of the past

For many centuries, literature was an exclusively aristocratic pastime, at once instrument of
governance, educative medium and source of entertainment. Aristocrats, nobles and other
dignitaries (including the leaders of the Buddhist clergy) borrowed freely from popular
tradition a mixture of animistic superstitions, tall tales and magnified local events which
Hinduism then Buddhism peppered, salted and cheerfully churned to better edify the
In turn, popular literature fed on the palace output, essentially via the temples. Farmers
then didnt read, nor did many of them have access to court to watch its plays and poetry
pageants. They listened to sermons, to the love songs improvised by itinerant minstrels
playing bamboo mouth organs, to the courtship contests in which village lads and lasses
taunted one another in salvos of improvised and often risqu verse, and watched the plays
during temple fairs burlesque performances of the likei, masked dances, shadow and
puppet shows and in latter days Chinese opera, which together accounted for the bulk of
rural belles lettres, at once coarse and sophisticated, witty and crass.

The predominant influence was Indian, but it was fine-tuned to fit the national psyche,
which Seinee Prarmoat [Seni Pramoj]

once chuckled is as flat as our Central Plain as if

it took a mountain to make a soul lofty, or an ocean to give it depth!
The various Thai versions of the Ramayana throughout the centuries have no use for its
heavy metaphysical speculations and only recount its anecdotes, which inspired many
other Thai classics as well. Ditto for the more ancient Mahabharata. (Actually, these Indian
classics came second-hand to the Thais: the Mahabharata through the Khmers, the Ramayana
from southern India through Java.)
The aristocratic writers of the classic age were at the top of the authoritarian social order and
their main beneficiaries. Steeped in Buddhist culture, they breathed Buddhist values, which
were fine instruments for maintaining the social status quo. These poets all had the same
approach to life, once noted the Dr Johnson of Thai literature, Bunluea Theipphayasuwan

They all believed in the protection of the Triple Gem

, they believed in good and bad deeds,

that we have karma and face obstacles resulting from karma, if not in this life then in the

The most influential literary pioneers of the time were Jao Phraya Thammasart Montree, who signed
Khroo Theip (Teacher Theip), and Phraya Surinthararcha, who chose the feminine pen name of Mae
Wan to publish the first foreign novel ever translated into Thai (see p60).

These days, of course, there are movies and, above all, television, which, though it does partly cater to
the same culture, essentially feeds one and all with urban middle-class values, notably through the
ubiquitous drama series adapted from mainstream romances.

Morm Rarchawong, Oxonian gentleman, noted poet, former Democrat leader and ex-prime minister.
Elder brother of Kuekrit Prarmoat [Kukrit Pramoj].

Morm Luang [ML] Bunluea Theipphayasuwan was both an eminent literary critic and, under the pen
name Bunluea, a master novelist. See pp309sq.

The Buddha, his teachings and his disciples, the Sangha or Buddhist clergy
next.< They had no qualms with this, so did not in their writings touch upon metaphysical
issues, not even from their own religion. They didnt ask themselves what man is, who man is,
why he is born or where he is going. They didnt care about the characteristics or the state of
society, why there were rich and poor, princes and peasants. < They were interested in
individual human beings, how their behaviour differed, how their differences showed, in
speech, attitudes, expressions. Thai poets were interested in man in his five life attributes <
(form, sensation of pleasure or pain, perception, consciousness, discrimination), as beings en-
dowed with passion and lust.

In other words, these privileged versifiers were happy with their lot as well they should
and didnt bother themselves with silly metaphysical questions that could have upset
their digestion and the royal scheme of things. Theirs was a world of feelings, fantasy and
fun the last especially, as befits a people to whom nothing is worth doing if it is no fun
and who never asks whether a book is interesting but whether it is sanuk fun to read. The
celebrated palace wit was as self-deprecatory as it could be scathing and it is a great pity
indeed that with such droll material, so many students of Thai classics today complain of
being bored!
The values expressed were love of peace, love of nature, living kindness, simplicity of
the way of life, sense of fun and sense of poetry, notes another analyst of Thai classical

. The only apparent ideology was a deep attachment to the land, religion and
the ruler the holy trinity that the Thai flag embodies and which has become identified
with the best and the worst of Thai nationalism.
Unsurprisingly, the characters these aristocrats created were kings and other beautiful
palace people who were enmeshed in magic practices and met supernatural creatures
from talking animals to gods, griffons and ghosts that gave the stories mythical appeal
and scope. Theirs was a dreamy world of wonder, which befitted the god-kings and their
exalted entourage and had the populace agape, excited and awed. Medieval Europe knew
much of the same make believe and isnt it the very psychological spring that novels of
the prince-meets-Cinderella variety trigger all along? Every empty stomach or alienated
soul needs to dream.
Changing the seat of power, from Sukho-thai to Ayutthaya, from Ayutthaya to
Thonburee and then finally to Bangkok, spurred more works but also meant starting all
over to resurrect the classics that had been lost or destroyed. The same old tales of human
love and love for the land were told and retold: creativity was in the language rather than
in the plots the canvas, the characters, the settings were already there and so were the
many conventions of each genre. Besides, Thai literary works were meant to be read out
aloud or performed, and this no doubt helped develop collective memory, which palliated
the paucity of manuscripts and their destruction, but it also helped enhance the capabilities
of the language.

And what a wonderfully musical instrument it is! The Thai language is tonal and mostly
monosyllabic; its soft and hard consonants and long and short vowels are music to the ear

ML Bunluea, Hua Liao Khong Wannakhadee Thai, The turning point of Thai literature, in Wannakhadee,
special issue, 1977

Katanyoo Choochuen, op cit

and call for play on rhyme and rhythm. Traditionally, literary beauty stems from the use of
poetic words that are pleasant to hear and stir the imagination.
The various forms of poetry developed in the course of a few centuries are highly
complex, with inner rhymes and set places for certain letters, and these formal constraints
tend to favour verbal performance over significance. Classic poets focus on roop rot klin
siang flavour, smell, shape and sound, which leaves little room for thought. Ideally, a
poets sophistication shows in a combination of sounds and rhythms that will not
overwhelm the ear to the point of drowning the meaning. In practice, however, even the
best of them tend to err on the alliterative side.
Consider the following, from Sunthorn Phoos Journey to Suphanburee:
Kho Khao Khoat Khm Khn Khiang Khiang
Rm Rn Rk Rang Riang Rap Ri
Ham Hak Hing Hi Hang Ha Hart Hng H
Yang Yai Yrt Yuen Yi Yak Y Yoan Yen

It means something like this:
Myriad emrald mounts and mellow mounds mired
In tidy tides of tightly texturd tectal trees
Shyly show shaggy shrubs shaving shriveld, shrinking shoals,
But blasted bulky babuls bow and buff, benign breeze below.
Great stuff indeed. To most Thai, this is cream of poetry. To Westerners, it is arty mumbo
jumbo. Thai poets like our Renaissance versifiers do not describe landscapes: they shape
them as they chime along. The result is at best a jungle la franaise, more often a melodious
mess or jaunty jingle, which trains the ear but not the brain. (Hence the talent and success
of Thai ad slogan mongers today?) Primacy goes to sound, rather than meaning. And it is
an enduring legacy: students from the earliest age must stumble through thousands of
these tongue-twisters. An admirable outcome of this is that many can actually versify for
fun when the mood strikes them. Poets have been known to improvise collectively on
television my verse, your turn and it is said that in the royal courts of yore, the meanest
poets never spoke but in verse.
The few examples of poetry translated in these pages show, however, how weak their
substance can be once they are shorn of their sonorous garb, whose exceedingly baroque
lavishness is alien to the rather sober genius of western languages.
The courtly tradition of music-at-all-cost has strongly influenced contemporary prose
writing, notably through the use of clusters of adjectives, which, in moderate doses, also
characterises old-fashioned colloquial speech, proverbs and other sayings

. This is the
phairoh phroh phring sanoh hoo or palace school of writing the expression means pleasant
to the ear, as does its central word phroh as opposed to the concise, functional phroh

This alliterative form of poetry is known as konlabot. There is even more perverse: verses that read left to
right as well as from right to left. Trickier than this there aint, except perhaps crossword puzzles.

Monosyllabic words, short and accented, which are predominant in Thai, are rather tricky to pronounce:
the slightest change in tone or length can create dreadful misunderstandings. So, early on, the Thai got into
the habit of pairing them up to make themselves clear, and it sounded good too: rhymed and rhythmic
patterns characterise popular parlance and its countless proverbs. From there it was a short step pairing
up pairs into clusters, and yet another playing these syllabic conglomerates back and forth, for variety of
sounds or shades of meaning.
school, which came from the west via the media a century ago and is slowly gaining
ground. Somewhere in between, there seems to be a third tradition, Buddhist, didactic and
repetitive in essence, as expressed notably in the much-thumbed Dhammapada

, a
collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha that has inspired kings and monks alike since
ancient times.
From sighs to histrionics

O the transience of love
I know now thou art like water
Gushing forth and past and away
And never ever flowing back
Inao Rama II (1809-24)

O my so charming sweetheart
Were there a tree reaching the clouds
Id hoist thee up in the ether
As none I find, whither can I turn?

Shall I leave thee with Heaven or with Earth?
I doubt I can trust the gods to behave
Shall I commit thee to the wind then?
I fear its caress would hurt thy fair skin.
Nirart Narin Narinthibeit (Rama II reign)

Stop the fire from smoking
Stop the sun and the moon from shining
Stop thyself from aging
Achieve all this then thou can stop gossip

The ocean, though too deep to fathom,
Can still be sounded
The highest mountain can be measured
But mans soul, ah, thats truly hard to probe

Knowing little, yet claiming to know all
Like a frog ignorant of sea or ocean
Boasts of the depth
Of its tiny native pond

Fair-weather friends come by the hundred
When wealth is gone they know thee not
But a true friend ready to die for thee
By all the ghosts, thats really hard to find
Khloang Loakkanit Somdeit Krom Phraya Deichardisorn (Rama III reign: 1824-51)

Whoever dare invade Thai land
We Thai will fight to the bitter end
Sacrifice our blood and indeed welcome death
For dying thus, our dignity remains

Should Siam endure we too can live forever
Should Siam be destroyed how can we Thai survive
We would soon all expire
And with us the Thai race
Sayarmanutsati Rama VI (1910-25)

Thammabot in Thai. See Phutthawajana Nai Thammabot, The Buddhas words in the Dhammapada, translated from
the Sanskrit by Sathiangphong [Satienpong] Wannapok, Sueksit Sayarm, Bangkok, 1979

Marie who?

Poetry has had a strong influence on *prose+ in structure and figurative language.
Alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, imagery, similes, metaphors and poetic symbolism are not
uncommon in creative Thai prose writing. Even the official language is laced with poetic
frills and vestiges of eloquence and sophistication. These poetic habits unfortunately often
mar Thai prose by creating redundancy and obscuring the structure where clarity is
needed. Thus the natural power of prose is weakened. < Compared to western prose
writing, which enjoyed a much longer period of development and enrichment, Thai prose
in general, except in very exceptional masterpieces, lacks sophistication, articulateness and
clarity of thought and expression.

Perhaps this is too harsh and sweeping a diagnosis, but it is certain that Thai fiction had a
hard time shaping up, notably because of conflicting influences from China and the West
and of the use of generally mediocre western models.
The translation of The romance of the three kingdoms in 1865

had given fiction face, favour

and flavour, wetted the appetite of a fast-growing reading public and encouraged officials
to couch their fantasies on paper for fun or fame. Sarm Kok was written in such refined Thai
that it set a standard in prose writing which still inspires would-be authors in a direction
almost diametrically opposed to the tenets and modes of expression of western novels.
During the second half of the 19th century, Chinese chronicles, sagas and fables fought for
attention almost on a par with western fiction and even after the Thai novel came into its
own in the 1920s as a transplant from the West, Chinese fiction has survived as a branch of
popular literature.
The western novel caught on because it was relayed by partly West-educated kings and
princes who sought to modernise their country and saw its survival in playing the
international game according to western rules. Jularlongkorn (Rama V) was fluent in
English, as had been his predecessor, Mongkut; Rama VI was educated at Sandhurst and
Oxford. In the 1870s, a handful of youthful princes freshly back from England made it their
business to introduce the formats and methods of the Victorian publications they were
familiar with and launched journal after influential journal. Throughout the second half of
the 19th century, thanks to the progress of printing, spread of journalism and rapid
expansion of the bureaucracy, fiction took to the homes of well-to-do commoners, the core
of a nascent urban middle class, and the ever growing ranks of the newly literate went on a
crash course of western literature.
The first Thai literary diviners did a medley of English-language fiction, simplifying
fables, telling tales anew, condensing classics and translating, adapting or rewriting at will
short stories, which found popular niches in the pages of growing numbers of periodicals.
Thus were Thai readers introduced to Aesops fables, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe
and many others. Later, English translations were used to get at A thousand and one nights,

Mattanee Moatdarra Ratnin [Mattani Mojdara Rutnin], in Modern Thai Literature, Thammasart
University Press, Bangkok, 1978

Ironically, this Chinese work was published by the good Dr Bradley, who had a monopoly on Thai
prose fiction publishing.
Omar Khayy{ms Rubiyt, Boccaccios Decameron, and several Indian classics all of which
were very much in line with the nations poetic and classic mainstream.
Besides the periodicals, which became increasingly plebeian, a favourite aristocratic
medium was the stage, especially for operettas. Rama V wrote a version of Gilbert &
Sullivans Mikado and, in the 1910s and 1920s, his successor showed more lofty if still light
taste by translating The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and As you like it, and by
adapting Othello.

Others under him popularised Madame Butterfly and The tales of Hoffman.

The short story in the 1870s and the novel in the first quarter of the 20th century went
through the same process of translation, adaptation and finally creation.
By the end of the 19th century, the Thai short story had come into its own and was well
received, even by ordinary people, thanks to the various periodicals. Perhaps the most
influential of these was Wachirayarn Wiseit, a weekly magazine which managed to last a
decade (1885-94). It was there that what may well have been the first experiment at novel
writing by a Thai appeared in 1886. The author of Sanuk Nuek (Fun thinking)

, Krom Luang
Phichitpreecharkorn, was a half-brother of Jularlongkorn and one of his most trusted
The first instalment of Sanuk Nuek described four young Buddhist monks discussing what
they were going to do once they disrobed and left the Borworn Niweit monastery in
Bangkok. Three of them thought they would resume their careers in the civil service. The
fourth was not sure, as he was attracted to the material and spiritual advantages of staying
in the monkhood.
Imaginary conversations in fictitious surroundings were not exactly unheard of at the
time, but having a well-known temple as a setting could only mean one thing: the story
was for real, and reporting such irreverent chatter by monks was deemed an insult to the
institution. Courtiers were up in arms, and the Supreme Patriarch, who was also the
temples abbot (as well as an uncle of both the author and the king) threatened to resign his
temple charge, which alarmed His Majesty. The Patriarch, in a typical charade, wrote to the
king, not to protest but to ask for royal pardon on behalf of the author for making the king
angry at having upset his uncle, i.e. himself... Jularlongkorn wrote back explaining that this
bit of West-inspired fiction was not meant to be taken seriously and no offence was or
should be taken and he berated his brother. There was no second instalment. This bout of
censorship on the very first attempt at Thai novel writing is all the more unfortunate as
everyone agrees Rama V, though an absolutist monarch, was a staunch supporter of
freedom of expression in art and literature. If anything, the episode showed that the
reading public was not ready for modern fiction. It would take another generation, the
continuous translation of western works and the progress of Thai fiction writing to change
parochial perceptions.
During the first three years of the 20th century, a main conduit of Victorian English
culture was a review candidly entitled Lak Witthaya (Stealing knowledge), set up by
England-educated aristocrats to publish western literature in translation or adaptation. It

He also adapted a play by Sheridan and Sax Rohmers Golden scorpion.

The expression can also be translated as fiction or fantasy, meaning novel in the vocabulary of the
times; the modern word for novel, nawaniyai or new tale, was only coined in the 1920s.
was there that the first foreign novel, a sentimental melodrama, was serialized. Its title? The

. Its author? Marie Corelli.

Marie who?
Ms Corelli was allegedly the favourite author of Gladstone and Queen Victoria and was
read in colonial India and even farther-flung outposts of the British empire. Never
significant and long forgotten at home, she is still alive and selling in Thailand, where all of
her dozen novels have been piously translated!
According to literary lore, this tale of vengeful love moved a Thai nobleman to write a
Buddhist response, in the form of a long story entitled The non-vendetta

, which, instead
of revenge, ends with the forgiveness of the husband, winning him the hearts of his wife
and her lover

. If such a work did exist, it would technically qualify as the first Thai novel
or at least protonovel. As mentioned earlier, although everybody in academe has heard of
it and claims to know someone who knows someone who once read it, we havent been
able to find any trace of it other than hearsay.

(This is not altogether surprising: early

novels in Thai are prized collectors items; some books, perhaps many, have disappeared;
and few are to be found where they should be in public libraries as the practice of
depositing duty copies was and remains virtually unknown.)
In any case, the great success of The vendetta encouraged Thai translators to carry on in the
same vein. For all their classic poetic studies, these foreign-educated sons of the elite,
princes, nobles or smart commoners, had no particular knowledge of western literature
and were drawn to exciting bestsellers of the time, which they hoped would win over an
ignorant home audience always eager to be entertained. Unsurprisingly, these talent scouts
unerringly went for second-best. They had Jane Austen and George Eliot; they went for Ms
Corelli. They had Goldsmith, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Meredith or even Bennett; they
went for such luminaries as Sax Rohmer, Williams Laqueux, FW Bain, Charles Garvice,
Henry Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, O Henry the
commissaries of Victorian and Edwardian popular chow.
On the French side, where fewer Thai students ventured, they could have picked
Flaubert, Zola, Mrime, Proust or even Gide; they chose Alexandre Dumas pre, for his
Three musketeers and Count of Monte-Cristo, which came to Siam as silent movies in the early
1920s, and Guy de Maupassant for just one story, La parure (The necklace).
In the early years of this century, a young aristocrat, who, under the pen name of
Dorkmai Sot or Fresh flower, was to become the novelists novelist for her seminal
influence over two generations of romance writers, was led by French nuns to wash her
brain with the soaps of Delly

, which make Barbara Cartlands novels look like marvels

of profundity. It is a minor miracle indeed that she eventually managed to write a bit like
Henry James.

Translated as Khwarm Phayarbart by Mae Wan, the pen name of Phraya Surinthararcha.

Khwarm Mai Phayarbart, by Nai Samrarn (Mr Cheerful), alias Luang Wilartpariwat, born Liam

Wipha Seinanan [Wibha Senanan], The genesis of the novel in Thailand, Bangkok, 1975

PS, 2003: As mentioned earlier, a copy of the novel was found in the late 1990s and was republished in
2001 by Samnakphim Dabeun Nain [99 Publishing], Bangkok. It turns out that the novel was first
published in 1915 and is fairly dreary to read.

The pen name of a brother-and-sister team, Frdric and Jeanne-Marie Petitjean de la Rosire
Mediocre works were thus the dominant formative influence on Thai novelists and short-
story writers. In the 1920s, another training ground opened for them when (western)
movies came to Bangkok and spread in the provinces like wild fire. As the films were
silent, clever publishers started movie magazines that explained the action to the viewers,
and later also published film synopses, and even plays. The foreign-educated officials and
English-proficient students who worked on these magazines and scripts thus had a splen-
did opportunity to learn some of the tricks of the art of fiction of a type strictly geared,
again, to popular entertainment. One such group of new graduates who sharpened their
quills and skills on film scripts went on to launch an avant-garde magazine, Supharpburut
(Gentleman), as a middle-class counterpart of the aristocratic Stealing knowledge

. This
group, led by Seeboorapha, was to be a major creative force both in journalism and in
fiction in the 1930s, 1940s and well into the 1950s.
Meanwhile, Thai writers were trying their hands at the new medium. The future Rama VI
came up with a Sherlock Holmes type of whodunit

which was serialised between 1904

and 1907. In the early 1920s, by then a king, he wrote what is considered to be a rare
example of a protonovel.

Around that time, after the first tide of sentimental romances, the scope of foreign novels
in translation broadened to include historical novels, detective stories (more Sherlock
Holmes, some Arsne Lupin), humour (Jerome K Jerome, WW Jakobs), adventure stories
and tales of family problems.
Literary experts find it nearly impossible to determine whether the novels published in
Thai during the first two decades of the 20th century were genuine creations, mere
transpositions of foreign novels, or, more perversely, Thai stories transplanted in some
corner of Europe or China to cash in on the vogue of western novels and Chinese epics.
Nevertheless, it is accepted that Thai novels with Thai characters in Thai settings finally
surfaced in the early 1920s. The first two most popular Thai novels, serialised in 1923-24,
were detective stories

; there was also a marginal production of cloak-and-dagger yarns

and the start of humorous series la Jerome; yet the bulk of the works were prince-meets-
pauper pulps in which a last-minute revelation secured a happy ending. By then, the first
professional writers had been born, usually journalists-essayists who also wrote fiction, but
theirs was a hardy lot.
When, in their fictional world of the mid-1920s, Wisoot told Maria that there were very
few Thai novels in his country, he was indeed well informed. Wisoot was determined to
return to write a new type of novel that *would+ be the best in Siam and he did just
that. Or rather, his creator did.

The birth of the novel

Mattanee Moatdarra Ratnin, op cit

The tale of Thong In (Nitharn Thong In), under the pen name Nai Kaeo Nai Khwan

The heart of a young man (Huajai Chai Num), under the pen name Rarmjitti. It consists of eighteen
letters written by a young man who has just returned from England, to a friend still there, and is
remarkable for its denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages.

Black Satin (Phrae Dam) and Ghost face (Na Phee), by Luang Sarrarnuphraphan, born Nuan Pajinphayak.
They were serialised in Seina Sueksa Lae Phae Witthayarsart, the journal of the Department of Military
Education, which is still being published.

It took a 24-year-old aristocrat just returned from Paradise (Europe and the USA) to bring
the Thai novel to life. The year was 1929, and the young man was Morm Jao Arkartdam-
keung Rapheephat. He basked in controversial glory for a year or so, then ran away from
gambling debts and soon took his own life.
The circus of life (Lakhorn Haeng Cheewit) tells the story of a poor, unloved Thai aristocrat
who goes abroad to study law only to fall in love with a white woman. He becomes a
journalist, criss-crosses Europe and the United States and returns home broke and broken-
hearted. It was an immediate, scandalous success. The 2 000 copies of the first, luxurious
edition, each priced at a very steep B3.5, were sold within months, and a cheaper but still
very expensive (B2) edition of another 2 000 copies sold almost as fast. These figures show
how wide the Siamese readership had become by the late 1920s. Since then, the novel has
been reprinted dozens of times and has sold more than a hundred thousand copies.
The scandal, and main reason for the books success, was that, in a work which drew no
visible line between fiction and autobiography, a young aristocrat had the cheek to air dirty
family linen in public. The future dean of Thai literary criticism, Phra Ong Jao
Junlajakraphong, then a student in Cambridge, decreed: A book must be either an
autobiography or a novel. It cannot be both!

Another factor was that here, at last, was a novel written by a Thai about the world at
large. To every official who had ever studied abroad, to every student about to go, to all the
readers who had been fed with western fiction and wanted to know more, reading it was a
must. For several generations, going to England, France, Switzerland or more recently the
United States had been a pilgrimage to the promised land for the crust of the Siamese elite;
and here was a little prince who had gone everywhere. Although not an expressly political
work, the novel denounced the evils of polygamy, arranged marriage and interracial
marriage. These were sensitive issues of the time Jularlongkorn, who had died in 1910,
was the last polygamous king, and monogamy was the name of the game at the court of
the new king, Wachirarwut.
Sixty-five years later, the quality of the novel lies in its classic craftsmanship: twenty-four
chapters of equal length, each subdivided into three or four sections, with skilfully dosed
narrative, description and dialogue (as if young Arkart had subscribed to some mail-order
course on how to write a publishable novel); in its lively tone, at once elegiac (overly
romantic to some

) and enchantingly naive, to the point of unselfconsciously carrying

some of the racial prejudices of the time; in the full-blooded life of its characters, given
equal treatment, whether they are foreign or Thai; in its modern themes of alienation,
absurdity and injustice in life; and in its language, which is astonishingly modern, simple
and direct, although conservative critics to whom the only decent prose is the flowery

This bit of nonsense triggered a fierce response from Morm Jao Arkart, which led to more ukase from the
royal student, and the exchange marks the start of the perennial hostility between authors and critics in
Thailand. This has contributed to the tameness of literary criticism and generally to low literary standards
in the land.

Mattanee Moatdarra Ratnin, op cit

courtly style consider it nondescript

and dismiss its awkward English-Thai


Also in 1929, another important Thai novelist, aristocratic Dorkmai Sot, published her
first two novels, and yet another future prominent writer, commoner journalist Seeboo-
rapha, penned two as well after four in a row the year before. One of the two, A real man
(Look Phoochai), won high marks from Thai critics. As pioneers of Siams modern fiction, the
three have always been given equal credit and their first novels professed to be of equal
merit, but it took several more novels before either the princess or the journalist came to
literary maturity and produced works as accomplished as young Arkarts first.
Meanwhile, stupendous changes took place in the socio-political environment when, in
1932, a bloodless coup turned the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one (see below).
The fantastic take-off of the Siamese economy since 1850 had been predicated on a colossal
development of the bureaucracy, which counted 12 000 salaried employees in 1892 and four
times that many only thirteen years later. By 1910, the Ministry of the Interior had no fewer
than 15 000 employees.

The modernisation set in motion by Mongkut in the mid 19th

century and hastened by Jularlongkorn at the end of the century thoroughly upgraded the
country, crisscrossing it with canals, roads and railways

, strengthening and diversifying

its administrative system and urbanising its elite, but it unwittingly fostered serious
political challenges to the monarchy.
The intensive recruitment of smart young men as junior civil servants went beyond the
needs of the administration. The lower ranks of the bureaucracy did not participate in de-
cisions and became frustrated. When the Great Depression set in, drastic austerity
measures were taken, and the meritocracy was at the receiving end.

Pressure for
democratic change built up. Already, in 1887, some officers had petitioned Jularlongkorn
for a parliamentary constitution. The king said this was premature and dismissed the
troublemakers. By 1930, Pracharthipok, Rama VII, was not opposed to finding a new
power balance, but he was overtaken by events. On 24 June 1932, a coalition of foreign-
educated civilian and military reformers led by Preedee Phanom-yong [Pridi Banomyong]
overthrew him and he abdicated three years later.

In the darkness before dawn...

Bunluea Theipphayasuwan, The turning point<, op cit

Mattanee Moatdarra Ratnin, op cit

The first census carried that year in Siam showed a total of 8.3 million inhabitants, double the estimated
number of twenty years before.

In 1895, the first railway line joined Bangkok to Ayutthaya and was extended to Kho-rart [Korat,
Nakhon Ratchasima] and to Chiangmai by 1921. The southern line joined Bangkok to Phetburee
[Phetchaburi] in 1903 and reached the Malay border in 1918. The eastern line was built in 1905 and
reached the Cambodian border in 1926. Cited by Wipha Seinanan, op cit, pp130-131.

Austerity also affected the Court, which had been profligate in its sponsoring of the arts. This, as much
as anything else, sped up the demise of classical literature.

Shortly after the failure of a counterrevolutionary revolt known as the Borworndeit Rebellion in 1933,
Pracharthipok retired to England, where he died of heart failure in 1941. His nephew Anantha Mahidon
[Mahidol], aged 10 and a student in Switzerland, was chosen in 1935 to succeed him. King Anantha,
Rama VIII, set foot upon Thai soil for the first time in Nov 1938, for a brief visit before returning to his

[Opening lines of Look ahead, vol. 2
(Lae Phai Khang Na II), 1957, by Seeboorapha+

In the darkness before dawn, before the rays of silver and gold spread across the sky, as farmers built fires in
their stoves to cook rice, preparing themselves to labour in the paddy fields in rain or shine with their com-
panion of hardship, the buffalo; as blue-collar workers got up from their mats, on which they had slept away
the exhaustion of the previous day, and packed just enough food to restore their strength so that they could
face the hard work of a new day; as peddlers and traders prepared their woven baskets and their trays to
peddle their wares along rivers and canals or in the marketplaces in order to support themselves from one day
to the next; as government employees were still asleep in their beds; and as nobles and tycoons still
slumbered blissfully in their soft and lofty four-posters a tremendous social change had also woken up and
was getting ready to manifest itself in the next hour or so. A new power which had grown in full view of the
myopic old power was coming out of hiding and preparing to crush the shaky, tottering old order to pieces. The
history of Siam was entering a new chapter and those who were writing it, in other words the scribes of human
destiny, the authors of that social change affecting mankind, were no Brahma or God or any sacred being, but
mere men.
Were one to claim that Brahma was the creator of this new chapter of history, the creator of this momentous
social change in the darkness before dawn that day, then Brahma took the form of files of army trucks full of
ammunition, and of armoured tanks bursting with offensive weapons such as cannons and light machineguns.
Starting from the barracks of the First Cavalry Regiment, which was in charge of the Kings security, helmet-
clad troops bristling with weapons were advancing with terse, tense faces to smash the old power to
As pale golden rays began to fill the sky, life itself tossed and woke up just as History was taking a new turn,
but the heirs to power and fortune were still enjoying their sleep with a bliss inherited from centuries past.
Brahma was manifesting Himself in the form of a group of soldiers, civil servants and civilians who called
themselves the Peoples Party and openly congregated inside the Anantha Samarkhom Throne Hall. All
around the Equestrian Statue, the whole contingent of Brahmas troops was out in force, together with
cannons, machineguns and tanks.
Overturn the Administration!
Take away the Kings powers!
The 28th day of June 1932 saw the birth of a revolution. When the power holders finally woke up that
morning, they found that their ancient authority had been swiftly confiscated by a group from a new class.

Soon, the civilian and military components of the new ruling elite clashed, and as early as
1938 the army strongman, Field Marshal Plaek Phiboonsongkhrarm

, gained the upper

hand. Marshal P, as the Thai call him, ruled throughout the war years. Three years after
the Japanese had left the kingdom, he was back in power, and insisted on renaming the
country Thailand. Marshal P befriended the Americans, who were later to bankroll
successive Thai military dictators in the name of anticommunism. (They continued to do so
until 1975 when, having lost their war in Indochina, they withdrew lock, stock and pork
barrel from a country they had mightily contributed to modernise and westernize.)

The pioneers

The 1932 advent of a new elite made up of commoners meant the demise of the old
aristocratic power holders. The uneasy relationship between the two nurtured much of the
literature over the next quarter of a century and beyond. Indeed, Bunlueas Thutiyawiseit,
published in 1968, focuses on this very topic with an impish yet tender look at the past.

The name translates as Weird Mighty Warrior. Actually, Phiboonsongkhrarm is an assumed name. He
was born Plaek Kheetasangkha.
The first ten outstanding novelists on our list, the pioneers of the Thai novel, were all of
the same generation: all were born between 1905 and 1920, before or during the First World
War, which was of only marginal importance to the kingdom of Siam. They came of
creative age at approximately the same time, with the exception of Bunluea and Utsana
Phleungtham, who were late bloomers. Six of them were born aristocrats (Morm Jao
Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat, Morm Rarchawong Khuekrit Prarmoat, and half-sisters
Dorkmai Sot and Bunluea, who were morm luang) or children of the recent nobility (K
Surangkhanang and Thanorm Maha-paoraya). The other four were commoners and
journalists to boot. As journalists, they were sensitive to social and political developments,
and fitted in the lower ranks of the new elite. Arkartdamkeungs Wisoot, the narrator and
hero of The circus of life, though a petty aristocrat (a mere na Ayutthaya), was also a journa-
list. In those days, fiction and journalism did walk hand in hand.
The eleven outstanding novels these ten authors published have different social
backdrops, but it is only among those that were written after the war that we find works
playing up social and political differences among the aristocracy and the new elite. Yet,
Arkartdamkeungs Circus of life warned that all was not well among aristocrats, that ferments
of discontent were in the air, that a change of values, standards and behaviour was needed
(his second novel makes these points more clearly). Had he lived, the little prince probably
would have sided at least initially with the new masters, the self-proclaimed
representatives of the people.
Of the next four novels of note three were all published in 1937, and the fourth, Thanorm
Maha-paorayas An elephant named Maliwan (Phlai Maliwan) was serialised during the Second
World War, in 1942. All four share the same mix of romantic themes and realism, the same
search for the noble values of life, for moral rules, and all involve characters taken from the
aristocracy. In those times of uncertainty and sudden upheaval, there was a need for
defining common, lasting values.
Dorkmai Sots Person of quality is set among the aristocracy in the not-too-distant past.
The orphaned daughter of a bankrupt nobleman shows herself a true phoo dee or person of
quality by obeying her father and ensuring almost single-handed the welfare of her
household by dint of personal sacrifice. Although nothing in the story allows the reader to
guess that a revolution had taken place five years before the book came out, A person of
quality is clearly a quest for a new legitimacy for the founding values of the aristocracy, an
attempt to perpetuate nobility by defining its essence, i.e. nobility of character as if the
author were saying: Times have changed, but see how good and grand we were: you
should imitate us. This ties in well with the other dimension of the novel its constant
reiteration of Buddhist values, which bind rulers and ruled in this land and are the most
obvious badge of Thai-ness. At the same time, the acts of the heroine, who deliberately
flaunts cumbersome conventions, suggest a lesson for the aristocracy itself: adapt to the

to survive in essence if not in privilege, and rewards will follow. Sunshine will
follow the rain. This piece of cheap and shallow wisdom on the last page is a most
felicitous ending, perfectly in tune with plebeian times. This and most other novels by
Dorkmai Sot have inspired generations of women novelists of lesser talent who have

Adapt to survive has always been the cardinal rule of the land, one of the basic tenets of a pliant
people used to kreingjai defer to and humour the powerful.
stuck to the same aristocratic themes, which have become less and less relevant as time has
gone on, thus accounting for most of the stereotypical, escapist popular fiction that flooded
the market well into the 1970s.
With The woman of easy virtue (Ying Khon Chua), K Surangkhanang is also presenting her
person of quality, but from the other side of the palace fence, as it were. Her prostitute
heroine, a one-time-foolish, forever guilt-ridden provincial lass, has aristocrats among her
clients, and a wealthy, low-ranking nobleman as lover and father of her child. Utterly
conscious of her destitution, she sacrifices herself for the welfare of those she loves her
lover and their child. The authors standpoint is akin to that of Dorkmai Sot in its defence
of self-sacrifice, honesty and other beautiful moral values, but different in that she focuses
on the hypocrisy of society as a whole, aristocrats and commoners alike, a society which
passes judgments based on appearances and doesnt give the virtuous a chance whatever
Dorkmai Sot may preach. (In this, K Surangkhanang is the literary ancestor of Chart
Korpjitti, who will make the same point most forcefully in The judgment some thirty-five
years later.) The book also puts paid to the common misconception that prostitution in
Thighland was started by the US advisors and Vietnam-weary GIs on R&R

. They merely
blew the age-old pastime into mass-market size, giving it an arguably more humane
dimension than the Dickensian teahouses, vice dens and other brothels that catered to such
needs before them. Of course, in keeping with the morality of the times, this expos of
moral degradation and dignity is positively Victorian. Christian nuns and priests taught
the elite, Buddhist monks were responsible for teaching the masses, and the 1932 coup
leaders brought back hefty doses of bourgeois morality from Europe. In such a context,
writing a novel on prostitution was sulphurous enough, and an even remotely erotic
treatment was out of the question. Ironically, the novel was saved by its edifying value,
since it could be used as a warning to girls of itchy crotch.
Thanorm Maha-paorayas Elephant named Maliwan, like A person of quality, takes place in
aristocratic times, although away from the Court. This love triangle with a twist involves a
drunken nobleman who befriends an elephant whose jealousy will cost both of them
dearly. The two main male characters are princes with golden hearts. The provincial
governor is the archetype of the upright, efficient and compassionate administrator we find
in several novels of the period: the ambassador in Washington in The circus of life; the duke
and interior minister in A person of quality; and the provincial governor in Marlai
Choophinits Field of the great (Thung Maharrat). Thanorms tale is for the most part light-
hearted, even humorous, but the finale is tense and sorrowful. Again, the main emphasis is
on sacrifice in the name of love. So here are three aristocratic authors sharing the theme of
sacrifice as a redemptive value. Sacrifice is indeed part of the panoply of the well-born,
who are supposed to compensate for (if not expiate) their privilege by going out of their
way to be kindly to the lesser born.
Commoner Seeboorapha, on the other hand, rams this noble value down aristocratic
throats with Behind the picture (Khang Lang Pharp). The story behind the picture is that of a
young, ambitious Thai student in Japan whose infatuation with a not-so-young yet very
attractive visiting Thai princess fades with time. Her forbidden, unspoken love for him,
however, leads her to her death. Again, the princess, true to form, sacrifices herself for the

Rest and recreation; leave of absence for the members of the US armed forces.
man she loves, for his career, for his future wife, wealth and happiness. She is the aris-
tocratic sister of the woman of easy virtue, socially antithetical and yet morally alike. The
reader feels for the princess more than for the callow young man but, insofar as both are
representative of their respective milieu the aristocracy and the rising middle class
Behind the picture is a transparent allegory of Thai society. The princess is a fragile plant
grown under glass and stunted by the antiquated rules of property of the old order; she
belongs to the past and her future is doomed. The future belongs to the young man,
impetuous, callous and materialistic as he is. This commoner has no qualms about loving a
princess; he does not feel constrained by conventions. Of course, this social message is not
the focus of the novel, which is both a romantic and exotic tale of unrequited love
smothered by social conventions and a novel of self-discovery for the young man, who
outgrows his puppy love for the tangible if prosaic rewards of a life of labour and material
comfort strict bourgeois fare.

Three out of the four outstanding novels of the next period, all published in 1951-53, are
much more concerned with the tug-of-war between aristocrats and commoners. Prince
Khuekrit Prarmoats Four reigns (See Phaendin) is as forceful a defence and illustration of the
splendour and charm of aristocracy as Seinee Saowaphongs two classics Wanlayas love
(Khwarmrak Khong Wanlaya) and Ghosts (Peesart) are a denunciation of the old aristocratic
order and a celebration of the new elite. What had been an uneasy cohabitation in the 1930s
had indeed turned into near confrontation in the 1950s, with the new perception that the
current power holders had merely substituted themselves for the nobility at the top of the
old order.
By then, fifteen years had elapsed and many things had happened. In 1938, the military
gained the upper hand in running the state, in the person of Field Marshal Plaek, though
the civilian faction among the reformists was still very much in the picture. As the Second
World War spread from Europe to Asia, Thailand sided with the Axis powers, which
allowed Japan to invite herself into the country on 6 December 1941 with 50 000 and soon
150 000 soldiers. The Thai leaders put a brave face on the occupation, Prime Minister Plaek
deciding rightly that the nation was no match to the Japanese army and that the best
policy was to grin and bear it. Yet, Preedee Phanom-yong and other leaders of the anti-
Japanese resistance still sat in the government and went about making life difficult for the
gatecrashers. Literary activities slowed down considerably, not just for the lack of printing
material. Because of war-time restrictions and government censorship, even before the
Allies started to bomb Bangkok, many writers put themselves out to pasture in distant
corners of the land.
In 1942, as part of sweeping reforms to galvanise the nation and bring her to modern
standards of civilisation, which included such ludicrous edicts as requiring women to
wear hats during visits to government ministries and every man to kiss his wife before
leaving for work in the morning, Marshal P ordered a thorough revision of the Thai
language to simplify spelling and normalise the use of personal pronouns. Though they
did put up with it for the duration, it was too revolutionary a move for people to accept.
Yet the thinking behind it was sound: the idea was to speed up alphabetisation and foster
equality through language.
In Thai, unlike words derived from the Chinese, which are monosyllabic and tonal and
are written as they are spoken, words derived from Pali or Sanskrit are almost never spelt
as they are pronounced

, making the learning of the Thai language a strenuous exercise.

Thai pronouns carry notions of superiority and inferiority in status, gender, age,
knowledge, power, etc. Instead of the I-you pair in the English language which, in
theory, gives prince and pauper equal say, and which is now normalised in Thai as phom-
khun for men and (di)chan-khun for women, a Thai speaker has a wide array of personal
pronouns and substitute nouns which imply superiority or inferiority, familiarity or distance,
respect, indifference or disdain, etc, and automatically define the social status (or
sentimental state) of the speaker and, by inference, of the listener. The Thai constantly play
on them, unconsciously or deliberately, to express all manner of feelings, subtly praise or
insult, curry favour or keep aloof, but the system is anything but egalitarian. In fact, by its
very nature, the Thai language not only reflects but also perpetuates relations of inequality
and, as such, is a major obstacle to democracy, which implies personal relations on an
equal footing, at least in principle. But when Marshal Ps linguistic samurai

trimmed down
this marvellous maze to five personal pronouns

, cancelled useless letters of the

alphabet, sprinkled vowels all over the place and chopped off mute syllables, the reform
was universally perceived as an intolerable assault on national culture, as a rape of the Thai
soul. The experiment, started in 1942, was discontinued almost as soon as the mad hatter
was out of power (July 1944), yet those few books that were printed during that period did
bear all the stigmas that Thai readers now find so plaek weui so weird indeed.
Nevertheless, Marshal Ps activism has had lasting effects on the way people dress, eat and
greet one another.

Far greater changes were in the offing, however. The difficulties experienced by Bangkok
residents during the war, though less terrible than in war-torn Europe, led to a breakdown
in the tradition of solidarity. While selfishness made inroads among the needy, war
profiteers became filthy rich. Lawlessness and violence were on the rise. The Thai military
was a pathetic joke, and some Free Thai patriots were having a field day as vigilantes. In
those days of Thai hyper nationalism, Thai-Chinese tension was running high in the
capital. For one year before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 and for a couple of
years afterward, the government hardly functioned. One wing was trying to placate
London, which wanted to make Thailand pay for siding with Japan during the war, the
other curried favour with Washington, which had its own Cold War calendar, and no one
ran the country.

For example, wannakam, literature, is actually spelt vrrnkrrm; sinlapa, art, silp; thammasart,
jurisprudence, law or science of morals and ethics, trrmsastr, with two types of s into the bargain; etc.

Led by a jingoistic, ultranationalist ideologue, Luang Wijit Wa-thakarn [Vichit Vathakan], author of numerous
short stories, novels and plays.

Chan (I), theu (equivalent to the French tu), tharn (equivalent to the French vous), khao (he, she,
they) and rao (we).

Marshal P fathered such age-old Thai traditions as the sawatdee greeting, the Khrap Khrap and Kha
Kha graces of polite speech, the ramwong as Thai national dance, the celebration of the New Year on 1

January, the playing of the national anthem twice a day for all to stand still and of the royal anthem at the
beginning of public shows, etc.
And then, the unthinkable happened: on the morning of 9 June 1946, young King
Anantha, who had come back from Switzerland seven months earlier and was about to
return there, was found in his palace bedroom with blood still oozing from a wound in his
forehead, a Colt .45 automatic pistol by his side

. Suicide? Murder? The death was never

convincingly explained. On the night of the same day, his brother, Phumiphon Adunliadeit
[Bhumibol Adulyadej] the current sovereign was proclaimed King Rama IX. Born in the
United States and a student of engineering, he was 18. On 14 August, he left for
Switzerland, to undertake law studies in Lausanne. He would return to Thailand for good
in February 1950.
Dr Preedee, who was prime minister at the time of Ananthas death, resigned immediately,
and vicious rumours orchestrated by some royalist circles accused him of being responsible
for the kings death a damning lie he could never disprove. When a military coup brought
Marshal P back to power in 1947, more as a figurehead this time than as a real leader, Dr
Preedee fled abroad and, after a last, bloody and botched countercoup in February 1949,
went into exile in Peking and then in Paris, where he died in 1983.
While Marshal P ruled in name and his two main subordinates, Army Gen Sarit Thanarat
and Police Gen Phao Seeyarnon, faced each other in a nine-year standoff, each building up
his own clientele, anticommunism became the order of the day. With Washington turning
on the tap of financial and military aid, Thailand revamped its army and became a main
instrument in the prosecution of the Cold War in Asia

Even though Phao and Sarit, locally educated upcountry folk, behaved with the
ruthlessness of old-style warlords

, especially Phao, who routinely jailed, tortured and

assassinated political opponents, there was still more than a modicum of freedom, and
repression generated its own radicalisation among the Bangkok intellectual elite. Post-war
winds blew generous socialist and revolutionary ideas from Europe, more overseas
students were coming back with new models and aspirations and to a widening gap be-
tween their hopes and abilities and the local realities they faced. Progressive forces were
elated by Mao Tse-tungs triumph in China, and buoyed by the examples of the newly
independent states and struggling liberation movements of Southeast Asia. The communist
movement made its appearance and radical thinkers such as Jit Phoomisak and Asanee
Phonlajan began to reassess history and denounce Thailands feudal past and its modern
legacy. In literary circles, the notion of social commitment gained ground and led to a
schism between the proponents of art for lifes sake and the defenders of art for arts
sake. This literary polarization, which reflected the political polarisation of the Cold War
era, was to poison the world of letters for three decades, here as in so many other
developing countries, by pushing works of art into extreme positions that were im-

The Balancing Act, A history of modern Thailand, Joseph J Wright Jr, Asia Books, Bangkok, 1991 an
excellent introduction to Thai politics. Wright adds: The official announcement given that afternoon
explained that the king had apparently shot himself by accident while examining the souvenir pistol. Two
years afterwards, three of the kings attendants were arrested and charged with complicity in his death.
For six years they were kept in solitary confinement and in chains, while a trial of sorts dragged on.
During this time they were acquitted, retried and finally found guilty. They were executed in 1954.

Benedict ROG Anderson & Rujeera *Ruchira+ Mendiones, In the mirror, Literature and politics in the
American era, Duangkamon, Bangkok, 1985. An excellent anthology of short stories of that period.

poverishing. For the progressive wing of writers, artists were duty-bound not only to
reflect in their work the realities of the time but to denounce their evil ways and the reasons
for them and, while they were at it, offer ways to correct them. Thus, it should come as no
surprise that most of them

ended up writing political pamphlets rather than novels,

marred by heavy dogma, black-and-white characters, entire chapters of theorizing and
many other capital literary crimes. Writers who did not share such an activist viewpoint
tended to ignore social issues and concentrate on their own navels, without the talent
required to turn them into credible microcosms; or else they turned to the escapist yarns of
popular literature (which also came in handy for radical writers in the late 1950s when
intellectual terror forced them to mend their ways).
The flag-bearer of the progressive novelists of the 1950s is Seinee Saowaphong, the alias
of Sakchai Bamrungphong, who penned Wanlayas love and Ghosts in quick succession. But
this is a historical distortion: his novels had relatively little impact in their time; they were
resurrected and taken as models some twenty years later by the next wave of even more
dedicated activists. (Of much greater ideological and literary impact at the time were the
novels of Seeboorapha, even though they suffered from serious literary shortcomings.)
The titles of both books are misleading: the first is not a romance; the second, not a horror
story. Wanlayas love is an intellectual novel discussing the new, iconoclastic ideas that
thrilled progressive circles in post-war Paris. Ghosts focuses on the rise of a new generation
of socially committed Thai youngsters who side with the underprivileged to help them fight
exploitation. Typically, the story comes to a climax with a confrontation between the hero
and the heroines father, an old aristocrat, followed by the heroines defection from her
gilded world to put herself at the service of the people Wanlayas mission, too. After all
this time, the aristocracy was still being fingered as the enemy, as an emblem of the
dominant old order.
Technically, both novels are innovative in their swift use of cinematographic techniques,
as the narrative hops from one scene to the next, from one set of characters to the next. All
the characters are interrelated at one point or another in the story. For all its Paris setting,
Wanlayas love is not an exotic novel: it is the first truly cosmopolitan Thai novel, in which
foreign characters are as organic and important as the Thai ones narrator included and
on a par with them (unlike in The circus of life, where all characters are seen through the
eyes of the narrator and subordinated to him). And yet, all the intellectual issues debated or
illustrated in the novel refer to Thai realities. Compared with their predecessors in The
circus of life, the elite world of Thai students abroad depicted here has come a long way.
Whereas Wisoots discontent was passive and predicated on his own unhappy disposition
and sense of victimisation, Wanlaya and her friends are more radical, more socially
committed, out of optimism and trust in human nature as much as out of their sense of
outrage over social inequities.
Ghosts, on the other hand, is set entirely in Thailand among Thai characters, and contrasts
three different worlds: the world of the past elite (the old aristocrats house); the world of
modernity, peopled by a new middle-class elite (bank and law offices); and the world of

The Seerat Satharpanawats, Itsara Amantakuns, Nimitmongkhons, Seebooraphas, Suwat

Worradiloks or Sot Kooramaro-hits who were beating the lets-help-our-fellow-sufferer drums most
the rice farmers the idea being that the second must forsake the first and ally itself with
the third.
Although not all of his characters are commoners, the author takes pains to present his
heroes as ordinary people, modern-time antiheroes that should, however, be taken as
models. In both novels, the main theme is the need for the educated with a social
conscience to put themselves, their knowledge and their talents at the service of the
exploited Seinee is merely suggesting commitment and action at grassroots level, not
recommending seizure of state power, as a later generation of activists would. Ironically,
what saves these two novels from turning into leftist pamphlets, especially the first, is
probably the authors self-confessed fear of repression, which made him hold back and
keep the dialogue short. Given the grandiloquence and posturing of the hero of Ghosts as
he confronts a tableful of aristocrats, such self-imposed understating is definitely a blessing
in disguise.
At the same time as Seinee Saowaphong was writing his best novels, Khuekrit
Prarmoats Four reigns was being serialised. This long novel, published in two or four vol-
umes, is a tour de force, not only because it was penned day by day for instant publication
and still remained coherent and taut, but also because it managed to present half a century
of history in easy and vivid terms and in such a light as to glamorise royalty and discreetly
undermine the new champions of democracy.
The author is a fierce upholder of the graces of aristocratic Siam and a prominent politician
in his own right, and his paean to royalty was no doubt partly written to revive a glorious past
and restore faith in the much-shaken royal institution. Ever since Pracharthipoks
abdication, Siam-turned-Thailand had had to make do with regents and mostly absent,
underage kings, and the death of King Anantha had traumatised the nation, striking as it
did at the very heart of the Thai soul. During his first tenure as Leader, as he liked to be
called, Field Marshal Plaek had postured as a surrogate king and there were questions
about his real intentions regarding the throne. Back to Thailand in 1950, King Phumiphon
was still very young, untried and, for all his popularity, had yet to find enough elbow room
to assert himself. It was only after Gen Sarit Thanarat seized power in 1957-58 and exalted
the throne to consolidate his own position that the king began to acquire the authority,
prestige and influence he has been enjoying (and using so judiciously) ever since.
Khuekrits master stroke was to present a historical panorama in romance-like terms and
in such an idealised way as to nurture nostalgia for the power and glory of the old order.
Half a century of royal splendour and sorrow, from the golden age of the Jakkree dynasty
in the closing years of the 19th century to the death of King Anantha in 1946, are revived
through the life of the heroine, Phloy, who embodies all the qualities of the 19th century
person of quality, devoting herself wholeheartedly to king, husband, children, relatives
and friends in that order of priority. Nothing in the technique of the novel is new; the
story unfolds in chronological order around a small nucleus of characters which expands
as time passes. The narrative develops into a family saga which allows the author to
highlight some of the main transformations that have taken place in Thai society in the last
few decades, from the 1932 betrayal to wartime profiteering. Through Phloys eyes, we
are treated not to high-level politics but to the light-hearted chronicle of daily life at the
palace and among the gentry, in a way which is immediately accessible to the majority of
Thai. What makes the novel outstanding is its very scope, its realism, the credibility and
full-bloodedness of its characters, each a recognizable human type, and its witty and easy
Written during the same period, The field of the great (Thung Maharrart) another
misleading title! by Marlai Choophinit is not concerned with the old ordernew order
tug-of-war at least, not directly. The novel is the chronicle of an upcountry district of
central Siam seen through the rise of a local leader at the turn of the century. To the author,
it is a way of depicting his birthplace and rekindling childhood memories, but it is much
more than that: an at once realistic and elegiac social fresco spanning thirty years, a
convincing example of nation-building, an ode to human endeavour and wilfulness, and
the exaltation of a commoner rewarded with a title of nobility in those monarchic times.
Unlike his friend and fellow journalist and novelist Seeboorapha, whose radicalisation
and commitment to principles landed him in jail and finally forced him into exile in China,
Marlai Choophinit was not averse to working within the system and, pretty much like the
hero of his masterful novel, he died (albeit at a much earlier age) in honour. A consummate
stylist, Marlai, in this novel, stalks way ahead of the corny rural sagas that, by then, had
become part of the popular fare. Some of the very first Thai novels in the 1920s had rural
backgrounds, but they hardly went beyond the Robin Hood or Black Tulip models. Mai
Mueang Deurm and Manat Jan-yong, the latter better known for his short stories, wrote
fairly decent cloak-and-dagger or Romeo-and-Juliet type of novels set in the boondocks
and, with the enormous and unfinished Raya, which takes place during the Second World
War, Sot Kuramaro-hit finally found his style away from his euphuist beginnings (which
many Thai readers praise sky-high!), but none had even the beginning of psychological
finesse and dramatic sense Marlai displays in his bourgeois tableau, The field of the great.

Four reigns and The field of the great were written by mature authors, as were Thutiyawiseit
and The story of Jan Darra (Rueang Khong Jan Darra). Whereas the first two flow in chrono-
logical order, the latter two weave in and out of the present through numerous and
sometimes lengthy flashbacks. Despite their great diversity, these four major works have
several common characteristics. They offer the same breadth of vision, the same time frame
(a lifetime, except in the case of Marlais novel), the same wide array of protagonists
around a single hero or heroine, and the same Buddhist undercurrents.
By an extraordinary literary coincidence, the aristocratic characters of the latter two
novels were drawn from the same stock of real-life people that were also the models for the
characters of A person of quality: the extended family and domesticity of the two writing
half-sisters Dorkmai Sot and Bunluea, who shared with their famously fertile father
the compound of which the author of Jan Darra was a dedicated eavesdropping neighbour!
Three individual talents, three widely different treatments: young Dorkmai Sot twenty
years earlier had featured the manicured lawns, the polished guest rooms, the impeccable
public faade; Bunluea preferred the boudoirs, salons, galleries lined with portraits of the
ancestors, and the nitty-gritty of social gossip; as for Utsana Phleungtham, he single-min-
dedly decided to take a hard, cheeky look at the bedrooms.
Seemingly inspired by the goings-on at the Barn Mor palace of Morm Rarchawong Larn
Kunchorn, the 1965 Story of Jan Darra takes place in the expansive residence of a retired
nobleman whose carnal deportments set the tone for the whole community. The story
focuses on the sexual rivalry between His Lordship and Jan Darra, the hated son who is not
his son and who, in time, will reap revenge over his tormentor. Erotic pursuits described in
hyperbolic, neoclassical fashion are merely a pretext to create in intricate detail a self-
contained microcosm ruled by lust if not passion and by scheming self-interest. With its
skilful construction, psychological convolutions, lush prose and steamy yet inoffensive sex
scenes, not to mention its overly Buddhist moral stance, this is an exceptional novel with
hardly any equivalent in the world of literature. Of course, when it came out in weekly
instalments in the mid 1960s, it shocked many, but as it did not directly tackle political
issues if anything, it showed the nobility in shady, prurient light the powers that be
must have decided they could live with it. The book version, reprinted every ten years or
so, has been sold under cellophane ever since, a cult novel if ever there was one in Thai
With Bunluea s Thutiyawiseit, published in 1968, we are back to the conflict between
the old aristocracy and the new power holders, or rather to its aftermath. By then, the nobi-
lity had abandoned any aspiration to power, which was held by military clique after
military clique co-opting or suppressing all potential rivals. By depicting the life of the wife
of a military strongman modelled on both Marshal P and Marshal Sarit Bunluea
analyses with deadly accuracy the stuffy world of high society and provides a scathing
picture of life in the corridors of power. She goes beyond particular cases to reveal the
mechanisms that make the upper strata of Thai society behave the way they do, to the
bafflement of outsiders. To the author, for all their lofty goals, the gang of commoners who
took over in 1932 did not change anything much; instead, the exercise of power changed
them and made them conform to the authoritarian patterns of yore, down to allowing
courtly etiquette to be revived. Ideology, political programmes dont count; what counts is,
under the imperative veneer of social conventions, the survival of the toughest, in a constant
clash of cliques and fluid feud of vested interests. Power corrupts and alienates; societal
pressure condemns leaders to behave as feudal lords and enjoy all the trappings of high
position as long as they remain on top. Indirectly, yet perhaps not unwittingly, Bunluea
the aristocrat, Bunluea the free-thinking academic, added grist to the mill of those
radicals who were denouncing Thai society as semi feudal and demanding a form of
government in which leaders would be accountable to the people but thats another story,
or rather, thats history about to unfold: the overthrow of military dictatorship and short-
lived attempt at grassroots democracy are only five years down the road. Though clear, the
political message is unobtrusive: by focusing on the wife rather than the husband, the
author keeps politics in the background and dwells instead on the comedy of manners of
the elite, as counterpoint to the psychological dilemmas and quest for authenticity of the
heroine. Cha-orn, like Phloi in Four reigns, understands little or nothing of politics,
although, unlike Phloi, she tries to as she is very much at the receiving end of it. She is
trapped in her unquestioning love for her husband and the demands of her position as wife
of a powerful man. She belatedly realises that she has led a charmed life out of self-
deception compounded by social hypocrisy, and she recovers her equanimity by eschew-
ing the world of make believe that has seen her social triumph but by then she is but a
sidelined widow.
The moral of the story is unobjectionable. Even though the novel throws the whole Thai
political process in poor light, and at one point one of its most congenial characters specu-
lates on how long it will take for military leaders to go back to the barracks they should
never have left, readers of the time saw in it first of all a charge against the former military
dictators. The new strongman, Field Marshal Thanorm Kittikhajorn, was trying to offer a
more humane profile and broaden his powerbase. This, and the moral authority of the
author, ensured the safety of the novel, which only had passing success and was soon out
of print anyway.

The lost generation

Thutiyawiseit and The story of Jan Darra were to be the last gems of the pioneer generation,
and the only outstanding novels in the three decades that separate Ghosts (1953) from The
judgment (1981), which is the first of nine top contemporary novels on our list, written by
eight authors all born in the fifteen years following the Second World War (1944-58).
Indeed, between 1920 and 1944, a whole generation of novelists went missing. This is not
to say that no novelists were born during that period, but none were able to produce first-
rate works and neither were the confirmed writers of the previous generation.
Why was this so?
Quite plainly, it was because of the climate of intellectual terror instituted by military
strongmen throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The post-1920 generation came of creative age
during what the Thai now call the dark ages, when the intimidation and elimination of
political opponents practised by Pol Gen Phao were outdone by the blanket political
repression instituted, as of 1958, by Marshal Sarit, who turned his back on democracy,
abolished Parliament and instituted an autocratic regime with himself as prime minister. For
good measure, progressive intellectuals and other political dissidents were jailed,
newspapers closed down and books burned. For the next sixteen years, the age-old
patronage system, which had been somewhat weakened or at least atomised by parlia-
mentary democracy, flourished anew, and martial law and martial order reigned. While
political and intellectual development was set back for a generation, the economy
expanded. More rice was produced and exported; large chunks of forest were decimated
and replaced by farmland, and the military began siphoning off public funds from the
banking and manufacturing sectors, while American and Japanese interests took a com-
manding hold on much of the rest. As the population expanded, the gap in income
between the countryside and Bangkok widened. By the mid 1960s, disgruntled peasants in
the impoverished Northeast joined the ranks of the outlawed Communist Party of
Thailand and took up arms against the tyrants in Bangkok. The first armed clashes between
government troops and insurgents

led the military to step up repression. Myriad US

advisors flocked in. At the same time, a massive US military build-up turned the kingdom
into a huge aircraft carrier for the Indochina war next door as well as a permissive
playground for weary GIs.

The first armed clash between government troops and CPT insurgents occurred in May 1965 in the
Sawang Daendin district of Nakhon Phanom province, in the Northeast.
In those drab-and-khaki days, writers who were not already in jail had the choice
between exile (Seeboorapha), silence, or self-censorship, the choice of the majority.
Dorkmai Sot was too sick, physically and mentally, to write any more and left her last
novel, a satire of the days of the mad hatter, unfinished. Marlai Choophinit, who had felt
strongly enough during the war to refuse to write as long as Marshal Ps abused his
language, shrugged and went back to churning out romances, war novels, wildlife tales
and other works of fiction. The diplomat Seinee Saowaphong penned a few, incredibly
lopsided and shallow exotic novels before giving up fiction for a long, long while. The
horde of lesser talents turned to adventure and love stories for the popular market, with a
few finding notoriety in naughty plots clad in titillating prose. Were it not for dear old
Bunluea and that good old sex maniac Utsana, one could say that the Thai novel died
out in the 1960s and 1970s.
By keeping creative writers away from their main lifeline the exploration and exposition
of social realities the military gave pen power to a posse of female romance writers whose
obese and bland blockbusters have accounted for a major slice of popular reading ever
since. In time, K Surangkhanang the oldest and one of the best writers of this genre
was superseded by the absolute queen of pulp, Kritsana Asoaksin

. Since her first


literary prize in 1968, Kritsana has collected the top literary national prize no less
than thirteen times, far outpacing her nearest contemporary competitor, Seefa

The intellectual damage done by the military didnt stop with their provisional demise in
1973. The decade-long monopoly on power held after Sarits death by Marshals Thanorm
Kittikhajorn and Praphart Jarusathian (and Colonel Narong Kittikhajorn, son of the former
and son-in-law of the latter) had blocked promotions within the military, spoliated the rest
of the elite and alienated much of the urban middle class. When university students in
Bangkok began to protest in favour of civil liberties and against foreign, especially Japan-
ese, domination of the economy in 1972, they found much overt and covert support. Their
movement gained momentum and finally, on 14 October 1973, after much bloodshed in the
capital, the three tyrants took the kings advice and fled the scene. They would be back.
The three years that followed were a heady, anarchic, violent and bloody intermission.
This attempt at democracy at the grassroots resulted in the fall of four governments and
ended with another bloodbath (the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in and around
Thammasart University on 6 October 1976) and a return to the dark ages. For one long
year, an extreme right-wing government pushed the country to the brink of civil war until
it, too, was removed by a less asinine junta led by General Kriangsak Chamanan. Despite a
number of coup attempts, Gen Kriangsak and his successor, Gen Preim Tinasoolarnon
[Prem Tinsulanonda], succeeded in swinging the political pendulum back to the middle
path. They restored civil liberties and fostered the fitful parliamentary democracy Thailand
now knows, which is caught between the threat of military might (i.e. the May 1992
murdering frenzy) and the all-too-real dictatorship of money lust.

Sukania Chonlasuek, also known as Kanchala

The forerunner of the SEA Write Award. SEATO stands for South East Asia Treaty Organization, a US-
dominated military alliance during the Cold War.

Or Seefa Ladarwan, i.e. Morm Luang Seefa Maha-wan. Since 1985, the strongest contestant for the
title is W Winitchaikun *Vinicchayakul], the best-known pen name of Winita Dithee-yon, a lecturer of
The 1973-76 period, marked by extreme left-wing rhetoric and a surfeit of radical
activism, did not wake Thai fiction from its coma. Reality was so much wilder. The fall of
political fetters allowed an outburst of art-for-life literature in short forms: songs, poems,
short stories, cartoons, articles and pamphlets. There was no time for novels; few were pen-
ned, and none good. Instead, proselytes used surrogates: novels from the past. Student
radicals the ghosts and Wanlayas of the 1970s were too busy playing deadly games
with state power, by organizing farmers, workers and prostitutes and generally being
realistic by demanding the impossible, as their counterparts in 1968 Paris had advocated.
Rather than write their own novels, they resurrected the great old rebels of the 1950s.
Seeboorapha, Seinee Saowaphong and a few other literary corpses were given a
second lease of life in a frenzy of didactic, pirated editions which printed passages deemed
revolutionary or at least progressive in bold or italic.
The following years were traumatic for a whole generation of intellectuals. Immediately
after the 1976 Thammasart massacre, thousands of young men and women belonging to
the educated elite of the nation fled into the reluctant arms of the communists holding out
in the kingdoms jungles. An ideological debacle followed in those hills, as irreconcilable
differences between urban radicals and staunch Maoist guerrilla leaders led in some cases to
gunfight, and the quarrel between big brothers China and Vietnam played havoc with the
Thai insurgents logistics, forcing almost all dissidents to return to mainstream society,
dreams shattered, hopes crushed.
The trauma of these few years of aborted democracy and defeated revolution could not
find immediate translation into fiction, although it would, in the next decade. But by then,
the ever evolving Thai society would have other priorities, and many of the old, plus some
new, dreams and nightmares.

The baby boomers

Chart Korpjittis Judgment (Khamphipharksa), which burst onto the literary scene at the
beginning of the 1980s, is the story of a humble and upright young man wrongly accused
by fellow villagers of sleeping with his fathers widow. No matter what he does, he cant
convince them of his innocence and only finds solace in drink and liberation in death. This
powerful novel is a sombre and sardonic satire of Thai society and its blind consensual
reverence for authority. A distinct move away from the us versus them thinking which
dominated the previous decade, it pits one individual against the rest of society the crux
of modern times.
When the novel appeared in 1981, Thailand had changed significantly compared to a few
years earlier. Politically, the nation had pulled back from the brink; the left-right polari-
sation was over: the Thai were all brothers again; stability and freedom were again trying to
find a modus vivendi. Economically, the country was embarking on industrialisation,
diversifying its crops, sending its labour abroad, welcoming mass tourism and preparing to
enter the era of globalisation; rice-and-smile Thailand would be the next economic
dragon, the next NIC of East Asia.

The rape of natural resources progressed unabated,

as did rapid urbanisation and the spectacular growth of the urban middle class, which
adopted the values and ways of life of middle classes everywhere, forsaking more than a
little of its Thai identity in the process. Ideologically, everything was being rethought. A
generation of intellectuals had burned their wings trying to improve society and were
suffering from a massive existential hangover call it disenchantment, alienation, sense of
inadequacy or awareness of the absurdity of life. Those returnees from the jungle given to
introspection began to question themselves and to try to figure out where they had gone
wrong. Others transmuted their failed hopes of collective change into social action at the
grassroots, investing themselves in nongovernmental organisations, or sought influence
through established political parties that were yesterdays foes. Most just gave up and, with
bile in their mouths, went about the mundane task of earning their rice and most of those
with good education have succeeded in becoming part of todays moneyed elite. For those
who had been too young or too unconcerned to take sides, the motto was also Look out
for Number One. Such was the case of Chart Korpjitti, yet he was the one who warned
that Number One was at the mercy of others, all of the others.

The angst of a generous and impatient generation chastised by history has been more
perceptible in the short story than in the novel. Even so, not long after Chart posited the
equation of modern times the individual versus society two very different novels came
out in 1985: Time in a bottle (Weila Nai Khuat Kaeo) by Praphatsorn Seiwikun [Prabhassorn
Sevikul] and Of time and tide (Thalei Lae Karnweila) by Atsiri Thammachoat [Ussiri
Dharmachoti]. They shared the same anguish over change and the tantalising cult of the
Both are first-person accounts. The narrator of Time in a bottle is an adolescent who refuses
to grow up and accept his parents divorce, cannot get over his unrequited puppy love for
an older girl and is unable to answer the love of another. Uninspiring studies smother his
artistic aspirations, and he is unable to face the world in a mature way. He feels frustrated
and alienated by life around him, and seeks solace in memories of his childhood, when his
world was whole, problem-free and suffused with parental love. At one level, the story
reads like an allegory of Thai society, torn by conflicting ideals and harking back to the
times when it was (supposed to be) one big, happy, united family. At another, this
immature kid is the archetype of the average urban middle-class youngster confronted
with urban middle-class problems, and is singing the blues of the urbanite. Indeed, of all
twenty novels, Time in a bottle, whose very title is a reference to a foreign song, is the least
Thai. It could easily have taken place anywhere, except for the intrusion of the 1973-76
political events, which interfere greatly with the latter part of the story but, being unintelli-
gible to the narrator, are left unexplained and thus contribute to the overall climate of

Sustained high economic growth rates in the past fifteen years have taken the kingdom close to its target
and, as the cake keeps growing and everyone has a bigger share or at least hopes for a bigger morsel, no
matter how skewered the development process is, social peace is easily preserved, but the corollary of
this is that there is no telling what will happen if the cake stops growing or starts shrinking a question
for the next century?
The anonymous narrator of Of time and tide also bemoans the past. But here the similarity
ends. Arranged like an album of faded photographs, this slim volume tells with great
poetic simplicity and sensitivity the changes that have taken place over a generation within
an uprooted seaside community. This theme is explored using the parallel stories of the
narrators mother, a ship-owner who has lost everything, and a thrice-widowed young
mother-of-one whose last husband, a policeman and an outsider, is killed for betraying the
community. The melancholy reflection on the vagaries of time and tide ends on a derisive
note: the festive balloons blown over the waves by the wind celebrate the demise of the
community and portend the fate of the seaside resort that has replaced it everything,
eventually, will be gone with the wind. The Buddhist message about the transience of all
things is not lost. What also comes through these nostalgic pages is the hardships of the
little people, the curse of a community which loses its age-old complicity with nature and
cultural identity to more powerful, alienating forces of progress from outside. It is not
difficult to see parallels with the changes taking place in Thai society as a whole.

Rejection of society can take many forms. Marginality is one, fashionable in contemporary
world literature ever since the Beatnik generation. The protagonists of Mad dogs & Co (Phan
Ma Ba), by Chart Korpjitti, are all misfits from the city and from all social strata (save the
peasantry). High on booze or drugs or both, they drift from one beach to the next, in an idle
existence that takes meaning in fun, freedom and, above all, friendship. This hefty,
polyphonic, thoroughly modern novel, written in instalments for a womens magazine
before it came out as a book in 1988, cocks a snook at the peddlers of kitchen-and-couch
novels by taking an abominable bunch of gentle, honest, humble dropouts as heroes.
Despicable louts in the consensual eyes of society, these harmless souls are the very cousins
of the hero of The judgment, yet are spared his fate as they find strength and salvation in
numbers. The picaresque account of their frolics is underpinned by a more traditional
theme: the estrangement between fathers and sons, as seen through the detailed life history
of the two protagonists. As in his first novel, Chart makes us love his characters and con-
demn the prejudiced, hypocritical society that condemns them. Unlike his first novel,
which provokes chuckles and snorts of disgust, Mad dogs & Co makes us laugh at the antics
of his drunken creatures and sigh at their admirable acts of kindness.
The first volume of The white shadow (Ngao See Khao) trilogy, written by Daen-aran
Saengthong (Saneh Sangsuk) in the mid to late 1980s but only published in 1994, is a far
more powerful rejection of society. This pioneering work uses experimental and poetic
writing and is likely to serve as a model to future generations of writers. It is at once far
ahead of its time in the Thai context and very much a by-product of it. Ostensibly inspired
by the best of world literature in themes and techniques, it is a highly autobiographical
account of the life of a social rebel, a university student in search of love and understanding
through necessarily frustrating sexual and intellectual adventures. Exposing the relations of
power within couples (be they friends or lovers), exploring in great detail and forthright
language the relationship between sexuality and love, it is also a fierce, iconoclastic assault
against all the sacred cows of Thai society from the family to the Buddhist clergy, from
education to the military. In the name of what? In the name of the white shadow, the
unattainable purity and innocence the erstwhile child that man is is forever reaching for.
Vehement, immature and negative as it is at times, The white shadow reflects the views of a
growing fringe of the university-trained, foreign-influenced urban intellectual elite, fed up
with the palinodes of a schizophrenic society whose traditional values are hopelessly in-
adequate to modern realities but which is incapable of integrating the basic civic values
(rule of the law, justice, equality, sense of responsibility...) that underpin the western mores
it so eagerly adopts. If anything, this outrageous and superb novel is proclaiming that Thai
society has lost its moorings, and is a call for help.
Wa-nit Jarungkit-anans Hood of the cobra (Mae Bia), first serialised then published as a
book in 1987, also touches on the divorce between old Thai values and modern ways of life,
but is far more subtle. The story is set among the cosmopolitan, moneyed elite, a favourite
breeding ground for mainstream Thai romance. At first glance, the novel is a classic love
affair between a married man, a foreign-educated businessman from Bangkok, and a
seductive, liberated woman who owns both a travel agency in the capital and a traditional
Thai house upcountry. She spends much time in that house, which is watched over by < a
cobra. Man and woman come to share the same bed because of the cobra; the wife, a
modern-day person of quality, finds out and fights back; the cobra eliminates hero and
villains alike: all of this makes for exciting reading. Though killed at the end, the cobra is
still somehow around, and this adds to the puzzle of its symbolic significance and to the
sense of mystery of the tale. The novel also cleverly spoofs traditional romance stories. As
in many prince-meets-pauper soaps, the hero is an orphan, who owes his wealth to well-to-
do adoptive parents and to his foreign education, but what this prince is really hankering
for is the status of a pauper. His quest for identity and obsession with old things Thai is
emblematic of the countrys loss of its own cultural heritage and of the uncertain battle of a
section of the Thai intelligentsia trying to preserve and restore some values of the past to
forge a viable modern Thai identity.
Three years earlier, more reptiles had slithered into print, in a totally different
environment and with an entirely different aim. Wimon Sainimnuans Snakes (Ngoo),
published in 1984, is a daring denunciation of the abuses committed by some Buddhist
monks and illustrates how the creeping consumerism and materialism that have become
prevalent in modern Thai society have made inroads into the church. In order to ensure the
prosperity of his derelict monastery, a young abbot uses deceit to milk a credulous rural
community dry, with the help of the village chief, a power-hungry rapist who represents
the lay authority. The snake-hunting hero, who loses his wife but soon wins her sister over
the predatory village chief, does lose his battle against the gullibility of the people.
Although it deals with a highly sensitive topic, the novel was not banned or censured, due
less to a new sense of tolerance from the touchy Buddhist clergy than because it reflects
widespread concern among believers. Many among the urban middle class are shocked by
all manner of recurring scandals involving monks and want to see a return to the purity of
the doctrine, as an anchor in the money-mad ocean of modern life. The growing spiritual
and even political influence of Buddhist sects in recent years attests to this trend, and
Snakes is choice literary grist to their mill.
In the same year, the first of only two excellent metaphysical novels was published.
Nikhom Raiyawas High banks heavy logs (Taling Soong Sung Nak) was one of the most
exciting literary events of the 1980s. Unlike The path of the tiger (Thang Suea), by Sila
Khoamchai, which came out in 1989 amid general indifference, not to say collective blind-
ness, High banks was critically acclaimed.
Nikhoms and Silas novels are rare examples of successful literary works which offer
several levels of interpretation and much food for thought. Like Chart Korpjittis Judgment,
they are typical Thai tales as well as parables with universal appeal.
High banks is the moving story, set by a river in the northern hills of Thailand, of a mahout
and his elephant: raised together, man and beast are estranged for long years, and when
they are finally reunited, it is to die together. The novel is also a reflection on the alienation,
grandeur and vanity of artistic creation. The protagonist spends long years crafting a
wooden elephant in order to exchange it for the real one he has lost ownership of, only to
leave it unfinished when he realizes his beautiful creation lacks one crucial element, life.
The message is clear: the greater work of art is life itself, and our greater duty, its
protection. Furthermore, High banks is a poetic meditation on illusion and reality, on life
and death, and on mans duty on earth. The beauty of this tightly written work is its web of
simple symbols whose meaning becomes clear as the story unfolds, as engrossing at the
anecdotal level as it is thought-provoking in its implications. Although the tragic, yet
peace-inspiring vision of the world presented here is thoroughly Buddhist, the novel is
totally free of religious jargon. Non-Buddhist readers will find in it the fundamental values
of what civilisations the world over, religious or not, call wisdom.
The path of the tiger is an uncomplicated and yet remarkably complex novel, written in a
prose as luxuriant and breathtaking as the hilly jungle the story is set in. A young hunter
leaves his wife and children and enters the jungle to track a deer, only to realise he is being
stalked by a tiger. After a night of terror hiding from the tiger in a tree, he confronts the
king of the jungle and survives. He discovers that the route to survival is total self-control
and to not pose a threat to the tiger. Typical of that generation of well-meaning radicals
who had taken to the hills, the trapped young hunter comes to understand that the
situation he is in is very much of his own making, because of his own impatience and
pride. Nothing is to be gained from confrontation. The higher truth is to achieve perfect
equanimity, total stillness of the heart, in order to rise to any challenge a quintessential
Buddhist truth. Armed with it, the distraught militant can now return to mainstream
society, eyes level and heart still.

The present generation of writers are members of the middle class. They are by and large
better educated than the pioneers

, including their aristocratic forefathers. They may not all

be as well-travelled, but they have enjoyed a wider exposure to foreign fiction (thanks to
two local literary reviews in the 1977-87 period, a greater body of translations, and
generally wider direct access to foreign works in English), and as a result they write in a
more sophisticated and more intellectual way than their predecessors.
One of the greatest influences on their story telling has been the various techniques used
in film making (swift scene changes, flashbacks, crisp dialogue). This is particularly evident
and deliberate in the works of Chart Korpjitti, who writes as if he were looking at the world
through a camera lens. This style of descriptive prose is also seen in the works of
Praphatsorn Seiwikun, Nikhom Raiyawa and Wimon Sainimnuan.

The standard joke is that to be a novelist these days you need at least a masters degree.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the extreme reluctance of all these authors,
different as they are, to give any but the skimpiest physical descriptions of their characters
not unlike some of the less orthodox western novels of recent years. For all you know,
their characters are six-foot blondes with green eyes. Chinese influence? Cultural taboo?
Respect for the readers imagination? Fear of being taken for the five-baht-a-line word
processors of popular persuasion, who find in lengthy descriptions an easy way to fill the
pot? Or deliberate creation of archetypes, defined only by their thoughts, words and
actions? Hard to say.
In terms of structure, three of the nine novels (The judgment, Snakes, The hood of the cobra)
progress chronologically, three (Time in a bottle, The path of the tiger, The white shadow) break
the narrative with unobtrusive flashbacks, while the last three innovate in one way or
another: Mad dogs & Co by pegging its flashbacks to the seemingly rambling marathon
conversations of drunken friends, with just enough disregard for chronology to simulate
inebriation without getting the reader drunk, and by contrasting literary descriptions and
racy narrative with the gutter language of its dialogue; Of time and tide by revealing the
whole plot in the first three chapters and using a patchwork approach to telling the tale;
and High banks heavy logs by offering a highly sophisticated construction of flashbacks and
flashbacks within flashbacks, and introducing events and symbols whose significance only
becomes clear as the story unfolds.
All nine novels have symbolic titles and are effused with symbols. The class concerns of
the previous generation have been ejected; as predicted in Ghosts, aristocrats of all ilk have
been relegated to the museum, their concerns, likes and dislikes a thing of the past; and
sacrifice as a way of life is no longer in fashion. Social criticism at its most provocative is
either global (The judgment, The white shadow) or sectoral (Snakes: the misuse of religion; Of
time and tide: the onslaught of progress on a community); or else it is diffuse, a secondary
concern, to be read between the lines. Buddhist values, Buddhist concepts, argued or
hidden, exalted or denied, are almost a constant in all of these novels, as they were in most
of the pioneers great works. But other notions have crept in. Primacy of the individual,
world weariness, sense of alienation, distrust of pervasive materialism, nostalgia for the
past, quest for meaning in life, are the dominant themes, which reflect individual
sensitivities as much as they do the constraints and concerns of the times.

Where is the Thai novel headed?
I do not know. Talent is unpredictable and so are the twists and turns of Thai politics, as
the men in boots and the men in bow ties play strip poker with the wealth and future of the
nation: khaki cant versus greenback greed. But if I had to venture a guess, I would bet on
more white shadows, more alienation, more angst and ire, and more back-to-basic-Bud-
dhism reactions to modernity at least until such time as the nation finds its cultural
bearings in the global village it has most heartily undertaken to join and set shop in.
The dominant gale today, blowing over the Land of Smiles the mixed blessings of amoral
megabucks and Hollywoods mendacious mindlessness, is setting off healthy cultural
resistance and literary protest, just as military repression in past decades triggered political
radicalisation. In politics as in literature then as now, success is a question of degree, how-
ever. Thai writers, who have read Faulkner, Hemingway, Mailer, Salinger and Steinbeck
with profit may yet discover Bellow, Irving, Pynchon, Roth, Vonnegut and their equi-
valents in European and other literatures, and these foreign word-magicians may inspire
them to generate their own masterpieces, which would in turn serve as references and
sources of inspiration for the rest of the world. Or they may be smothered under the
worldwide tidal wave of trash that is recorded in weekly bestseller lists, if they mistake it
for the real thing, as their forefathers once genuflected to Marie Corelli. But the chances are
that they cannot escape world cultural pressures and that pliant, if proud, people that
they are they will keep on adapting to the latest international modes of expression to
make their unmistakably Thai voices heard.
What, then, is a Thai voice? The twenty novels presented in this book provide as many
different answers, and it is left to individual creators to add new definitions. Thailand and
her people are in a transitional phase in which, it seems to me, total acculturation is a
distinct possibility. The antidote to this calamity is neither in literature nor in the past: it has
to be found by Thai society as a whole, and I expect future Thai novels to reflect this search.
Paradoxically, this may take the form of self-centred microcosms rather than macroscopic
views. The circus of life and The white shadow, the first and latest Thai novels of note, have so
much in common it is troubling: both scandalous in their times (the former publicly and
gloriously so, the latter in a sly way which has its author insulted and threatened on the
phone by anonymous callers), they are written by disenchanted young men who have
taken their cues from the best of foreign literature, and they are ostensibly autobiographical
and self-centred, yet challenge dominant values and present an arresting, original vision of
the world.
For now, the future of the Thai novel, of Thai society as a cultural entity, is still open. In
the increasingly materialistic and consumer-oriented society old Siam has become, the
power of money is both a bane and a boon for literature and the novel in particular.
On the one hand, affluence and economic opportunities are siphoning off the talented
away from the craft of fiction and into less arduous careers in advertising, public relations
and other mass media sinecures. As the cost of living rises and social solidarity decreases,
more time and effort are needed to feed self and family, and it is becoming harder for the
novelist to find the quality time his labour of love demands and to fight the temptation of
commercial writing, where meaningful money lies. The mystique of success combines with
technological progress to encourage green talents to rush into print before they are ready
and to despair and look elsewhere after their first predictable failures. The market for
quality fiction is hardly expanding, and to work for it requires unfashionable discipline and
sense of sacrifice. If the only full-time novelist of Thailand, Chart Korpjitti, is doing well,
perhaps it is because he has no children to take care of and has turned his back on Bangkok
for the solitude of the backwoods. How many are prepared to do this?
On the other hand, the wealth generated by economic progress does also work for the
betterment of literature, gradually improving the literary environment through a reorienta-
tion of culture: globalisation is speeding up cultural exchanges and knowledge of foreign
languages, which for some translates into better exposure to foreign works of fiction. In
recent years, sponsors have been found for new literary awards. Literary magazines have
found new life; more will appear soon. Since the late 1970s, these outlets have not merely
helped sell books: they have opened the minds of the intellectual elite that read them and
contributed in their own ways to Thailands present exposure to international trends. This
year, cheap classics of foreign literature in English are on sale in Bangkok. Next year, a
visionary tycoon will no doubt launch a cheap paperback collection of the best Thai
literature has to offer and thus help raise the cultural level of the masses, spreading the
literary bug that is sure to beget new talented writers in due time. And then, look at us:
THAI MODERN CLASSICS, a multimillion baht undertaking spreading over several years,
would have been unthinkable only five years ago.
Barring a sudden, improbable, return to the dark ages, the present twisted economic
miracle will persist, and the post-war baby boomers will keep on producing works of note,
while the younger generations writers in their twenties and thirties who are busy right
now mastering the art of the short story will in turn bolt onto the field of the great novel
and delight us with tomorrows truthful lies of fiction. What these will be, again, I do not
What I do know, however, is that, despite tremendous odds as we have seen, the Thai
novel has long come of age, and that it is high time for it to receive the welcome it deserves
from the world beyond its language barrier. After all, this is the era of globalisation, and
globalisation works both ways.

A 2004 update

In the ten years since these lines were written, much has happened. There has been no
return to the dark ages, but a hefty step backward for the whole of society when the Thai
economic bubble burst in mid 1997. THAI MODERN CLASSICS was one of the many
casualties and had to be discontinued, after only four years of existence in which we
managed to translate eleven of the twenty novels selected, and to publish ten. (The
eleventh one is Seinee Saowaphongs Ghosts, which you will find here.) Even though I am
now working again for TMCs erstwhile financier, there is no question of resuming this
worthy project to completion, the mores the pity. Current financial strength does not allow
it, and neither does the general health of the market, where fiction is the last thing that sells.
Over the past ten years, Thailand has done without literary magazines, and makes do these
days with chat groups on the Net. Book reviews continue to be published in general-
interest or trendy magazines, writers to be interviewed, and short stories and even poem to
be published. Yet the bulk of the books on offer have nothing to do with fiction, unless you
call fiction the plethora of teenage stars probably ghost-written memoirs that readers seem
to crave these days. In a shrunken market, it has come to the point that few publishers
bother to put out literary novels if it is not the novel year of the SEA Write Award. Thus
every three years four to five dozen novels appear like mushrooms during the rainy
months, perhaps a dozen will be read and discussed in literary circles for a few weeks, and
one will be crowned and sell -- a very unhealthy state of affairs. In 1994, the award went to
Chart Korpjittis second masterpiece, Time (Weila); in 1997, to Win Liaowarins improbable
Democracy on parallel lines (Prachathippathai Bon Saen Khanarn); in 2000, to Wimon Sainim-
nuans hasty and arcane Immortal (Amata); and in 2003 to a mere string of short stories
whose title and author I forget: the slide in quality is unfortunately most telling.

Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat

Morm Jao Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat, Thailand's first outstanding novelist, was a social
misfit, a destitute aristocrat who lived in a world of his own, gambled his life away and
killed himself at the age of 26.
He was born on 12 November 1905 in Bangkok, the sixth of eleven children and the third
of six sons of Phra Ong Jao (His Royal Highness) Rapheephat Thanasak and Morm Orn. His
father, an Oxford law graduate, started in 1896 as minister of justice under Rama V at age
22 and helped write the body of Thai laws, which earned him the title of Father of Thai
Law. He became minister of agriculture in 1912. He was also a wealthy landowner, the
owner of a rice mill and several sawmills, and reared chickens in the large palace
compound at Samsein, by the Jao Phraya river, where the family lived with a host of
relatives. At one stage, he imported bicycles into Siam, and was the first to bring in a
motorcar a Mercedes-Daimler in 1904.
Prince Arkart was 13 and in his second year at Assumption School when his parents
divorced in 1918. His homely mother, Morm Orn, was discarded by her husband, who
accused her of being an inveterate gambler; Morm Orn, for her part, did not take well to her
husbands philandering he had had yet another daughter with a minor wife of sorts,
Morm Daeng. After the divorce, Morm Orn went to live on a durian plantation at Bangjark,
on the Thonburee side of the river, and only Arkart and one younger sister stayed with her.
His father, who was then 44 years old, promptly remarried the 20-year-old, pretty, smart-
looking and clever

Ra-ang Prarmoat (Khuekrit Prarmoats mothers elder sister), who

gave birth to a daughter. For all his wealth and prowess, the handsome prince developed
tuberculosis. He went to Paris for treatment and died there in August 1920.
He left most of his estate to his eldest son, who within a few years ran it into the ground
thanks to his lack of commercial sense and passion for horse racing and for gambling.
Morm Orn, like the narrators mother in The circus of life, received nothing from the Father
of the Thai Law. As for Prince Arkart, he did receive a minor share of the inheritance,
which, together with a more substantial provision left by his paternal grandfather,
eventually allowed him to finance a trip to London in pursuit of an education.
The year her husband died, Morm Orn and her two children moved back to the family
compound at Samsein, and in October Prince Arkart entered Theipsirin, a school for
children of the aristocracy. At 18, he began contributing articles and short stories he had
translated to the school magazine.
Intending to study for the bar like his father, Prince Arkart left for England, and arrived
in London on 1 September 1924. One month later, he was sent to stay with a Captain
Fraser at Queens Cottage, Bexhill-on-Sea, for coaching in English, French and history. He
returned to London in February 1925 and continued his studies under a Mr Coumbe; he

Orrasom Sutthisarkorn, Lakhorn Cheewit Joa Chai Nak Praphan, Bueang Lang Chark Cheewit Khong Morm Jao
Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat, The circus of life of a princely writer, Prince Arkartdamkeung Rapheephats
life behind the scenes, 1987. Much of the information on Prince Arkarts life comes from this well-
researched book.
received private tuition in English and composition from LWT Cooper at St Johns

and left England probably in March 1925 for the United States, after receiving a
royal grant to study at Georgetown University, in Washington DC. This means he could
not possibly have shared the journalistic and amorous life of the hero of his main novel
during all those years in England and mainland Europe.
What he did in the US, and exactly how long he stayed there, is not known. He later
claimed to have been involved in journalism, and his stay was cut short when he develop-
ed eye trouble. This led to an operation which left him partially blind for more than a year.
Unlike his hero, who spent six years abroad and travelled all over Europe and Asia,
Prince Arkart was back in Siam after less than four years. Like his hero, he had no diploma
to show for his foreign endeavours.
He returned to Bangkok via Japan in 1928 and was briefly employed at the Post Office,
which he left under a cloud after substantial amounts of money went missing. He then
joined the Ministry of Public Health, and part of his job consisted in checking the work of
upcountry officials. His first novel, The circus of life (Lakhorn Haeng Cheewit), created a storm
when it was published in 1929. This pioneering work of fiction was widely perceived as a
thinly disguised autobiography and an unseemly attack on his own kin. He awkwardly
denied the charge in the preface to his next novel, Yellow skin white skin (Phiu Lueang Rue
Phiu Khao)

, which was published the following year. He also wrote two collections of short
stories, Broken daydreams (Wimarn Thalai), which came out in 1931 when he was no longer in
Siam, and The whole universe (Khrop Jakkrawahn), which was published after his death.
In January 1931, he fled to Hong Kong, leaving behind substantial debts. An official
enquiry into his absence without leave was started but he was left undisturbed in the
British colony. He apparently lived off articles he contributed to the local press and briefly
shared a house with a friend before moving to the Cecil Hotel. To acquaintances, he would
often claim that he was going to Canton for business transactions, which was understood
to mean casinos in Macau. His passion for gambling, a family trait, seems to have been a
constant feature of his life since childhood, when he used to keep his mother company on
her gambling forays. By all accounts, he became increasingly despondent possibly
mad, one consular report suggested.
His decline continued for more than a year, until he was found dead in his hotel room on
14 May 1932. Although word spread back to Bangkok that he had died of malaria, which
has long been the official line, consular reports at the time stated that he gassed himself to
death. According to his younger sister (the model for the novels Little Samruay), he made
a similar suicide attempt during his days in London.

Prince Arkart appears to have spent his brief life feeling utterly unloved. According to
relatives and friends, he felt that he was neglected by his father (which other siblings deny)
and this seems to have nurtured a tremendous complex of inferiority, sense of injustice and

Wipha Seinanan, op cit

Although written in the same smooth prose as The circus of life, Yellow skin is didactic and at times
ponderous and slapdash. The book smacks of warmed-up leftovers from the main meal and points to the
authors failure to find anything more to say beyond his one and only masterpiece. Is it far-fetched then
to assume that Prince Arkart was aware of this and that it may have been yet another factor leading him
to commit suicide?

Orrasom Sutthisarkorn, op cit

fear of neglect. His fathers treatment of his mother may have also reinforced his sense of
being left out. Even before siding with her, he had marginalised himself within the family
compound. He also felt financially insecure. Even his trip to Europe to acquire an education
was a gamble, and he lost: he came back empty handed, though full of the experiences that
would enrich The circus of life.
Despite his tendency to boast, Prince Arkart apparently never had the trappings of the
aristocracy and got on well with the common people. His closest confidante was his nanny,
and as a young boy he spent much time with the workers who toiled around the family
palace. With relatives and friends, he was withdrawn. Perhaps the clearest inside into his
childhood is to be found in his portrayal of Wisoot, the narrator of The circus of life.
Poor, not very handsome, with an ordinary, not-so-gentle face (his beloved sisters
description), Prince Arkart was rather unfortunate in love

. According to close relatives,

after his return from the US, he fell in love three times, but was spurned twice, and he
broke up the relationship with his fiance, the 22-year-old daughter of the wealthy
governor of Nakhorn Sawan province (You deserve a much better husband than I could
ever be, he wrote his Dearest Darling in English from Hong Kong

The circus of life is dedicated to Maria Vanzini, the beloved friend for life of the author
and the plot revolves around Maria Grey, a Fleet Street journalist. A photograph of Maria
Vanzini is featured in every edition. A buxom woman with a slightly horsy profile, Maria
looks much older than her early twenties. In his preface to Yellow skin white skin, Prince
Arkart states that he met Maria Vanzini in the US, that they travelled together back to Asia,
but that she is not Maria Grey, merely a distant model. Wisoot, in the same novel, informs
us that, since their final separation two years earlier, Maria Grey is happily married to a
German diplomat and the mother of a two-month-old son.
The story of Wisoots and Marias infatuation translated here may strike the reader as
rather contrived, less because it is improbable that in that time and age a woman would
declare her love so openly than because, had she done so, the writer should have prepared
us for it and make it look natural.
In previous pages, Prince Arkart handles other characters in a more mature way and one
wonders why the smooth flow of the text is lost during the romantic scenes.

Orrasom Sutthisarkorn, op cit

The circus of life (Lakhorn Haeng Cheewit) 1929

The narrator, Wisoot Suphalak na Ayutthaya, has returned to Thailand without a degree after six
years of wandering in Europe, the United States and Asia, and considers himself to be a social
failure. Now 28, he tells the story of his life since his days as a poor little rich boy: he is one of many
children of a distinguished and wealthy aristocrat, who is a high-ranking official at the Ministry of
the Interior and has little time for him. Deprived of his fathers love and care, Wisoot feels neglected
and broods in his corner. The only person who sympathises with him is his ugly old nurse, who will
show him how to gamble, and his only friend is her grandniece, who is half Chinese. At Theipsirin
School, Wisoot starts a friendship with Pradit Bunyarrat, who invites him to his house.

As agreed, I went to Lord Banlues house at five oclock that evening. As soon as the boat
reached the landing, I saw Pradit who stood waiting for me, dressed in trousers of light-
brown silk and a shirt of white hemp. We walked across the field, went up to the house
and he took me into the waiting room, which was luxuriously appointed. On the walls
beautiful portraits of ancestors of the Bunya-rat family hung in a row. Decorative items
both old and new were artfully displayed. Pradit took me to a corner of the room and
pointed out some small antiques exhibited in a glass chest a tiny Sphinx, a tome of
papyrus, pyramids, pharaohs and various other Egyptian artefacts. I stood admiring these
beautiful objects until I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder. It was Pradit. My love and
respect for him was growing by the minute.
Before long we shall be neighbours, you know, he remarked, pointing through the
window to a building under construction. Your mother bought that piece of land from us
to build a house, and I gather that several members of your family will stay there.
Eh! I know nothing about this, I answered. I only know that it is being built to be
rented out.
That is not the case at all, Pradit stated.
At that moment, a young woman came through the door.
Lamjuan! Lamjuan! Pradit called out.
What is it, brother? she answered as she halted in front of the door.
Where are you going? Come in and talk to us first.
She walked demurely towards us and stopped in front of her elder brother.
This is Mr Wisoot, Pradit introduced me, then turned to me and said: And this is my
little sister, Lamjuan.
She hastened to bring her joined hands to her face and bowed. I bowed back and we
stood looking at each other with curiosity.
Tonight the moon will be full and after dinner we intend to go out in a row boat. Will
you join us, Wisoot? Pradit said invitingly.
I am afraid I would be an imposition, I objected.
What imposition? Miss Lamjuan answered. We have already prepared food for you
too. Father bought a new boat today. It is beautiful and fast. You will like it if you come
with us.
I watched her with sudden interest. The refreshing sound of her voice and her modest
demeanour were most praiseworthy. Lamjuan was one of the most beautiful young ladies I
had ever met. She had a soft white complexion, a beautiful egg-shaped face with big eyes at
once coy and sharp, and long hair rolled in a rather pretty bun. That day, I remember, she
wore an ultramarine-blue crpe de Chine silk shirt bordered with lace and a long cream-
coloured skirt.
You agree then, she prodded as I stood there smiling. You stay with us for dinner and
then we all go out in the boat.
Yes, I agreed, we will certainly have fun.
I say, Lamjuan, Pradit said. Has Father come back yet?
How could he be back? He came to fetch Mother and they went out together again. They
certainly enjoy going out, these two, for all their years, she declared, laughing warmly.
That night we went out on the river in the beautiful row boat. I was made to sit at the
rear, Lamjuan sat in the middle and her brother in the front. I still remember this was the
fifteenth day of the waxing moon and a holy day, and the full moon shone brightly. The
sky was devoid of clouds and the river was quiet. Occasionally, a steamer or a speedboat
would pass by, tossing our boat in a rather amusing way.
Ah, dear readers, from what I have told you of my story so far, you will certainly agree
that since I was born, that day that night was the happiest, the most contented of my
life. It was the first time I had the opportunity to really know Pradit. The soft, sweet voice
of Lamjuan in the light breeze was like exquisite music which has forever resounded in my
I understand, Mr Wisoot, that you will come and stay with your mother in the building
next to our house, Pradit said.
It would be nice if Mother really came here: we would go to school together and meet
often, I answered. But do you know for sure that Mother will come?
What do you mean? asked Lamjuan with obvious surprise. Dont you really know, Mr
I know nothing, I said truthfully.
Dont you know what is going on in your own house? she asked, smiling mockingly
but without a trace of condescension.
I do not really pay attention to what is happening at home.
It may be your duty not to tell us anything, Lamjuan said in a slightly resentful way,
but it is all over town, you know.
I am telling you the truth: I do not know anything at all, I answered.
Odd, isnt it? Pradit exclaimed.
On the boat back home, I kept thinking about what Pradit and Lamjuan had told me. My
mother would go and stay at the house in Bangjark. Would she then leave Father? Pradit
and Lamjuan had talked as though they knew the story in detail. Something must have
gone wrong at home, but how was it that I did not even have an inkling of it?
As soon as I reached home, I began to investigate. Ordinarily, I never paid much attention
to the affairs of my parents and relatives. It was my habit since childhood. I tried to study
and remain aloof, avoiding anyone in the house unless it was necessary.
At seventeen, I had gone to stay with my maternal grandmother in her small house, and I
had lived there for three years by then. If something was happening in the main house
where my parents stayed, it was either not important enough or too important for me to be
told about it. Even though we shared the same compound, it was as if I and all of my
relatives were living in different corners of the world.
I was happy staying with Grandmother, because she was compassionate and took care of
me with all the goodness of her heart. Besides, she had been frequenting the temples for
decades, had become free from earthly attachments and was observing the Buddhist
precepts with saintly dedication. She had never thought of warning me about the common
evils of the world because she did not know them and had no wish to learn about them.
The story of Mother leaving the house where she had lived for twenty years and moving
to the house on the Thonburee side was an ordinary one, similar to so many other stories
happening in the large noble families of Siam, when an ageing wife no longer able to please
would simply be discarded. Even though he was of about the same age as his wife, the
husband was still strong, lusty and wealthy, and he went on looking for what he had no
right to enjoy but could still obtain by hurting the feelings of his aged spouse, who had
been his faithful companion for decades. If a wife out of necessity had to sit and watch the
behaviour of her husband, she would be bleeding inside drop by drop. Alas! Such is the
fate of the Thai wife, the supreme woman-mother. If a wife could no longer stand this and
saw a way out, she would run away for dear life, forsaking the wealth she had helped
generate and accumulate for decades, leaving it in the sole care of the unreliable gentleman
who was trading old for new and would end up with some girl with a pretty face,
condemning his old wife and their children to a hand-to-mouth existence at the mercy of
fate. Life! O life!
You may be beginning to wonder about my earlier statement that the love between my
parents was most precious and pure, now that a bitter separation had occurred. Could such
a precious and pure love have lasted as long as twenty years, which would be
unprecedented in Siam? Besides, that separation in old age was totally unexpected. So,
what other love will you find in this country that is more marvellous than this?
One day, as I had just come back from school and taken a shower, a servant came to tell
me that Mother wanted to see me in her bedroom. I went up trembling with dread because
I already knew what she was about to tell me. I found her seated on one corner of the bed.
As soon as she saw me, she smiled a little, sad smile.
Wisoot, she greeted me, I do not see you very often these days. How are you spending
your time?
I am out and about as usual, Mother, I answered as I walked to her.
Are you enjoying yourself?
More or less. I am used to it.
I say, Wisoot, she said, considering me carefully, I am about to go and live in the
orchard house.
I sort of heard about it.
I dont think that anybody here wants you to stay. Would you like to go with me?
Yes, Mother. Arent some of us going with you anyway?
No. Only you and Little Samruay. Why would the others go and stay with their
Despite her sweet smile, I could see that she spoke with bitterness and resentment.
One month later, the orchard house at Bangjark was ready. We Mother, my youngest
sister Samruay and I fled and took refuge there. We helped one another arrange the
house and make it as pleasant as people of our condition could afford. We were not quite
sure whether we would have enough to live on. In fact, I could not help but conclude that
Mother was rather poor. Were her current small income to dwindle further she would have
to sell some jewellery and gold in order to make ends meet. Mother was often short, and
the jewellery was disappearing by the day.
When we were in the orchard house on the Thonburee side, even though we were next to
Bangkok, there was no peace and security as in the capital. Bandits were thick on the
ground, and wherever one went one heard shouts of Thieves have entered the orchard!
Thieves have broken into the house! Bandits have harmed someone! and so on.
At first, I was afraid but after a while I got used to this kind of danger. Even though
danger always surrounded the orchard house, I felt a thousand times happier than when I
was staying in the house in Samsein. Look at it this way: I lived next to Pradit and
Lamjuan, two young people whose friendship was a gift of love, happiness and comfort
bestowed without the slightest reservation.
At the end of that year, Father died. His will gave Mother, Little Samruay and myself no
share of the inheritance. Father had left all three of us to carry on with our hard life without
any succour. As far as I was concerned, I did not feel very disappointed because this was
only to be expected and I was man enough, in any case, to keep myself out of trouble. Little
Samruay would grow into a beautiful woman and find a way out when she came of age.
But Mother was most to be pitied. She was old and had undergone hardship for twenty
long years and that was her reward! When I think about her life then, I feel that my own
suffering was not even one thousandth of hers. Alas! The circus the circus of the world!
The circus of life!

Aware of his own situation and unpromising future, Wisoot does his best to resist his attraction to
Lamjuan, the only friend he has left once Pradit wins a scholarship and goes to England to study
mechanical engineering.
In any case, he is soon evinced by a Lieutenant Kamon, freshly returned from England, who
promptly monopolises Lamjuans attention and marries her: Wisoot feels utterly betrayed.
He persuades his eldest brother to let him have the money set aside for him by their grandfather, and
leaves for England, intending to study law. On the deck of the ocean liner, he begins to feel a new
sense of freedom. For him the West is paradise on earth, notwithstanding his unpleasant seaport
experiences along the way and his first inkling of European realities at Marseille.
In England, he is sent to live with the Andrews, an English family at Bexhill-on-Sea, where two
London Times journalists, Lady Moira Dunn and Maria Grey, come visiting for a week.

A period of smooth happiness started in my life while I stayed with Captain and Mrs
Andrew. It was a strange bliss. It was more than people of my condition deserved. I had
better luck than I had any right to even imagine and the truth was that the Queens Cottage
was the abode of supreme happiness in paradise for both body and soul. Even now,
though my body is thousands of miles away, my soul remains there forever. Never shall I
forget the Queens Cottage.
The peace and quiet of Bexhill in which I was thoroughly immersed was not conducive to
loneliness and misery. That peace and quiet gave me a unique opportunity to read all kinds
of books and learn about the ways of the world past and present. Charles Dickens, Sir
Philip Gibbs and other famous authors were my friends and they came to converse with
me every day and gave me more felicity than I could ever express, teaching me about life
and making me pity some people whom I would have hated otherwise. Within this blessed
solitude, constant reading and learning generated in me wonderful thoughts and dreams
and gave me the ambition to create something that the world would notice, something that
would contribute to the happiness of mankind on this, our common Earth. I dreamt and
thought about what our good life should be like. I would create some work to fit that
dream, and pondered what form it should take. I thought of all the goodness and beauty of
the world, which I would try to immortalise in writing. But these pleasant reflections had
neither consistency nor substance; they were like thin air, and I was like a bird in a tree
who is not sure on which branch he will come to roost. This kind of musing went on until I
met Lady Moira Dunn and Maria Grey.
Lady Moira Dunn was not merely a citizen of England or of any particular country; she
was a citizen of the world and her thoughts were of the world. Even so, she loved England
because she was English. She was prepared to sacrifice herself for her country at any time.
Even though she was aware that the British government and England herself did many
things wrong, she still stood by them with body and soul, because she believed that she
was a true part of the English nation and as such the rights and wrongs of England were
hers too.
I am a Thai, born in Siam of Thai nationality. My character is thoroughly Thai and no
power on Earth would force me to belong to another nation. My duty to the land of the
Thai is of the same nature as Lady Moiras duty to England. How unfortunate that I did not
have the opportunity to stay with Captain and Mrs Andrew and know Lady Moira and
Maria Grey before I went to live in the house in Samsein as a son of Marquess Wiseit
Suphalak. There is no way that I could know for sure what my life would have been like,
but I might have been able to make Father really love me and be truly kind to me, and I
might as well have been able to love my parents, relatives and friends more than I ever did.
What a shame, dont you think.
The saying to go abroad is to gain prestige probably applies only to those Thai students
who have the opportunity to mix in good foreign company. Thai students abroad are just
like Thai students back home: some are lucky, others are not; some go abroad and return
improved, others come back the worse for it. Those who return with a pleasing disposition
and constructive thoughts have had excellent opportunities during their stay abroad,
staying with foreign families of high or fairly high standing and receiving a good ethical and
professional education. Others, even before they go abroad, behave like uncouth Chinamen,
spitting everywhere, swearing and talking vulgarly at all times, and once they return from
abroad, they behave just as they used to, they do not change in the least and constitute a
threat to the peace and quiet of the land. That is because they never met anything good
abroad, and even if they did, good people were unable to correct them and finally gave
them up and abandoned them to their own nature. Whenever I went to the Chinamans
dancing hall or to any of those places Thai people abroad like to patronize, I would meet
youngsters like these always surrounded by dancers and drinkers, always roaring drunk
and making vulgar comments about everything without the least sense of propriety. I think
that those who sent these unfortunate Thai students abroad must also share the blame.
Rather than selecting them beforehand, those with money and power send them without
thinking about how much damage their bad manners could cause Siam. Badly behaved
students should be corrected in our country, and those who cannot be reformed should be
sent to gaol. We should not leave it to foreigners to correct them, as it could cause pain and
shame for the students, those who sent them and the country as well.
I want you to understand that foreign countries are a paradise only for a few Thai
As for me, I must count myself among the lucky ones. Though I went abroad for only six
years, I had the chance to see and experience many beautiful things and to visit wonderful
places. I saw things that were at the very heart of the countrys progress. I did see the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow and I can die happy. Once you have read this story, if you
are able to see in it something even remotely good and beautiful, you owe it largely to
Captain and Mrs Andrew, to Miss Stephany, to Lady Moira Dunn and to Maria Grey. Had
I not had the opportunity to know these five people, I would never have been able to write
this story.
The Andrew family helped me appreciate the goodness and beauty of the English way of
life. They taught me the duties of a good child towards his parents, brothers and sisters,
and I was never as happy as the time I was studying. Lady Moira Dunn guided me
towards certain things that were good and beautiful. She was the one who helped orient
my thinking in a suitable way, the one who stilled the branch for the bird of my thoughts to
come to roost and nest. Maria Grey is the wonderful power that will compel me to write
this story to the very end. I write it for her!

Talking of Maria Grey, even though we have finally parted for more than a year now, her
name and spirit are still deeply etched in my memory and will remain there forever.
Remembering her brings happiness and the thought that, whatever life will be like in the
future, it will be worthwhile because I have lived long enough to meet a woman like her.
Besides being my friend and my love, she has been my guide as well and she will keep
guiding me in the many ways of goodness and beauty. Maria Grey!
The day after Lady Moira and Maria arrived at the Queens Cottage, I hurried to get
dressed before dawn, hoping to be lucky enough to meet someone downstairs. As soon as I
went into the living room, I saw Maria standing at a window. She wore a dark-brown skirt
and a jumper with black stripes, a sports outfit that was fashionable among women at the
Good morning, Bobby, she greeted me as to a close friend. You are up early.
Good morning, Miss Grey, I answered politely. You too are indeed up early.
Working people like me only stay in town, she claimed with a sweet smile. A holiday
like this comes once in a long while. I must seize the opportunity to get up early to go out
and breathe the pure air of the sea as much as I can. Will you accompany me, Bobby?
Her tone, although almost alike a command, was melodious and her offer most agreeable
to my own purpose. To go for a walk with a young woman as lovely as Maria, and for the
first time in my life! Who would have refused?
Lets go, Maria. But wait, I said, I will go and change. It will only take a few minutes.
All right, hurry up.
The Andrew family had taught me how to dress correctly on all occasions in conformity
with the tastes of the English, and I had become quite an expert at it. I had soon put on plus
fours and a jumper and I went down to Maria.
Oh, Bobby, she exclaimed in surprise at seeing me dressed in a way she had not
thought possible, you dress so well, but your jumper is too thin. Arent you afraid of being
If I am cold, walking will soon warm me up, I answered, pointing to the sun, which
was appearing above the wooden fence on the side of the house. Look, there is already
some light and it should be pleasantly warm before long. We have not seen any sunshine
for a week here but today the sun is coming out especially to welcome you, Miss Grey.
Tell me, is this the way Thai poets express themselves? she asked. If so, Siam must be
a paradise. After a short pause, she added: But dont call me Miss Grey. It is so formal. I
call you Bobby my name is Maria for you.
All right, I shall call you Maria from now on.
We then began our walk together, now walking now running to get some exercise along
Middlesex Road and down to the beach, where we strolled at leisure, talking away.
Bexhill was as peaceful as ever. Apart from the sighs of the waves that broke on the shore
at regular intervals, there was no other sound. We went past buildings of various sizes
restaurants, clubs, churches, houses to let. In front of us were St-Leonard and Hastings.
These big resorts were so dead quiet they seemed completely abandoned.
Bobby, Maria asked, is it true that you are poor?
What do you think?
Moira and I talked about it last night and we agreed that you were not telling the truth.
For all we know, you are a prince in your own country, with wealth and a huge palace.
Not at all, Maria, I answered, then smiled. What I told you at the dinner table last
night is the truth, nothing but the truth. I am poor. If I had not met and stayed with Captain
and Mrs Andrew, I would not have known how much of a burden life is, and I may have
been long dead.
I like poor people who are well educated, she answered, then glanced sideways,
looking at me with her beautiful eyes. They always make me happy. I have seen a lot of
poverty, Bobby. I used to stay in the East End of London and at Montmartre in Paris.
And you also used to stay in posh Mayfair and Rue de la Paix, I added.
I think I have liked you since the first minute I saw you at the railway station, Bobby,
Maria said as if to change the subject. I first noticed your eyebrows, which look so much
like those of the Buddha. Your eyes are so big, so full of goodness and honesty. I have felt
since the beginning that we were going to be real friends.
I looked at Maria, my beloved friend, with delight. She linked her arm to mine and we
proceeded until we came to a fairly large rock jutting out into the sea. Maria invited me to
sit on it and talk with her. Oh, it is so wonderful, Bobby, she exclaimed.

Bobby, tell me the truth, said my beloved friend. Do you have the drive to do
something big that the world will notice? The ambition to become famous?
I do, Maria, I answered. I took her hand and held it tightly. I am ambitious. I want to
be a good writer in Siam, my country. I am poor, and I want to find enough wealth to have
a decent enough life through writing books, but this is difficult in Siam: nobody there likes
to read books, and most writers lose money.
Why not be a writer in Europe or America, then?
There is much competition among writers here, I answered, and I do not believe that I
know the language well enough to write as well as English or American writers do. I have
the ambition to write something outstanding unlike anything anybody has ever done. Siam
is a country with the best opportunities, but, before I achieve success, I must make myself
known to create public interest.
How right you are, Bobby, Maria answered. To advertise is most important for the
success of any kind of endeavour, and maybe in Siam someone has already written a few
novels of substance to open the path.
Maria, I said admiringly, you are still very young and yet you have a fairly good
knowledge of Siam. I am amazed, because what you say about Siam having only a few
novels of substance is very close to the truth.
I was only guessing, she answered, but if that is the case Siam is the best place to carry
out the kind of undertaking you have in mind, Bobby. The important thing is that you
must make yourself known. I am sure you will succeed. This much I can predict do you
know why?
I dont, Maria.
Last night, Mrs Andrew gave us a few of your short stories to read in our bedroom.
Some are good, they have substance and are deeply moving, which shows that you have
elevated thoughts and a good character full of kind-heartedness. Moira will ask you to let
her present these stories to the editor of a monthly magazine we know who will check
them, and maybe some will get printed as well.
What! I have been able to write that well? I asked incredulously.
You have done them well enough, but I do not want you to be overconfident, she
answered. You must try to write better than this several times over, but you have told me
that you have the ambition to write a new type of novel that will be the best in Siam. Why
dont you join a newspaper, then?
Why should I?
To write a good, useful novel, one must know a lot about life beforehand, and reporters
and newspaper correspondents must travel around; they go to various places and see more
of life than people in any other profession. Since your heart is not in being a lawyer or a
judge, why do you bother to learn law?
The life of a novelist in Siam is very risky, Maria. Writing a novel, you must fear dying
of hunger more than anything else.
Bobby, have you never felt that, whatever we undertake in earnest, there are lots of
obstacles and dangers along the way? For the peace and quiet of the country, we must get
rid of thieves, which puts the detectives, the police and ourselves at risk to some extent.
Whatever we do, we must face danger. I want you to be successful in the way you really
want, Bobby. I like you very much, because I am certain that you are a good man good
for me and good for the world.
And what story do you want me to write, Maria?
You must become a journalist, to go to various places in the world beforehand, she
said, moving closer, almost touching me, and then write about all the kinds of life youve
encountered, and call that story The circus of life.
I did not answer in any way. We fell quiet for a while, watching the small waves breaking
at the bottom of the rock on which we sat side by side.

The days and times of supreme happiness for me in the company of Maria Grey were
inexorably drawing to a close. The needling feeling that soon the friend whom I most loved
must go away without knowing when or indeed whether we would meet again kept
piercing my heart relentlessly. Although we had only known each other for four days,
Maria was clearly showing me how much she felt for me. She believed in my abilities, she
believed that my ambitions would soon be fulfilled. She called me my Bobby and I was
her Bobby only. Even though we had not once told each other that we loved each other,
dear readers, we knew each others heart well enough. I tried to suppress the extravagance
of my love because I felt that I had no right to it. As for Maria, she tried to show the world
that we were in love, because she held that pure love is nothing to be ashamed of.
Maria, I said, almost imploring her, if you are good to me like this forever, I think I
must love you love you more than my own life for sure. I know I should not, because
because we have no right.
Maria immediately looked at me with sad eyes, smiling a little.
Bobby, why do we have no right? she asked, wrapping her arms around me. Why can
we not love each other?
There are many reasons, Maria, I answered, seizing her in my arms in the same fashion.
The main one is that you are European, living in a cold country with certain customs. I am
Thai, I come from a very warm country with other customs very different from yours.
You would not be able to get along with my relatives and friends in Siam and and I am
poor, Maria. Where would you find happiness?
Bobby, she answered, havent you ever thought that God created everything on earth
as couples, has meant one being for another being, and we do not know what He has
meant for us until we meet that other being? Why can we not love each other? she
insisted. Coolies, beggars even they get married, and surely we are better than coolies or
beggars, because we have received an education and we can choose what we want. O
Bobby, my darling, I love you. I love you. You must try to understand.
We fell into each others arms and exchanged a kiss of the purest love.
I have only known you for four days, Bobby, she declared slowly, but I feel like we
have known each other since we were born.
Maria, since the first minute I saw you at the station, I said, still holding her gently in
my arms, I have felt that I would be in seventh heaven for seven days, but after those
seven days are over you will leave, Maria.
Bobby, she said with a beautiful voice, time and duty may force us to be apart from
each other but love will bind our hearts together forever. We will meet again, Bobby. I
know that this world is full of mercy for the two of us. God will not allow us to feel hurt.
Lady Moira told me about the life of reporters and newspaper correspondents
yesterday, I said sadly. I know that, no matter what, it is your duty to go anywhere. It
will be difficult for me to find you. I am afraid that once you have left we will be separated
until we die, Maria.
Separated until we die! she exclaimed with dismay. That cannot be true, Bobby, that is
impossible. We shall meet again. Arent you also going to London? I stay in London all the
time, and so will you, and we will meet there, we will meet everyday if you so wish.
Are you certain, Maria, that we can meet in London? I asked.
I love you so much, Bobby, she moaned. I love you so badly that I am allowing my
heart to press you into changing your way of life in a direction you have not chosen.
Maria, I declared, looking at her earnestly, what do you want me to do?
In your country, you have never received anything of value, she said, bowing her head
to rub it against my shoulder. No one there wants to help you. You have no position or
anything to care for. And you still are not free?
Free, Maria I am free.
Then what do you want to read law and go back to Siam for? she asked. Who wants
you? What will you do there? Why dont you apply to be one of us journalists, to stay with
us, to stay with me, Bobby? I want you I want you more than anything in the world. Stay
here and everybody will want you. You will have parents Captain Andrew and Mrs
Andrew. You will have friends. You will have a woman who loves you and who will love
you for as long as we live. You must be a journalist, Bobby, my darling. Be it for me, be it
for the life and happiness of us both.
It is true that tears are happiness and happiness is sorrow. I was then happier than
anyone ever will be, I was happy because I loved Maria, I was happy because I was certain
that, whatever person I was, at least one woman in the world loved me with all her heart,
body and soul and that woman was a foreigner from another land, speaking another
language and endowed with another complexion. Yet I was suffering because the woman
for the sake of whose love I was dedicating my life was about to depart. As she implored
me again and again and mingled with me in the highest love, I knew not how to answer
her questions and tears flowed ceaselessly.
Have you already forgotten, Maria, I asked her finally, that you told me the other day
you want me to go back to become someone important in Siam, that you want me to write
The circus of life for the Thai people to read?
I talked that way then because I did not know you well enough, she answered. Now I
know your character and feelings. I cannot let you go back to your country. I feel that you
would only waste your time there. After a moment, she added, with a voice that had lost
hope: But then, Bobby, if you really want to go back to Siam, to your country, to your own
kind, to your home, you should do it nobody can stop you.
Not at all, Maria, I am not thinking like that at all, I answered. I love you more than to
let you go and not want to see you again. But your idea of me becoming a journalist scares
me. I am afraid I do not know English well enough.
English is a language that is easy to learn, and you know it well enough already. I dont
see any reason to be worried, she stated.
It is getting late, Maria, we should be going back home, lest Mother is worried, I urged
Lets go, Bobby.
We walked arm in arm down the beach, turned into Middlesex Road and finally reached
the Queens Cottage. I felt that Maria was angry with me. I was afraid that she was, but I
did not know why.

Lady Moira has warned Wisoot not to become too serious about the affair, because he and Maria have
incompatible cultures. Despite their mutual attraction, the two lovers agree to make no
Not long after the two ladies have left, Wisoot receives a check for an article of his to be published in
The Times. When it is time for him to start his formal education in London, the Andrews find him
family board in Hampstead, which turns out to be a grim boarding house populated by insufferable
Indians. Wisoot feels miserable: he is unable to find Maria Grey, and his only friend Pradit is so
preoccupied with his girlfriend and so unfriendly that Wisoot decides not to bother him any more.
After a week, he returns to Bexhill and Captain Andrew finds him better lodgings in Fulham. He
enters a London law school at Middle Temple, but does not like it and spends most of his time
writing articles and short stories under the pen name Bobby.
One day, he is invited to join the London Press Club, where he meets Maria Grey again. Their love
has not changed, yet nothing seems to happen between the two. Wisoot soon forsakes his law studies
and turns to full-time journalism. He shares a flat in Earls Court with a Times colleague, and the
two of them are soon sent to Paris on an assignment. Wisoot is as enthusiastic about Paris, the city
of romance, as he was unimpressed with bleak London so enthusiastic indeed that both he and his
roommate pick up a couple of easy-going live-in wives, kept for a song in these times of economic
crisis. When Maria Grey finds out about it, he coolly reminds her of their agreement.
Wisoot and Maria meet again on their way to Monte Carlo, and yes they are desperately in love with
each other, but work pulls them apart. As secretary to the deputy editor of The Times, Bobby
criss-crosses much of southern Europe for more than a year. In Monte Carlo, he becomes briefly
involved with a flirtatious Hungarian countess. Later, in Geneva, a sudden illness prevents him
from covering the meeting of the three Great Powers at the League of Nations. He recovers and
accompanies his boss on trips to almost every country in Europe. The author uses the occasion for
postcard presentations of the places Wisoot visits.
Back in London, Bobby notices that his roommate and Maria have become intimate and he feels
despondent. A car accident keeps him in hospital for a month, and he becomes convinced that Maria
has betrayed him. (This may be a transposition of the authors alleged attempted suicide in London.)
He decides to leave Maria and her new lover well alone, sinks into further gloom and considers
moving to the US when he is informed that a royal grant is available for him to study diplomacy at
Georgetown University in Washington.
A month later, Wisoot learns from Maria that she still loves only him, yet he has to sail away across
the Atlantic. On the liner, he becomes acquainted with Sir Percival Humphreys, a famous antique
dealer, and his family.
He starts his new life as an external student at Harvard, taking summer courses in literature and
American history. He catches the eye of a charming young Thai student named Jurai, but he will not
allow the relationship to blossom beyond friendship. At Georgetown University, he studies so hard
that his eyesight fails him. A major operation leaves him temporarily blind and, although Sir Percival
takes him to his house in New York, his failing sight will not allow him to resume his studies. He
travels around the US with Sir Percival, helping him design advertisements.
Maria accepts an invitation to be a guest of the Humphreys, who insist that Wisoot must not try and
talk her into marrying him, as all agree a mixed marriage would be a terrible thing, both for
themselves and for their progeny. The two lovers meet again only to promise each other eternal love.
Wisoot decides to return to Siam and, as Maria, Sir Percival and his daughter head for the East, they
all leave on the same boat: more postcards from Hawaii, Japan and China. In China, Wisoot meets his
former roommate and his former deputy editor and joins them in their journalistic endeavours. But
health fails him again and he is stranded in a nursing home in Shanghai. Maria finally leaves for
New York, and two days later he takes a boat back to Bangkok.
After six years of rich experiences round the world, a broken-hearted Wisoot has nothing to show by
way of academic qualifycations, and can only hope to find a slot at the bottom of the bureaucratic
structure, while his brothers and friends are enjoying their social success. The novel ends with the
death of Lamjuans husband.

The circus of my life ends with the death of Lieutenant Kamon. As for myself, I may keep
on drifting. No particular direction offers any meaning, especially in how to carry out my
life. The past is past, and I must forget the circus of life. Something new is about to start,
and I hope it is not as grievously sad as what has just ended.

Beyond the scandalous autobiographical side of the novel, washing the dirty linen of the
aristocracy in public and pointing an accusing finger at the head of the family, The circus of
life is a truly unique novel, much more accomplished than its immediate contemporaries,
whether Dorkmai Sots Her enemy and Nit or Seebooraphas Real man.
The immediate appeal of the novel is its exceptional scope: for Wisoot as for Prince
Arkart, all the worlds a stage. Wisoot is not just a foreign student who comes back with
experience of a given country: he has gone everywhere, he has seen it all from Lindberg
returning to the US after his first trans-Atlantic flight to the aftermath of a big earthquake in
Japan and the civil war in China.
Today's Western readers may not be impressed by what I have termed postcard scenes,
or by the author's often clumsy name-dropping, but to the Thai readers of the time, these
glimpses of the world beyond their world were momentous. And doubly so: here was a
love story (and a very proper one at that) involving a Thai and a foreigner and told by a
Thai writer, not just another translated foreign work. The exotic flavour of this sad romance
had tremendous popular appeal, and inspired a long line of exotic novels. Only six years
later, Seeboorapha took a leaf off The circus of life when he published Behind the picture, a
sentimental novel largely set in Japan which also tells of unfulfilled love.
Like Lady Moira Dunns, the authors thoughts are of the world. Among the pioneers
of the Thai novel, Prince Arkart is the only one with an international perspective, looking at
Siamese society from the outside. The author, however, never waxes too lyrical over the
Thai students paradise on earth and carefully points out some of the Wests social
The circus of life forcefully criticizes arranged marriages which imply subservience of the
wife and allow the proliferation of minor wives by far the dominant bone of contention
among the young generations of the time and the dominant theme in Thai literature for
years to come.
Prince Arkart also suggests that Siamese youth should cultivate an ability to think and
have minds of their own, but he is no revolutionary or social satirist. Wisoots concern is
individualistic: he is ambitious, he wants to be recognised by society as an outstanding
writer. He is also a failure, though a lovable one.

Seeboorapha was an outstanding man by any standard, one of the best newspaper
editors and foremost novelists of his time, as well as a progressive Buddhist thinker and a
political fighter for social justice who would not compromise his ideals. He had the guts to
say no twice to the dictator who courted him and paid for it by losing his job time and
again, spending more than four years in jail and the last sixteen years of his life in exile. It is
a bitter irony indeed that the most political of leading Thai novelists, whose name was
anathema and whose novels were banned for two decades only to be praised sky-high by
radical zealots in the 1970s, will probably be best remembered for one of his least political
novels, a romantic and exotic love story which is little representative of his outstanding
contribution to Thai letters and Thai society.
Handsome, smooth, soft-spoken, he went through life wearing the patronymics of
Kularp, which means Rose, but for posterity Kularp Saipradit will forever be Seeboora-
pha, Resplendent Orient, no less!

This is no idle remark: in pre-World-War-II Siam,

names were an issue, and Kularp never received the Thammasart law degree he was
entitled to because he refused to adopt a more masculine-sounding name.
He was born in March 1905 at Hua Lamphong, in the heart of Bangkok, the second of
two children of a lower middle-class couple: his father, Suwan, the son of a traditional eye
doctor, was chief clerk at the Railways Department; his mother, Sombun, hailed from a
rice-farming family in Suphanburee, but at an early age had moved to Bangkok to stay
with a relative and is understood to have sojourned at the Suan Kularp palace (hence her
sons name).
Suwan, who taught his son how to read and write even before Kularp entered primary
school at the age of 4, fell sick and died two years later. He was 35. Kularp, his sister Jamrat,
three years his senior, and their mother moved to a shophouse at the foot of Yotsei Bridge.
Their mother made dresses for a living and sent Jamrat to train as a classical dancer and
actress and Kularp to a military training school to prepare him to become a palace soldier.
After two years she managed, through unknown connections, to have Kularp enrolled in
the select Theipsirin School. There, between 1920 and 1924, Kularp found himself in the
company of Prince Arkartdamkeung, Marlai Choophinit and several other future well-
known novelists; like them, he contributed poems to the school magazine, Seetheip.
Fresh out of Theipsirin and not quite 20, Kularp started work teaching English in the
evening at a private language school run by the owner of a printing press, who also had his
staff translate novels and summarise the plots of newly imported foreign movies in the
daytime, before sponsoring a magazine which folded in less than a year. Kularp then
joined the popular army magazine Seina Sueksa and soon was an assistant editor, but
because he was a civilian his promotion was blocked. Unfairly refused a post as a translator

He used several other pen names: Makatho, Itsarachon, Udomtham, Ubarsok, Chuenjai and
Dork Prathum.
in the Survey Department, he quit Seina Sueksa and decided to concentrate on writing
Between 1926 and 1932, he wrote no fewer than nine novels. (In 1928 alone, he wrote
three novels and two collections of short stories.) Although they established his reputation
as a leading novelist at a time when novel writing was still in its infancy, most of these
works have little literary appeal other than a smooth style.

Two of them, however, stand

out: A real man (Look Phoochai) and The war of life (Songkhrarm Cheewit). A real man tells the
story of a carpenters son whose education allows him to become a successful, fair and
altruistic judge, and who is rewarded with a title of nobility. The war of life, a novel
composed of 33 letters exchanged by a poor, idealistic civil servant and his sweetheart, a
rich girl who has fallen on hard times but will desert him to become a movie star, openly
draws from Dostoevskys Poor people.
By 1929, Kularp had gathered his friends into a publishing group, Supharpburut
(Gentlemen), which included some of the best writers of his generation. Under Kularps
leadership, the group went into journalism, and followed him through thick and thin in
and out of half a dozen publications over the next twenty years. The only other personality
who had such a seminal, if less structured, influence is Prince Khuekrit Prarmoat.
The group started with a fortnightly, also called Supharpburut, with Kularp as its editor
and manager. The magazine lasted a little more than a year. Then Kularp became editor of
a Bangkok political daily, but after three months, one of his articles criticizing the gentry
led to the papers closure. His and his groups next venture was a daily, Thai Mai (New
Thai), from which the group resigned nearly two years later when an opinion piece by
Seeboorapha entitled Humanitarianism displeased the owners. They went on to set up
a weekly, Phoonam (Leader) and by June 1932 Kularp was negotiating the editorship of a
daily newspaper to be secretly sponsored by the king when absolute monarchy was over-
thrown on the 24th of that month by Preedee Phanom-yongs Peoples Party (see p66).
Shortly thereafter, Kularp and his group started a daily, Pracharchart (The sovereign
nation), which was owned by a prince but came to express views close to Dr Preedees.
In 1934, Kularp spent three months in retreat as a monk and wrote another mediocre
novel, Facing sin (Phajon Barp). The following year he married a graduate from Jularlong-
korns Faculty of Arts, Chanit Priyacharnkun, who became the noted translator of three of
Jane Austens novels under the pen name he thought up for her, Jooliat (Juliet), and
helped him translate Maughams Pool, Chekhovs In exile and Gorkis Mother. The couple
had a daughter and a son.
In early 1936, Kularp was forced to resign from Pracharchart: the strongman at the time
didnt appreciate his broadsides. Late that year, he went to study the press in Japan and on

Though it is difficult to differentiate between some of his shorter novels and longest short stories,
Seeboorapha seems to have written a total of fifteen novels. Wartsana Manut, 1926; Khomsawart Bart Jit,
1927; Prarp Phayot, Look Phoochai, Marn Manut, 1928; Amnart Jai, Phit Nang Kamnan, Saen Rak Saen Khaen,
1930; Songkhrarm Cheewit, 1932; Phajon Barp, 1934; Pa Nai Cheewit, Khang Lang Pharp, 1937; Jon Kwa Rao Ja
Phopkan Eek, 1950; Lae Pai Khang Na (I: Youth), 1955; Lae Pai Khang Na (II: Maturity), 1965 (first serialised
in Piyamit weekly in 1957).
his return wrote The jungle of life (Pa Nai Cheewit)

and his romantic masterpiece, Behind the

picture (Khang Lang Pharp), both serialised in 1937.
Then it was back to the press again: in 1939, he and his group started the Supharpburut
daily, which soon merged with Pracharchart. In 1944 and 1945, Kularp was elected
president of the Thai Newspapers Association. In late 1947, he and his wife left for two
years in Australia, where he studied political science. On his return, he started a printing
press (Supharpburut Press, of course) to publish his own works and those of his friends in
cheap editions. He also wrote several books, including Till we meet again (Jon Kwa Rao Ja
Phopkan Eek), 1950, an incisive pamphlet denouncing the ills of Thai society but a poor
novel sacrificing the credibility of its characters on the altar of political truth.
In 1951, Kularp set up the Peace Foundation of Thailand, which was widely viewed as a
local antenna of the Soviet-controlled Peace Movement. The next year saw him protest
against the war in Korea, demand the lifting of press censorship and, when he went to
distribute food and blankets to the needy in the Northeast, he was among more than a
hundred agitators arrested on 10 November 1952. Accused of treason and summarily
condemned to nineteen years and four months in jail, he was freed in February 1957 to
celebrate the advent of the 25th Buddhist century.
It was during these years in jail that he wrote the first two volumes of an unfinished
trilogy, Look ahead (Lae Pai Khang Na), which many rightly consider to be his most accom-
plished political novel. This sweeping retrospective of the changes that took place in
Thailand throughout the first half of the 20th century are realistically presented in some of
the best pages ever written in Thai, but the writers tone is excessively didactic, and the
story switches heroes and changes direction in the second volume, whose abrupt ending
suggests it is unfinished, although Kularp did write some twenty pages of the third
Shortly after his liberation, Kularp went to the Soviet Union as a guest of the
government, and the following year he headed a delegation of writers to China. While he
went on to an Afro-Asian writers conference in Tashkent, back home Field Marshal Sarit
Thanarat seized power and all the members of Kularps delegation were jailed on their
return. Faced with the same fate, Kularp chose to remain in China, where he led the life of a
democratic personality in exile, lecturing on Thai literature at Peking University,
contributing to the Afro-Asian Solidarity Fronts cultural activities and to the Thai service
of Chinas external broadcasting radio. He applauded the student uprising of October
1973 in Bangkok, but was unable to take advantage of the changed political climate to
return home: he died of pleurisy in Peking on 16 June 1974.
Kularps fictional writings evolved with his political thinking, which took him from an
idealistic faith in the power of education and individual good will (translated into romantic
novels written around clean, ambitious heroes working their way up within the system) to

This is the story of a rebel officer who experiences a spiritual transformation as he is jailed for his
participation in the 1933 royalist revolt known as the Borworndeit Rebellion; he gives away the woman
he loves to his best friend and shuns a hypocritical society once he is freed. The novel was serialised in
Sayarm Nikhorn daily in 1937 but was only published in book form in 1988. Not only was it banned with
Kularps other writings during the 1950s and 1960s, but it was also ignored by the leftist Seeboorapha
fever of the 1970s, possibly because the character of the rebel officer was perceived as a
a growing concern for social justice and radical change of the socio-political system by
relying primarily on the people (the clear message of his last novels). Neither a communist
nor a sycophant of the establishment, he twice turned down the offer of a senator post to
remain his own man and carry on his fight in favour of justice, freedom, equality and
progress on paper, which cost him dearly but secured his prominence in national history.

Behind the picture (Khang Lang Pharp) 1937

Two days after the narrator hangs up a picture in his study a watercolour depicting a stream
flowing past the foot of a mountain with two vague figures sitting on a boulder almost touching
the water his wife notices it and dismisses it as a rather ordinary landscape. The picture has a
special value for the narrator, however, as it was painted with the artists life and prompts him to
recall every scene, every part, from the beginning to the final act on which the curtain fell so
tragically, only recently. End of the prologue.
The action starts in Japan, at a time when Nopphorn, the narrator, then 22, has been studying at
Rikkyo University for three years. The young man is asked by a friend of his fathers, His Excellency
Atthikarnbordee (University President), to make arrangements for his honeymoon in Japan with his
new wife, Princess Keerati. Nopphorn finds a house and a maid for the couple and welcomes them
and their cook on their arrival at Tokyo Station.
His Excellency is a kind-hearted and wealthy widower of over fifty. His beautiful new wife looks
no more than twenty-eight. Nopphorn, requested to spend most of his vacation with the couple,
and more particularly with the princess, rapidly becomes close to her. As their friendship blossoms,
the princess increasingly confides in him, revealing that she is actually 35; despite their age
difference, Nopphorn feels strangely drawn to her.

Relations between myself and His Excellency and Princess Keerati went on as usual. One
evening three or four days later, His Excellency was invited to a reception. Princess Keerati
said that, as she was feeling poorly, she did not relish the thought of mixing with a large
crowd and requested that she be allowed to rest at home. His Excellency therefore asked
me to stay and keep his wife company.
It was the period of the waxing moon and after dinner we both felt it would be utterly
foolish not to go out and enjoy the moonlight. I suggested that we take out a rowing boat in
the public park, which was only ten minutes walk from the house. Princess Keerati
It was still dusk when we got there, and there were crowds of local people strolling in
the park. Some sat on benches, watching others rowing on the large boating pond. We
walked around the park two or three times until we felt tired and decided it was time to
climb into a boat. There were already four or five boats on the water, which was about the
right number, as more of them would have created too much commotion in the pond. I
took the oars and Princess Keerati sat herself down comfortably in front of me. As we lost
ourselves in conversation, I let the boat drift on its own.
A bright moonlight lit up the surface of the water and the different kinds of plants
around the park, and the whole scene was extremely pleasing to the eye. Princess Keerati
kept enthusing about the beauty of nature at this time of night, and I agreed with
everything she said, though my attention was elsewhere. In the course of my life, I had
enjoyed the beauty of the full moon hundreds of times but my eyes had never feasted on
the sight of a living creature bathed in moonlight that was as beautiful as the woman before
me that night.
To add a little to the pleasure of our outing that evening, Princess Keerati was wearing a
white silk kimono with a bold red pattern which made me think of the large chrysanthe-
mums I had admired at the Takarasuka Park the previous fall. As the moon came out from
behind clouds, its bright light made the flowers all over her body appear real. Whenever
Princess Keerati turned her face upward, the mild breeze played with the strands of her
hair and the moonlight lit sparkles in her moist eyes, holding my complete attention.
She sat with her legs stretched towards me. Her tapering and fleshy feet were starkly
white. She leaned back a little, absorbed in the beauty of nature.
Dont you feel happy, Nopphorn, on a lovely night like this? she asked softly, turning
her glittering eyes towards me. I started a little, as I was deeply enthralled by the beauty of
her face.
I am so happy that I wouldnt know how to put it in words, I replied eagerly.
Doesnt it make you feel a little homesick?
It has been more than three years since I left home, Milady. At first, I did miss home
occasionally, but after a while that feeling faded away.
And you dont miss home anymore ...
No, and least of all in a moment like this.
You and I are completely different in this respect. When I feel safe and my heart is full
of the beauty of nature, like now, I cant help but think of those I love most. I think about
Father, about Mother, about my younger sisters at home, where it was so peaceful and we
were so happy. I think of life ten years ago, when we were all living there together, and I
think of my own life then, a life full of happiness and hope. You must be quite hard-
hearted, Nopphorn, not to think of home at a time like this.
I wanted to answer, and almost did, that in her presence, under the spell of her charm
and beauty, I never thought of anything else and would find it hard to think of other
things. I dared not speak so forthrightly, however, because I was not sure what made me
feel this way.
I am not hard-hearted at all, but I have to concentrate on my studies. Besides, to be
quite frank, Milady, nothing pleases me more than to be of service to you. What prompted
me to reveal something of my true feelings I do not know.
Now, now, you are trying too hard to please.
I looked away, and she went on: How many more years do you have to study?
About five, because once Ive finished my studies, I intend to find work here for a while
to get some experience.
Thats a long time. You will end up Japanese and may even marry one of those
Japanese women that impress you so much, and settle down here.
Oh, thats totally out of the question, I protested. I am impressed by Japans progress
and I am also impressed by Japanese women, I must admit, but this doesnt mean Ill
become Japanese. I do not for an instant forget that I am Thai and that I am part of the Thai
nation, which still lags behind other nations. I came here to study in order to take
knowledge back to our country. Ultimately, my goals are in Siam and so is marriage.
That reference to my marriage was prompted by Princess Keeratis remark, as it
reminded me of the girl to whom I was engaged. Indeed, she was merely a fiance, whom
Father had picked out to ensure that I would return to marry or at least to caution me not
to get involved with women overseas. Since she was only my fiance, not a girl I loved, I
didnt think of her in personal terms, but rather wondered about married life in the future.
Your aims are praiseworthy, Princess Keerati said with sincere admiration. The two
things that await your consideration in Siam work and marriage are important indeed.
Have you made any plans yet?
I intend to specialise in banking, because, as far as I know, there are very few people in
our country who are interested in this field. Thats where my future profession lies, I think.
As for marriage plans, I havent even given them a thought. I feel its a matter of too much
import for me to get involved in for the time being.
I felt slightly uneasy that my answer to Princess Keerati did not make it clear that if I had
made no plans, it was because the matter was already settled. Barring unforeseeable
circumstances, I would have to marry my fiance, whom I scarcely knew, let alone love or
even understand. I do not know why I did not tell Princess Keerati. Was I trying to keep it
from her? I am not really sure. In any case, I did not lie or try to deceive her. I probably had
no such intention. After all, she had not asked whether I had a fiance waiting for me in
Siam. But what if she had asked? How would I answer? My heart was pounding.
Your thinking is very mature for someone so young, Princess Keerati said when I
finished speaking.
By then, our boat was drifting gently in the middle of the pond. I picked up the oars and
pulled on them to make us go forward. I was still in a state of agitation and wanted to
move so that our conversation may also change course. Our boat slid behind another in
which two young women sat singing softly in unison. They were rowing slowly, gazing up
rapturously at the moon.
They sing beautifully, Princess Keerati whispered. They seem rather carried away by
the song; it must be a really moving one. Could you translate the words for me?
Its a song of consolation, not a love song, I told her when the two girls had finished
singing. It is meant to make them feel content with their own lot. The lyrics say: Though
we are not cherry blossoms, there is no shame in being flowers of another kind; let us
simply be the most beautiful of our kind. There is only one Mount Fuji, but this does not
mean the other mountains are worthless. Even though we are no samurais, we still can be
their companions. We cant all be captains for where could we go without sailors? If we
cant be the road, we can still be the walkway. There is a place and work in this world for
everyone of us. However great or small that work may be, we are sure to have something
to do. If we cant be the sun, let us be stars instead. Though we were not born men, there is
no slight in being women. Let us be whatever we are. Our station in life is not a problem;
what is important is to be what we are to the best of our abilities.
This song has a very valuable message, Princess Keerati reflected when I had finished,
and you translated it beautifully. Id like to hear it again. These two girls were certainly
singing to their hearts content.
It seems to me, Milady, that you are enjoying everything here in Tokyo, I said,
resuming the conversation once we had gone past the boat. Can you tell me what it is that
pleases you most?
Anything beautiful makes me happy, but then, I tend to see beauty in almost
everything and always find something to praise. Look at the little ripples on the water
around the edge of this pond: I find them fascinating. I love beauty because it makes me
feel beautiful and refreshed and pure.
In that case, you would be particularly happy if you went to stay in a place such as
Nikko, where the scenery is beautiful.
You are right; Im sure I would. Id love to go to Nikko to see the waterfall, and the
moonlight shining on the mountain lake. Id also like to go and stroll by the seaside, and
watch the young people bathing in the sea and walking together along the beach, teasing
one another and giggling as they go. I heard His Excellency mention that he would take me
to such places soon. I will no doubt enjoy myself very much. She clasped her hands
together and rested her chin upon them, her eyes darting here and there with a hint of a
smile in them. Id also like to go to Europe and experience its strange beauty once again,
she went on dreamily. Id visit France and England. In winter, Id go to Switzerland, and
then on to Norway to see the midnight sun, and Id end my trip in Italy, spending most of
my time in Rome and Florence, to admire the paintings of Raphael, da Vinci and
Michelangelo, the three great masters.
Are you an artist then?
I like art very much and I have spent much time learning how to draw.
Now you say so! I exclaimed with a mixture of surprise and delight. No wonder you
see beauty everywhere and are so attentive to details. You never mentioned this to me
before, Milady.
Thats because I was afraid of your praise. Besides, I am not good enough yet to boast
about it.
How long have you been drawing?
For several years now at least five or six, since I began to feel lonely.
If you go to Italy and see great works and get proper training, maybe youll become as
famous as the three masters.
There you go again, she scolded me, frowning. Dont try to put me on a pedestal,
Nopphorn, if you want me to keep talking to you. I draw because I really love art. Besides,
I have another reason of my own: devoting myself to something helps me fight loneliness,
helps me organise my thoughts and prevent them from wandering. Have you ever thought
that mental activity is like physical activity? That theres a constant flow of movement,
except when we are asleep? It is in our nature to do something and think something all the
time. We never stop. If we tried to be completely still, it would be like torture. You can
check this right now: try to keep your hands still and sit perfectly still without moving any
part of your body and without thinking of anything at all. You will soon feel most
uncomfortable. When you move, your movements are either beneficial to you or harmful
or neither beneficial nor harmful. Its the same with our thoughts: if we dont think in a
beneficial way, then we think in a way which is either harmful or neither beneficial nor
harmful. Since our brain is perpetually active, I think that if we can find a distraction which
is useful and which continually absorbs our thoughts, then life can never be worthless and
we are able to enjoy it at least a little, regardless of what our condition is. To let your
thoughts wander is no good: you only end up feeling bored with life. Women in my
position are much in need of such distractions. If I had nothing useful to think about, I
could only think about things that are useless or harmful. Its only natural. And I can say
that, since I developed a love for art, art has become my good friend, too. But I have been
going on for so long you must be thoroughly bored.
Ive listened to all your explanations with the greatest pleasure, I said sincerely. Id
like to but why is it that my most sincere compliments frighten you, Milady? Or is it that
my sincerity itself is frightening?
Youve just answered your own question. What do you want me to add?
You talk so cleverly, indeed you are so clever in everything, that I cant keep up with
No, no. I think you are following your own path. You dont want to follow anyone, and
you should be proud of that. She paused for a moment, adjusted the sleeves of her
kimono, then added: The weather is not so hot tonight. With this constant wind blowing,
my feet are feeling a little cold.
I removed my large scarf from my neck and spread it over her pearly white feet.
Good gracious! she exclaimed, then added with a soft laugh: Why have you covered
my feet with your scarf? The two dont go together!
Didnt you know that your feet are more beautiful than my neck and deserve better
Princess Keerati heaved a long sigh. It was her way of letting me know that she did not
intend to acknowledge my compliments anymore.
We were the last to go ashore. Both of us were astonished when we looked around the
pond and found that there were no other boats on the water. We were both surprised and
amused that we had enjoyed our conversation so much that we had failed to notice that all
the others had left. When I looked at the watch I carried with me, I realised that we had
spent two whole hours in the boat.
How could we have stayed so long? Princess Keerati asked in amazement.
I was totally enraptured in your company, was my answer.
I thought it was one hour at most, she said.
And Id have said only five minutes!
That evening, His Excellency returned home about half an hour after we did. Princess
Keerati and I had each come to the conclusion that there was no need to inform His
Excellency of the details of our evening excursion and, since we were in agreement, we did
not offer an explanation.
I had difficulty finding sleep that night. How could I, indeed, when my head was so full
of Princess Keerati? All kinds of questions sprang up in my mind. Had I ever in my life met
a woman more charming and beautiful than Princess Keerati? Had I ever met a woman
more gentle and clever and sharp than Princess Keerati? Had I ever met a woman who had
shown me such care and tenderness and given me such a feeling of intimacy as Princess
Keerati had? The answers to all these questions were no firmly and decisively no. But
why was I asking myself such questions? Why should I care to compare Princess Keeratis
beauty, intelligence and all her other qualities with those of everyone else or, to be more
accurate, with those of all the women I had previously come across? Why was I asking
myself such questions? I searched for an answer, but in the end, did I ever find one?
My search drifted and, instead of coming up with a clear answer, my thoughts went
back to certain feelings I had had for Princess Keerati during the evening. As she climbed
out of the boat, she had held out her hand for me to support her. I held her hand gently yet
firmly to steady her as her foot left the boat and she stepped on to dry land. As I was doing
so, an odd feeling, one I had never experienced before, ran through me. It was as though a
strong hand had seized my heart and was shaking it, so much so that the shaking spread to
my whole body and I was completely overwhelmed for a while.
I can stand all right now, thank you, you can let go of my hand.
As Princess Keerati spoke, I realised that I was still clasping her hand. Startled, I released
it gently, but the feeling of wonderment still made my heart pound. What was that power
which, at the mere contact of her small palm, had dragged me so far out of myself, a power
so strong that it still clung to my heart several hours after we had parted?
When I was leaving, she went out to the gate to see me off and, as I was saying goodbye,
she took the scarf, which I had forgotten, and wrapped it around my neck. Its breezy
tonight, she said. Make sure not to expose your neck. Id be very sorry if you were to be
ill as a result of keeping me company.
Will you be needing me tomorrow?
Let me think about it first, she teased.
Very well then, tomorrow Ill come around for the answer.
She smiled with pleasure and said that she would now go back inside: Oyasuminasai,
my dear boy.
Oyasuminasai, I answered, my heart aflutter with the sweetness of her smile and the
melodious undertones of her soft voice.
These were the scenes and feelings that filled my reverie. The light of the waxing moon
came through one of the windows which I had opened slightly and the rays fell on my feet,
reminding me of her smooth, white and tapering feet...

At the seaside and later on a day excursion to a hillside resort, Nopphorn learns more about Princess
Keerati. As they sit on a rock by a stream (the very setting of the watercolour mentioned in the
prologue), she confides that she married a much older man out of desperation: having led the totally
sheltered life of a daughter of the aristocracy, she has always been hankering for love and turned
down marriage opportunities until well past marriageable age. I was lucky to have been blessed
with beauty but unlucky to be without love. She wedded the kindly old man at her fathers insist-
ence. Enjoying the outside world for the first time in her life, she is now happy without love and so
is her husband, she believes, making it clear that their relationship is sexless as well as loveless.
Forgetting himself, Nopphorn takes Princess Keerati in his arms and kisses her passionately. She
gently pushes him away and, when he declares his love, reminds him that before long, youll have to
go back to your studies < As for me, it is my duty to be loyal to His Excellency...
For all his insistence, Nopphorn will never get her to say that she, too, loves him, although, as the last
two weeks of the couples stay in Japan draw inexorably to a close, it becomes clear to the reader,
though not to the young man, that she shares his feelings.
After her departure, a tormented Nopphorn writes her two emotional letters, expressing his undying
love for her. After he has written the first, he rereads it several times to savour once again the sweet
taste of my feelings, which was enough to lift my spirits and ease my sorrow. In contrast, Princess
Keeratis answer is a plea for moderation and patience I feel for you so much, so very much ... I
want you to be happy, no matter what.
Time passes. Nopphorn finds solace in his studies, his letters to the princess get fewer and farther
between, and writing them becomes more of a duty than a pleasure. Two and a half years after her
return home, I received news from Princess Keerati that His Excellency had passed away... I ...
promptly wrote back offering my condolences. After that, life went on as usual.
Nopphorn completes his studies and, more preoccupied with the progress of [his] own career than
anything else, begins training at a bank. One year later, he is finally back in Bangkok and Princess
Keerati is among those welcoming him at the docks and so is his fiance. It will be four days before
Nopphorn finds time to visit the princess and another two months before he calls again with the news
that he is about to get married.
Princess Keerati hides her disappointment well, but soon falls seriously ill. Devoured by
tuberculosis, she still does her best to pretend to Nopphorn, who knows better, that she is about to
recover. When she hands him over as a wedding present a watercolour she painted after returning
from Japan, she finally confesses that she fell in love with him as he did with her. Your love was
born there and died there. But for someone else, love still flourishes in a wasted body.

Seven days later, Princess Keerati passed away. I was present during those last dark hours,
together with all her relatives. Before the end, she asked for a pencil and paper. She wanted
to say a last word to me, but her voice had gone and so had her strength. Thus it was that
on a piece of paper she wrote, I die with no one to love me, yet content that I have
someone to love.

This last line, which sounds even more poignant in the vernacular, is known to every
educated Thai. It is a distant echo of Princess Keeratis assessment of her own past, half
way through the book: lucky to have been blessed with beauty but unlucky to be without
Behind the picture is outstanding in its mixture of romantic and realistic elements. The
exotic setting is made vividly present through a few, well-chosen strokes. The love story
does take place essentially in the summer and early autumn in Japan, and it could take
place nowhere else. Each outdoor scene has minor characters animating it (the two girls
singing in the boat, a couple of drunken womanizers, a holiday crowd), each time offering
an unobtrusive social message, often relevant to the main romance as well: the need to be
what we are to the best of our ability, the unseemliness of public demonstrations of
affection, the advantage of cheap holidays for the people.
The carefully crafted structure of the novel gives full play to the portrayal of two
outstanding characters, a wasted woman and an ambitious young man. The prologue gives
an inkling of what the narrator has become: he has put the painting not in front of his desk
but behind it, as much out of guilt as to signal he wants to keep the past behind him; his
disparaging remarks about his wife suggest he has yet to love her, if he ever will; ever the
banker, he doesnt fail to point out the commercial value of the other paintings in his house.
The narrator looks at his youthful infatuation from the vantage point of its conclusion and
this gives depth and distance to the events, which unfold in chronological order. As he
reflects on his own emotions and reactions, he questions his own sincerity, only to give
himself the benefit of the doubt. In his naive duplicity, Nopphorn thus gains unusual den-
sity as a character. By dwelling only on the high points of the relationship, the narrative
achieves constant fluidity, exposing deftly the swift evolution of the feelings of the
protagonists, from easy friendship to love then frustration, oblivion and bad conscience for
Nopphorn, and to unobtrusive yet unrequited love for Princess Keerati.
Keerati is a particularly moving heroin. A daughter of the old aristocracy, she has lived
an unreal life and, confronted with the real world, she reacts in a shy way which can only
end in failure. Her search for beauty is an exercise in wishful thinking (I tend to see beauty
in almost everything) but it matches her nostalgia for a happy past; it is also a desperate
reflection on herself, on her fear of losing this extraordinarily youthful beauty that is her
main asset, which she will pretend to retain even in the throes of death for the man she
knows she loves in vain. Her present is sterile and her future doomed: even when her
husbands death allows her to nurture hope against hope, she does not try to assert herself,
other than through subtle innuendos in her letters that Nopphorn is too uncaring to catch.
Her upbringing, sense of decency and perhaps foreboding of future disappointment force
her to hide her love and keep Nopphorn literally at arms length. Yet her love is genuine,
generous and everlasting unlike Nopphorns, whose youthful infatuation is merely part
of the process of growing up. She wants him to be happy, no matter what and sacrifices
herself to his career and wife, whereas he is merely egotistical, as when he rereads many
times his first letter to her to soothe his sorrow, or when he presses her to say she loves
him, an assurance which would boost his ego no end.
Nopphorn is not just self-centred, he is also callous, emotionally numb, self-deceiving
and ambitious not a very likable fellow, perhaps, but how very true to life and credible.
Away from home he forgets home; away from Princess Keerati, he forgets her. He has no
time for the past. His real concern, once the tempest in his heart has abated, is his career,
wife included, and a prosperous future. Princess Keerati having long been relegated to the
convenient status of an elder sister, he is eager to get on with his life, on his way to
success and riches a true representative of the new class of capitalists that had taken over
from the old aristocracy Princess Keerati embodies: this interpretation adds an extra
dimension to the tale, and saves a little bit of Kularp Saipradits face as a politically
committed writer. It is further consolidated by the personality of His Excellency, whom
other writers of the period, or even an earlier Kularp, would have turned into a villain.
Instead, His Excellency is a harmless, pathetic bon vivant, who enjoys his wealth, shows off
his wife, yet is unable to perform in bed even though he is merely in his fifties. His
impotence is improbable; it fits a little too well with his wifes frustration and happiness
without love, or was it meant to be a further symbol of a spent class?

Dorkmai sot

Dorkmai Sot is the pen name of Morm Luang Buppha Kunchorn Nimmarn-heimin [ML
Buppha Kunjara Nimmanhemin], a daughter of an aristocrat who, after a groundbreaking
career as a moralizing romantic novelist, married late into a wealthy Sino-Thai family. She
spent the rest of her days living a tortured and demanding life as the wife of a Thai poli-
tician and ambassador. Between 1929 and 1940, she wrote eleven novels, all centred on the
small, glittering world of the early-century aristocracy. She paid particular attention to the
customs and traditions of the upper class, with an inclination to word Buddhist preaching
which earned her the title of preacher without a pulpit.
Buppha (the name means fresh flower, as does dorkmai sot) was born at Barn Mor
Palace in Bangkok on 17 February 1905. Her father, Morm Rarchawong Larn Kunchorn [MR
Larn Kunjara], was a government official who ended his career as minister of agriculture
with the title of Jao Phraya (Duke) Theiweit Wongwiwat, but was better known to the
public in the field of dramatic arts than in his official works

. Her mother, Morm Malai,

was one of the brightest stars in her fathers repertory theater

, but she divorced her

husband and left Buppha in the custody of her own mother when she was less than three
years old. At the age of five, Buppha went to live in the Royal Palace with her great-aunt,
Morm Jao (Her Serene Highness) Chom. At thirteen, she returned to her fathers palace.
Buppha saw her mother only a few times before both parents died within months of each
other when she was 17.
She attended St-Joseph Convent School for her baccalaurat studies but was an
indifferent student, except in French. Under the influence of a very proper Catholic nun
who was her teacher, Buppha became a devotee of the naive and sentimental novels
written by a French brother and sister who used the pen name Delly.
Rather short, slender and flat-chested, Buppha had impeccable palace manners and a
sense of grace. Although reserved, she was curious and observant, and on occasion proved
to be a lively conversationalist. She turned into a beautiful young woman, but hers was a
funny kind of beauty, because her face was egg-shaped, with lovely eyes, a long nose in
harmony with her features, and dull white skin. Several young men showed interest in her
but none of them took her fancy so nothing happened...

At her fathers death in 1922, Bupphas eldest half brother (Morm Luang Wara Kunchorn)
became responsible for her wellbeing. Although she wanted to become a teacher, he
wouldnt hear of it; instead, she turned to writing.
Bupphas father had left her a monthly stipend of fifty baht, a considerable sum in those
days, but it shrank in value as time went by and in the period during and after the Second
World War she was forced to lead a particularly frugal life.

Wipha Seinanan, op cit


Cheewit Dut Theipphaniyai Khong Dorkmai Sot, The fairytale life of Dorkmai Sot, Somphop
Janthornprapha, Bangkok, [1974?]
In December 1927, her first work, a short play, The jitters (Deefor), was published in Thai
Khaseim, a literary monthly magazine launched in 1924. Her first four novels

were also
printed in monthly magazines between 1929 and 1932. Thereafter, Buppha began
publishing her works

directly in book form, at the rhythm of about one a year, starting

with Three men (Sarm Chai) in 1933. In 1949, she wrote the first draft of a new novel, which
she revised in 1953-54, but the work was never finished, due to her declining health.
During the war, Buppha fled the Allied bombings over Bangkok, moving first to
Ayutthaya and then to Bang Pa-in. She became increasingly unwell, however. She was
hypersensitive to weather changes (thunder literally made her sick, as did rain and cold)
and felt increasingly uncomfortable in the presence of others: yet, she had never been alone
in her life and it was only after the war that she had her own room.
Despite a composed, somewhat aloof appearance, Buppha was periodically depressed,
given to bouts of worry she herself defined as excessive. She was sick and in pain for the
last fifteen years of her life due to a thyroid condition. After two spells at the Bangkok
Nursing Home in 1953 and 1954, she went for treatment in a hospital in Perth, Australia.
From there, in September of the same year, to everyones surprise, the sickly 49-year-old
spinster flew to San Francisco to marry a well-known Thai politician and teacher, Sukit
Nimmarn-heimin, who had discreetly courted her one year earlier before he had gone to
teach in the US. It is said that he fetched her at the airport, drove her to the Thai consulate
to register the marriage, checked into a hotel and then proceeded to empty all the bottles of
medicine she had taken along into the sink, claiming that she would no longer need them.
Little did he know what was in store.
Sukit, who had been minister of industry before going to the US, went back into politics
and in January 1958 became deputy prime minister. A year later, he was appointed ambas-
sador to India. Severely sick, unable to read and write for more than ten minutes at a time,
Buppha did her utmost to perform her public duties, but felt terribly lonely in India and
her letters to close relatives show that she often thought of committing suicide. She died of
a heart attack in Delhi in January 1963, one month short of her 58th birthday.
After her first, eminently forgettable novels, Buppha came into her own with Three men,
which has an ingenious and careful plot, well-outlined characters and an at once precise,
complex and utterly proper use of language. Nevertheless, the novel lacks scope and
suffers from her religious blandishments.
For better and for worse, Dorkmai Sot has had a seminal influence over the
development of the Thai novel and her works have become models for aspiring romance
writers, although her churchy style is now widely perceived as out of date. During her
lifetime, her works were studied in schools, and they still are. Such is the world was
translated into Japanese, and the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers had her short
story Phonlamueang Dee published in English in Span magazine in 1958.

Sattroo Khong Jao Lorn, Her enemy; Nit; Khwamphit Khrang Raek, The first mistake; and Kham Kao, Karma

These are: Noeng Nai Roi, One in a hundred, 1934; Ubattiheit, The accident, also 1934; Chaichana Khong
Luang Naruebarn, Earl Naruebarns victory, 1935; Phoo Dee, A person of quality, 1937; Nanthawan, 1938;
and Nee Lae Loak, Such is the world, 1940. She also published two collections of short stories, Phoo Klin
and Butsabarban.
A person of quality (Phoo Dee) 1937

Pretty, clever, upright and wealthy, Wimon hasnt a care in the world. She is the eldest daughter of
His Lordship Marquess Amornrat Rarchasuphit, a bon vivant who dotes on her. He has just present-
ed her with a car and is about to throw a party to celebrate her twenty-first birthday on the night of
20 January 1934.

Royal attendant of the second rank and Supreme Court judge Phraya Amornrat
Rarchasuphit had always had many friends from an early age to well past his retirement,
and all would ask two personal questions about him. The first was what special ability he
had that enabled him to maintain his two wives on an equal footing. The second was how
come neither of the well-bred wives had received the royal accolade as first spouse.
Every time his friends asked the second question, Marquess Amornrat would answer
breezily: Because they never stopped arguing about it, and then he would laugh as if
something funny had just crossed his mind. In fact, whenever the word wife was uttered,
Marquess Amornrat always felt like laughing.
As for the first question, it was rather too complex to be answered in just a few words.
He would choose the occasion and his audience, so that his confidences were restricted to
only a few close friends when drink had made talk flow.
When I was a young man, he would begin, I was remarkably slender. My father was
a nobleman and my grandfather on my mothers side was a jaosua. So its not surprising
that I planned to marry two wives in three days.
But I heard that your father was the one who found your first wife for you, wasnt that
so? one friend asked.
My first wife? Marquess Amornrat retorted. I still do not know which one is my first
wife! Dear Wong is the wife my father chose for me, but I married her two days after I
married dear Sae. Dear Sae is also my wife, but we got married on our own, without the
knowledge or the approval of our elders. Both wives have equal weight. How dare one
fancy herself to be more of a khunying than the other?
What follows is the story of Marquess Amornrat and his two spouses, at a time when he
was still Viscount Mongkhon.
When the marquess claimed that as a young man he was of slender built, he meant that
he caught the eye of the ladies; when he said that his father was a nobleman, he meant that
he was of high birth; and the reference to his maternal grandfather as a jaosua meant that he
was a man of wealth. Ordinarily, anybody with these three noticeable attributes would be
welcomed by society at any level. A simple look is enough to inspire confidence no close
examination or careful listening is required.
Acceptance by society at large tends to mean that one can easily obtain whatever one
wishes, for it is gratifying to give, entrust or bestow. If the one who receives shows proper
gratitude and good manners, he will keep his desires within acceptable bounds. If on the
other hand the recipient is a coarse person who disregards other peoples feelings and
arrogantly considers the gift as his due, he will become gradually more demanding and
increasingly dissatisfied with what he has and with his attempts to fulfil his yearnings,
forsaking some of his humanity in the process.
Whither, then, would the yearnings of a young gentleman with the advantages of
Viscount Mongkhon turn his attention decisively if not in the direction of the opposite sex?
Desire follows desire and feeds on itself, growing ceaselessly.
While Viscount Mongkhon was studying law, his parents requested him to enter the
monkhood for a few months, and he obliged. The thought of disobeying wealthy and
powerful parents had yet to enter the brain of any child because their anger could doom
that childs future. Viscount Mongkhon took the vows for the three months of Lent and
received the yellow robe according to custom. When he left the order and became a law
student again, he found himself already betrothed, courtesy of his parents, who had
arranged the whole affair while he was still in the Buddhas fold.
At this point, Viscount Mongkhon was not yet twenty-two years old and had yet to
complete his vocational education. In arranging for a wife for him, his father had lost no
time in providing him with a firm anchor. However, the speed of the father was unable to
match the speed of the son, because as soon as his studies were over, Viscount Mongkhon
tied himself up in the bonds of love.
Viscount Mongkhons betrothed, as chosen by his father, was a young lady of about the
same status as himself. Her progenitors on her fathers side had been senior palace dig-
nitaries for several generations and had a huge residence at Bangkok Noi Canal, while her
mothers side of the family had a wealthy background and owned substantial tracts of
paddy fields and orchards along the Jao Phraya river in the district of Bangkhein. Miss
Wong was an only child. She was plump and small, had a clear complexion and the
perfect, soft manners of old gentility. She had learned just enough to be able to read and to
sign her name, but she was very proficient in the various tasks required of women, such as
cooking, baking cakes and darning bed sheets, and at a higher level arranging flowers,
moulding pleated cakes, peeling marian plums in stripes and sewing intricate lace napkins.
Although she had never been sent to school, her mother had always seen to it that she be
properly trained.
Viscount Mongkhons own choice for a wife had a pedigree and standing comparable to
Miss Wongs, but in terms of upbringing and lifestyle Miss Sae was as different from Miss
Wong as women who belonged to different generations and times.
Miss Sae had been educated at Sunantharlai School; she read, wrote and spoke English
just like a man, was adept at preparing both Thai and foreign dishes, knew how to select
and cut dresses for herself, sketched a little, could embroider silk and was an expert at
matching silk colours. She had a dark complexion, was tall, slender and chic, and looked
and felt equally at ease sitting on a chair or on the floor. She walked beautifully and
crawled in sprightly fashion, preferred to read books and talk or listen to conversations on
broad topics rather than sit modestly over some handiwork.
Miss Sae was an only daughter, her mother was a retiring woman who liked to stay in
her husbands shadow at all times. As soon as Miss Sae was of age, her father had her
directly or indirectly perform the tasks that were the duties of her mother but which the
dame was unable to carry out to his satisfaction. She became both the darling daughter and
closest friend of her father, following him to every place where ladies were allowed and
receiving guests, male and female, old and young, who came visiting at the house. She
would also sit in a car and go to various places on her own with only one chaperon or
lawyer as a mark of prestige.
For these reasons, when she reached womanhood, as the daughter of a wealthy and
well-connected man, all manner of ladies of rank dreamed to have her for a daughter-in-
law, and their husbands regarded her with dread and suspicion. As for the young men, like
all young men of all times, they were eager for young ladies they could approach easily.
Among these young men was Viscount Mongkhon.
The viscount was luckier than the other suitors. He was as pleased with Miss Sae as she
was with him. He promised that he would ask his elders to arrange for her hand and she
promised to make herself only available to him.
If some people hoped that, when he learnt of his fathers arranged betrothal, Viscount
Mongkhon would be annoyed and distressed, they were disappointed. On the contrary,
Viscount Mongkhon felt nothing much out of the ordinary, except for wanting to know
whether his fiance was good-looking. When he recollected that he had seen Miss Wong on
several occasions, he started to conceive of a way to have both women, each of whom had
wealth, linage and pleasing looks, as his wives.
Viscount Mongkhon and Miss Sae may have known each other in a former life or shared
common misfortune. In any case, at the time when Miss Saes body and soul most needed a
mentor, she found herself without her father, who had died during the Lent, when
Viscount Mongkhon was in the monkhood.
About a week after disrobing, Viscount Mongkhon dressed in mourning and went to see
Miss Sae and pay his respects to her dead father. He told his beloved that his father had
arranged for his betrothal without consulting him. While Miss Sae listened, he did not try
to fathom how hurt she felt, just as Miss Sae did not allow any feeling to show. After
remaining still for a while, she only asked: Then why did you come back to see me?
In those days, the notion that Viscount Mongkhon could pull out of the betrothal
arranged by his elders did not even come to Miss Saes mind. As for Viscount Mongkhon,
he did not allow her to doubt his love for her and launched into an eloquent expos of his
honesty and of the reliability of his exclusive feelings for her, which he concluded by
saying: I will never love the wife Father has arranged for me more than I love you, and I
will never allow you to humble yourself before her.
The declaration haunted Miss Saes mind for days as she was trying to set on a course
for herself, and finally she decided that she could live with it! The ambition of any wife is
that she has a higher status than her husbands other wives. The collection of wives is a
type of sport for men; to compete for the attentions of a husband is a type of sport for
women, and let the best one win! Whoever makes her husband love her more is the wife
who wins. Khun Sae was not afraid to compete with Miss Wong in this game. Who was
Miss Wong? A daughter so confined by her parents that she had lived in a shell and never
seen anything under the sky!
Miss Sae and Viscount Mongkhon kept on meeting as before until close to the day set for
his wedding with his betrothed.
At this point, Miss Sae had decided on the main course her life would follow and she
was fully prepared. She would never allow anyone to claim that Mrs Wong was the official
wife and she was the one that followed. Therefore, it was necessary that she marry
Viscount Mongkhon before she gave herself to him and before Miss Wongs wedding, but
to undertake such a ceremony was not without risk for Viscount Mongkhon, so that again
it was necessary that Miss Saes wedding took place just before Miss Wongs. But Miss Sae
was unable to marry quickly as she had yet to organise her fathers funeral.
So, she had Viscount Mongkhon postpone his wedding to Miss Wong to the end of the
year. In the end, she married him eleven days after the cremation of her father and only
two days before the wedding of Viscount Mongkhon and his betrothed.
Miss Sae owned a piece of land and a house which her father had left her next to the
property that Miss Wongs father had bought for his daughter before her marriage and on
which Viscount Mongkhons father had had a bridal house built for his son. Viscount
Mongkhon never failed to be amused whenever he thought of the parents of the two
daughters who had competed to win over the same husband and provided them with
next-door abodes.
Miss Sae went through the ceremony of pouring holy water with her beloved.
From the moment she told her mother the truth and informed her of her intentions
that is two days before the wedding her mother wept with fright and alarm almost to the
point of fainting several times. But as befits a wife used to living in the shadow of her
husband, as a mother she stayed close to her daughter. She did not have the stamina to
oppose her daughter, and she dared not ask for help from her other children as she was
afraid it would lead to further dissentions among them. This was because she knew the
only person in the world that her daughter was afraid of had been her father, and second,
her other children were rather jealous of Miss Sae as she had been their fathers favourite
and had received a bigger share of the inheritance than any one of them a fact Miss Sae
herself was well aware of. How, then, would her daughter take the advice of those whose
good intentions she tended to doubt?
This is why when Miss Saes wedding took place, her mother was the one who
sprinkled the holy water on the bride and groom, in the presence of a few younger uncles
and aunts of minor status who used to be under the patronage of Miss Saes father and
were now under obligation to Miss Sae or had been persuaded by her to attend. It was only
natural that they would obey Miss Saes orders rather than have her follow the advice of
more influential elder relatives.
As for Mrs Wong, as soon as she opened the window of her bedroom in the bridal house
the morning after her wedding, her eyes met those of a person who appeared at the
opposite window in the next house and who kept staring at her in such a disturbing way
that she soon felt very flustered.
At this point in Marquess Amornrats tale, his listeners would eagerly interrupt to ask
about the next incident what did it feel like when Mrs Wong became aware of the truth?
The Marquess would bow his head slightly and leisurely, chuckle at some inner
thought, and then say: It wasnt much fun. My betel-chewing wife wept a lot and she
would not eat for two or three days. It took a lot to pacify her but as soon as she was made
to eat one meal, with her belly full her mood began to improve and soon everything was
fine and dandy.
And what did the elders say? asked someone else.
Marquess Amornrat waved his hand and broke into a most hearty laugh. Father said
Well done, son!, my father-in-law thought it was all in the nature of a real man, Mother
held the middle ground, she said nothing and did not interfere, but my mother-in-law was
the one who made all the fuss. She was more jealous than her own daughter!
When someone asked him Were the two ladies jealous? Marquess Amornrat
answered swiftly: They were both ferociously jealous, but each in her own way. Dear
Wong broke all the dishes and sent the servants running for cover, but she would do it
behind my back. When she did it to my face, it meant she could not stand it anymore. Dear
Sae was the opposite. In front of others, she would not let out anything, but as soon as we
were alone, she lashed out at me with all she had and I could hardly utter a word!

Relations between the two wives go from bad to worse. Dear Sae has a daughter, who dies at the age
of three. Dear Wong has twins a boy named Wiphat and a girl named Wimon. Convinced by a
dream that Wimon is a reincarnation of her dead child, Dear Sae raises Wimon as her own daughter.
As time goes by, Viscount Mongkhon climbs the social strata to become Marquess Amornrat. Five
years into his double marriage, he takes a third wife, who soon dies after delivering twin daughters.
He also has a protracted affair with Dear Wongs maid, Phrorm, who bears him two children before
taking to the bottle and turning scurrilous.
A quarrel between the two wives leads Dear Sae to retire to her orchard in Janthaburee. Another
quarrel between Phrorm and Dear Wong leads to the departure of Dear Wong, whereupon His
Lordship summons Dear Sae back.
At 14, Wiphat had won a royal grant to study in England. Now, seven years later, he still has three
years to go, but the cost of his foreign education is born by his father.
Although Udom leads the bevy of suitors ready to pluck Wimon, she has mixed feelings about him.
Their story goes back six years: Udom, a distant relative of Mrs Sae, had fallen in love with Wimon
just before he left for England to study. He was 18, she was 15, they swore eternal love. A reversal of
fortune forced him to interrupt his studies and return to Siam to find Wimon less certain of her
feelings for him. Now, he is offered a job as an embassy secretary in London. Wimon encourages him
to go but promises to wait for him.
On the night of her twenty-first birthday, Marquess Amornrat tells Wimon that, in her twin
brothers absence, she would be put in charge of the estate should he die. He instructs her to provide
equal care to all her brothers and sisters. A timely command: he dies of a heart attack within the hour.
Wimon soon realizes that there is little money left in the family coffers. The carefree socialite turns
into a thrifty and wilful housekeeper determined to obey her fathers orders and sacrifice her luxuries
for the wellbeing of her siblings and other relatives. In so doing, she often rides roughshod over
traditions and disregards the advice of all but her dear mother Sae. Instead of keeping her fathers
body in state for one hundred days as custom would require, she decides to have it buried. To keep
funding her brothers education, Wimon sells her car and rents out the main house. She and her four
younger siblings move to the now vacated servants quarters. Wimon takes on the household chores
and accepts badly paid needlework as well. Wimons friends begin to ignore her and suitors become
The main house is rented to a pearl of a man, the not so old but very wealthy Duke Phonlawat, who
has to contend with a chronically ill and morbidly jealous wife and their somewhat retarded son,
Sumon. Duke Phonlawat soon befriends Wimons younger brother Marnop and, despite Wimons
extreme caution, it is only a matter of time before she and the rest of the family, including Mrs Sae,
are on friendly terms with the tenants. On several occasions, the duke discreetly acts as a benevolent
protector, providing brotherly advice to Marnop and persuading a vindictive Phrorm to withdraw a
law suit she had filed to end Wimons watchful custody over her children.
When Wiphat sends a telegram announcing that Udom has been hospitalized, Wimon has a
premonition that her betrothed is dead and she breaks down. Another telegram and a letter confirm
her fears, but the letter also brings the wonderful news that Wiphat has obtained a grant from the
Thai government. There is no longer any need to be tight-fisted, the younger sister, Marlee, can get
married and a new house can be built.

One morning in July, Mrs Sae, Wimon and her two younger siblings, together with Phrorm
and old Aunt Fuen, started on a trip to Janthaburee.
In the evening of the same day, as the sun shot its parting rays, dark clouds gathered in
the overcast sky, the air freshened and there were sudden bursts of wind. Arms across his
chest, Duke Phonlawat stood leaning against a window frame, looking out at the little
house and its surrounding fence. The wind shook the big trees, whose branches bowed and
stooped like someone bending over to hide his face. The wind rushing under the house
sounded like sobs. Doors and windows were closely shut as though to make him imagine
that the house had been abandoned by its owners for good.
In the main building where the duke stood everything was exceptionally quiet. His
ailing wife slept, and her nurse was probably trying her best not to let any noise disturb
her. Sumon had gone on a car ride with Marnop at the suggestion of the duke, who had
undertaken to make the young man happy since the first few hours he had come under his
Duke Phonlawat had accompanied Mrs Sae to the ship, had further ingratiated himself
to Wimons mother and had taken Wimons hand when the ship had hooted before leaving
the quay, looking at her in a meaningful way from the deepest recesses of his eyes, but the
young woman had seemed truly unaware of his feelings.
He thought about the first time he had touched her hand to express his pleasure when
she had received the news about the windfall. He thought about her eyes brimming with
tears of delight. He thought about what she had said out of sincere doubt: It is so
incredible and yet absolutely true. Some god must have intervened. All my worries are
gone. My only concern now is how well my brother will pay back his debt to the
government but I have no doubt that he will do his very best.
What god had intervened? Duke Phonlawat looked at himself. He was no god merely
an ordinary person who could at times err, at times blunder, at times be remiss. For all that,
however, he was also someone who believed firmly in showing gratitude for the good
other people do, thus enhancing that good in turn.
To show gratitude in ones heart is to acknowledge without favour or jealousy that a
good deed is indeed good. To express gratitude in words is to praise good deeds or their
authors in their presence as well as in their absence. Expressing gratitude through
encouragement or direct help makes a good deed easier or more promptly effective.
To do good is something that many find difficult, and because it is difficult, many lose
heart and get discouraged. Furthermore, many are simply ordinary people who do good in
the hope that it will alleviate hardship. The dedication shown in doing good tends to
depend on how visible this good is. To express gratitude in ones heart and in words is
therefore making merit, which those who only see their own interest should practise
Duke Phonlawat had decided to help Wimon as often as he could, starting from the time
Mr Jong-rak had told him about her. Although the young suitor had presented things in his
own light, the duke had drawn his own conclusions, which led him to think: This woman
is a rather unusual daughter. How did she come by such unconventional views?
After he had agreed to rent the house, the first opportunity he had to keep hardship
from Wimon was in correcting Dame Borriharns misconception that Marlee was of poor
standing and in warning her son Jaroon to remember the duties of a gentleman; the second
was in putting a stop to Marnops self-indulgence; the third in finding a way to rapidly
dismiss Miss Phrorms case by spending what was to him a small amount but a lot to the
plaintiff and her lawyer. The most important occasion was in being able to have the
Ministry of Finance extend a grant to Wiphat.
The duke had written in his private capacity to the Siamese ambassador at the Court of
Saint-James and to the tutor of Thai students in England to have the behaviour, character,
intelligence and university record of Wiphat investigated. He had announced the intention
of the Ministry of Finance to increase the number of its top-level accountants, and he had
presented to the Cabinet the names of the students who should be selected. All this had
taken him almost half a year.
The happiness Wimon was now enjoying resulted entirely from the actions of Duke
Phonlawat, although she was not aware of it. Whether she knew or not was not important
to him, because he had done good only for the sake of good, and for no other reason, and
he had enough dedication to do it always, whether or not it was perceived clearly and
gratefully acknowledged.
But Duke Phonlawats act of goodness was the reason why the little house behind its
fence of hibiscus was now silent and deserted, a heartbreaking sight. As the heat decreased
and the sky grew darker, the duke, in tune with the nature around him, felt sadness and
confusion, loneliness, grief, awe and nostalgia, and in turn he felt bored with himself. He
lowered his hand and turned away abruptly from the window.
The words of an English song from the neighbouring house came drifting by: When
skies are cloudy and grey its only grey for a day... Just remember sunshine always follows the rain.
Not bad, Duke Phonlawat thought. This piece of cheap and shallow wisdom brought
a bored smile to his lips, but it was wisdom nonetheless, a precept which expressed clearly
the truth of nature and human life. In the same way as bright light follows darkness,
satisfaction washes away human sadness. The small house would not be locked up forever,
only fifty days at the most. Life and feeling would soon fill it up again, trees and leaves
would be as refreshing as they used to be, and and then, sunshine would follow the rain
in the heart of Duke Phonlawat.

A person of quality is a Buddhist novel of manners, written in the style of Henry James from
a sermon thought up by a Buddhist Billy Graham. Five years after the 1932 revolution
marked the end of the centuries-old aristocratic order, Buppha the novelist is still oblivious
to the changes going on around her and the new social actors who have taken the
ascendancy. Her novel is an apologia of the ways of the old world, under the guise of an
expose of the values of the Buddhist doctrine.
True, Wimons family fell on hard times; yet, these were not brought about by an
economic crisis but by the very iniquities of her beloved father (modelled on Bupphas own)
who was too concerned with women and the good life to attend to the lasting welfare of his
family Buddhist lesson number one. His excesses of the flesh with women of various social
classes led to jealousy and quarrels that spice up the novel, playing the truly noble against
the irrevocably plebeian.
Each of the fifteen chapters is introduced by an illuminating quote from the Buddha. The
Buddhist values that are explained and illustrated throughout the novel are not presented
as specific to the old aristocracy but as a universally acceptable model: the person of quality
should inspire future generations. Being a person of quality, the author explains, is not a
question of social status or wealth but of moral rectitude, a quality of the heart which
implies patience, wisdom, benevolence and self-sacrifice. Inclusion of a character of quality
from a low social class would, however, have made the novelists point more convincing.
Instead, by pointing out that wealth, privilege and education are conducive to the know-
ledge, wisdom and virtues of a gentleperson, she negates her first contention, reinforces the
idea that people of quality can only be found among the privileged class, and clearly counts
herself as part of it.
The people of virtue in the novel are Wimon, Wimons stepmother Mrs Sae, and Duke
Wimon is a captivating heroine who, out of love and respect for her father, undergoes a
profound psychological transformation from a modern, carefree young woman (enjoying
liberties that were extraordinary at the time a common trait of most of Bupphas heroines)
into a mature head of the family who attends to the welfare of everyone under her charge
without giving in to the lures of face and tradition. Her decisions are sound and, although
she is faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a little help from like-minded bene-
factors (Mrs Saes advice, Duke Phonlawats behind-the-scenes intervenetions) allows for a
happy ending. At the same time, she is beset by doubts and suspicions and suffers from the
consequences of some of her own decisions, and thus becomes a convincing and lovable
Mrs Sae represents the wisdom of the middle path, an important Buddhist tenet which
stresses the need to strike a balance between extremes, as either too little or too much can
bring about evil. She writes to Wimon to advise her not to carry on with the manual jobs that
bring too little money for the labour demanded from a person of her condition (social con-
sciousness is never forgotten), and she reminds the duke that, between neglect of his sick
wife and complete dedication to her, there is yet the option of hiring a nurse. (The middle
path is fine if you can afford it, but few people have such choices.)
Like the heroes in Bupphas other novels, Duke Phonlawat is a saintly man who enjoys
doing good for the sake of doing good anonymously, without expecting any reward or
recognition. This one in a hundred type of man may be derived from some admirable
aristocratic figures of yore but, as a character, the duke is rather unconvincing, except in the
sanguine interest he takes in Wimon.
The happy ending offers an optimistic variation of the Hindu concept incorporated in
everyday Buddhism that good deeds find their reward in the next life or the one after that.
It is also in keeping with the general levity and irony of Bupphas convoluted, inimitable
and reputedly untranslatable prose.
K Surangkhanang

K Surangkhanang is the best-known pen name of Kan-ha Khiangsiri ne Wanthanaphat

Proclaimed a National Artist in 1986, she is the archetypal author of what later Thai gen-
erations have come to call stagnant-water literature. She wrote one hundred short stories

and nearly fifty novels mostly escapist romances over a forty-year period starting in
Born on 28 February 1911 at Bang Luang Canal, Bangkok Yai, on the Thonburee side of
the Jao Phraya River, she was the eldest child of Morm Luang Suriyaphakdee (born Bun-
chuay Wanthanaphat), a police official in the royal palace, and Mrs Wan. The couple also
had a son, who died at age 9, and another daughter, who died in 1972, the year K Surang-
khanang stopped writing novels to become a full-time housewife to her second husband.
As a child, Kan-ha had access to her fathers collection of Thai classics. When she was
older, she raided rental book shops for novels, which were starting to become popular, and
dreamt of one day becoming a writer. Her father was often called away on duty and would
insist that she wrote to him at length about what had happened in the house during his
absence, which might also have inspired her to become a novelist.
Kan-ha studied at St-Franois-Xavier School at Samsein until her sixth year of secondary
school. She then spent another two years at the Upper Rarchinee School at Bang Krabue,
before teaching Thai at the Lower Rarchinee School at Park Khlong Talart for three years
(1934-36). She also gave tuition to a young princess when she was living at the Sunantha
Garden Palace.
At 25, she changed course: she resigned from her teaching job and became a full-time
writer. She then married Puan Booranasinlapin, a writer, translator and journalist who later
changed his name to Pakorn Booranapakorn. They met when Kan-ha was 18 and had her
first short story, entitled Marlinee, published in Deilee Mei Wan Jan, Monday Daily Mail
(sic), where Puan was a section editor. During the Second World War and the Japanese
occupation, the couple took refuge in Huakhoat, Prarjinburee province, where they worked
on an orchard. Back in the capital, they had a daughter, then a son. After her husband died
in December 1952, Kan-ha married a wealthy trader and widower, Leik Khiangsiri, who
died only recently. Oddly enough, in interviews, Kan-ha has always referred to her second
husband as Nai Hang, which translates as boss, shopkeeper, ship-owner. Kan-ha, now
83, suffers from partial paralysis and has been bedridden for the last few years.
She switched to full-time writing when she was 25. A portrait of her at the time shows
an oval face with a domed forehead, vivid eyes and sparkling teeth, and suggests charm,
candour and confidence. She had high literary ambitions then, and they lasted up to her

She also signed her nonfiction writings Rotmarlin, Nakhorn Suraphan and Monruedee.

One of her short stories, Yai (The grandmother), was translated by Jintana Yotsunthorn and
published in Treasury of Thai Literature, April 1988, alongside writings of Phra Mongkutklao (Rama VI),
NMS, Dorkmai Sot, Theip Maha-paoraya, Khuekrit Prarmoat, Lao Kham-horm, Arjin Panjaphan,
Botan, Nimit Phoomtharworn, Atsiri Thammachoat, Chart Korpjitti, Wa-nit Jarungkit-anan, Angkarn
Kanlayarnaphong, Naowarat Phongphaiboon, Khomthuan Khanthanoo, Sujit Wongtheit and
Phutthathart Phikkhu.
third novel, The woman of easy virtue (Ying Khon Chua), which was published in 1937 and
turned into a movie in 1955. The story of a peasant girl who, tricked into prostitution,
suffers and dies rather than compromising her lofty ideals and moral fortitude, shook the
morals of the time and brought her notoriety, but she was unable to produce such literary
quality again, even though her writing career prospered. Ruen, the woman of easy virtue,
may have inherited much of young K Surangkhanangs idealism but K Surangkhanang
was no Ruen. After one more, mediocre realist novel, she turned to writing popular
romances in the dreamy world of the well-to-do forgetting that she had once written, in
her preface to The woman of easy virtue: I have chosen to write about the servants in a large
mansion who are faced with the many sorrows and pains of misery rather than about the
cheerful deportment of the owners of that mansion or their relatives, because such stories
are dreamed-up, possibly humorous fairy tales that do not represent real life. In later
years, she claimed that her aim had been to be read by everyone, from palace people to
slum dwellers, and professed that a writers job was to please readers rather than oneself.
The most memorable of her novels is, by popular acclaim, Golden Sand Mansion (Barn Sai
Thong), which was first serialised in a magazine in 1950 and turned into a play and a film in
1956 before being serialised on television at least twice. Her own favourites, however, are
the semi-autobiographical, snail-paced Red roses (Kularp Daeng), 1957, which features an
ageing, reclusive woman writer remembering her past, and her very last work of fiction,
The most beautiful love (Rak An Sunthorn), a didactic novel about the importance of parental
care in the upbringing of children.
Apart from writing novels, at various stages of her long life Kan-ha Khiangsiri has
owned a printing house, Wanthanasin, owned and edited a daily newspaper, Mueangthong,
and was the general director of a womens weekly, Narreenart. She was awarded a royal
decoration for her contribution to Thai culture.

The woman of easy virtue (Ying Khon Chua) 1937

After many years apart, two school-time friends meet again on a train. To pass the time, one tells the
story of one of his relatives, Wit, and his erstwhile lover.
Wit, the son of an aristocrat, is around 22 and has fallen in love with a prostitute, Ruen. He promises
to marry her despite his parents opposition. She too loves him to distraction but is pessimistic about
their future.
Ruen used to be Wahn, a comely village lass who fell for Wichai, a smooth seducer from Bangkok
who posed as a civil servant and son of a wealthy nobleman. She loved him and the kind of love
Wahn fully understood was sexual gratification. They eloped and moved to Bangkok. After one
night in a hotel, he puts her in the care of an aunt who runs a brothel. Wahn realizes too late what
sort of place it is and only after Wichai has made away with her and her mothers jewellery and
disappeared. She is quickly made to understand that she has to work for her upkeep in the house.
And it is in this brothel that one month later Wit discovers Ruen as Wahn now calls herself
and they fall in love. She refuses any other customer for the three months their relationship lasts.
Particularly aware of her stigma as a prostitute, she tries to dissuade her lover from ruining his own
career prospects by overriding his parents opposition and marrying her. Unable to find an independ-
ent means of income, he finally leaves her, unaware that she is pregnant.
She wants to bear the child of her love but cannot stay in the brothel any longer. Her friend Samorn
helps her find a job as a maid in a noblemans messy, noisy house. But it isnt long before her past
catches up with her: a former client of the brothel recognizes her and she has to leave. Again, Samorn
comes to her aid.

The house Samorn took her to on Rarchadamneurn Extension Avenue was small and
painted green. Its owner was a woman of about 27, and one brief look at her was enough
for Ruen to guess what she did for a living. She had the same gaunt complexion as the
other girls Ruen had become accustomed to seeing. She did not dress like a housewife and
had some of the characteristics of the women of the trade. Miss Keisorn was a high-level
operator who had her own house and got paid for servicing wealthy gentlemen, and it was
to this Miss Keisorn that Samorn entrusted Ruen as a maid, to cook and do various chores
for a salary of five baht per month.
It was a relief to no longer have to listen to the mayhem of Prince Pha-ngarts house, but
instead she had to listen to Miss Keisorns yells, threats and recriminations whenever she
did something too slowly for her satisfaction. She gradually lost her skilfulness and became
increasingly slow and clumsy. She had not finished doing this when Miss Keisorn wanted
her to do that. She was constantly berated and became very frightened. There was less
work than in the previous house, there were fewer clothes to wash and iron, but guests
often came at night and she had no time to rest. She was only free when some wealthy
gentleman took her mistress out for the evening.
Ruen spent her spare time discreetly sitting in a dark corner and staring vacantly
outside. It was not the cars and other vehicles speeding up and down Rarchadamneurn
Avenue or the men and women taking a rest on benches or going about their businesses
that she was looking at to relax during those empty moments. Her eyes did not focus on
anything in particular. Sometimes the long, dark rows of tamarind trees in front of her
reminded her of the lines of trees on both sides of the Praweit canal which stretched as far
as the eye could see and cut across her native Theippharart subdistrict to join the Bang
Pakong river at the Tha Thua gate. The only difference was that the tamarind trees on both
sides of the avenue had their branches regularly trimmed to equal size all the way, whereas
no one took care of the trees along the canal, and some, which dominated the others in
height and girth, looked a bit like animals crouching or on the move, and you had to look
long and hard before you found the pitch-black, glossy shadow of a banyan tree whose
branches were covered with thick leaves which trailed down to the water.
The rainy season was almost over and the weather was getting increasingly nippy,
reminding her of the cold season in her native village. At this time of the early evening, her
family used to sit around the fire, hands stretched towards the flames, while her naughty
little brother stuck a stick in a piece of taro root which he pushed into the fire. Mother
would mumble some Jataka tale from what she could remember of the monks chants at
the temple during the holy days. Father sat on his heels coiled up under a big blanket. He
did not pay the least attention to Mothers drone, because he worried over Phueak and
Taen *the familys buffalo+, who were fidgeting from cold in the pen next to the house. He
occasionally stretched his neck to check whether the fire he had set up near the enclosure
was still going, and when it died asked his eldest son who sat next to him making a fishing
rod to attend to it for him.
With her daughter gone, Mother probably no longer told tales because there was no one
to prod her on. Her little brother probably no longer found it funny to throw taro roots or
yams into the fire, because with no one to fight over them, the fragrant taro roots would not
be as delicious as before. Her big brother would be sitting gloomily at the landing, looking
at the long stretch of the canal and at the fish of all sizes jumping about in the water under
his very nose, too dejected to go out and throw a net or a line, and anyway there was no
one to paddle the boat for him, or to prepare the catch by roasting it or salting and sun-
drying it. Her bamboo hat and sickle would be discarded and left untouched; mould
would stain the hat and rust blunt the sharp blade which had slashed many handfuls of
rice stalks every crop season. Mother would have to enter the kitchen alone to find food to
offer the monks. Some days when there was not enough to eat, her daughter used to hurry
to some relatives house and bring back a young gourd to make a soup, or else she would
pluck young tamarind leaves and boil them with the head of a sun-dried snakehead fish,
roast a dried salted fish to an even gold, then dish out the rice in large bowls, and they
would sit around eating with relish. These days, they would be lonely and mournful,
sitting holding their knees and not venturing outside. Did they still worry about the
daughter who had fled from home? Or had they banished her from their thoughts
altogether? The tear that fell on her hand startled her.
Some days when nothing she did pleased Miss Keisorn and she was reviled in the
foulest terms, she felt hurt and cried. Home may not have been in an area as developed as
the capital, but nobody in the village would have dared to use such offensive language. Yet
she had left to throw herself into this awful torment. She did not have time to wipe her
tears when Miss Keisorn caught sight of her.
Tut! Tut! Such a cry baby, her mistress said angrily. It hurts so much, does it? Well, if
youre afraid to lose your dignity, you shouldnt be in this job.
No, Miss, I wasnt thinking anything like that, Ruen answered, sobbing. She lowered
her head to sort out the dozens of shirts that Miss Keisorn had clawed out and dumped in
front of the wardrobe.
Then what are you thinking about? I bet youre thinking of your mate. Well, he
dropped you, and no wonder, with you crying and snivelling like that. Youre wasting
your time thinking about him. Dont you know what men are like? Loving thems no good.
Take a good look at me: you wont catch me falling in love with a man, ever. But if he has
money to offer, ah well, Ill go along with him wherever and whichever way he wants. And
whats the good of having some screaming brat that wont have a father anyway? Ill tell
you, Ruen, if it wasnt in deference to Samorn, I wouldntve wasted my good money
hiring you. Look at you, so damn clumsy, and with a belly that big, what do you think it
looks like to my guests, and you dont even earn your salary. Look at these shirts, for
example. I told you to take care of them yesterday, but you havent.
Every word that came out of that mouth was like scalding water poured on Ruens
heart. She gritted her teeth to prevent her tears from streaming out. She had neatly hung
the shirts in the wardrobe the day before, but if they were again in a heap it was because
last night Miss Keisorn had dumped them out as she looked for some outfit she would
fancy for an evening out. Ruen opened her mouth to retort, but thought of Samorn, who
would again have to find a place for her to stay. She did not want to bring more trouble to
her helpful friend and so forced herself to hold her peace.
One evening, Miss Keisorn sent Ruen to Rarchawong to buy some groceries. When she
came back about 9 pm, Ruen saw a car parked in the deep shade of the almond tree in front
of the house. The waiting room was brightly lit. Miss Keisorn must have a guest, she
thought as she went around the house to access her mistresss room from the back. Miss
Keisorn was busy dressing up and when she looked up and saw Ruen in the mirror, she
ordered: Ruen, drop those things first, Im not about to eat. Bring a glass of water to the
gentleman sitting in the waiting room.
Hurrying to do as she was ordered, Ruen carefully holding the glass of water entered
the waiting room. The man sat cross-legged and was reading a newspaper he held in front
of his face. He heard the approaching footsteps and, thinking it was Keisorn, lowered the
newspaper and smiled. The smile shocked Ruen out of her wits and she almost fainted: at a
glance, he looked incredibly like Wit, but when the smile faded and was replaced by an
expression of puzzlement, Ruen came to her senses. She lowered her eyes and, with a
shaky hand, put the glass down on a small table by the mans side.
The man changed his posture and asked: Whats your name, miss?
Ruen, sir, she answered in a quivering voice. He was not the man she was eager to
meet. Wit didn't have this harsh way of talking or this accent. The first time they met, he
had asked her the same question, but with an easy familiarity and a sweet accent she
remembered well.
Why did you look so surprised when you saw me? he asked abruptly, examining her
from top to toe in a demeaning manner. Her witty face was more attractive than Keisorns,
he thought, but he just groaned and swallowed, keeping his feeling to himself.
Wit had never looked at her like that, Ruen thought, then answered as abruptly:
Because you remind me of someone the lowly maid that I am used to know. Then she
turned her back to him and left the room, crossing Miss Keisorn at the door. Even though
the man who had come to take Keisorn out for the evening had been rather haughty to her,
Ruen was happy to secretly look at him from the moment he got up and showed Keisorn to
his car, which soon sped out of sight. She looked at him because he had something of her
Wit. She lowered her face onto her arms in the dark corner where she had stood watching.
Where was her darling now deporting himself, after abandoning his wife to a sad and
senseless life of shame and sorrow? Ruen laughed in her tears as she mumbled: I am a
woman of ill repute, how can I be your wife?

Ruen delivers a daughter, nicknamed Eet, and together with Samorn they rent a small room and live
virtually like a married couple. Samorns story is even more pathetic than Ruens: she has sold her
own child and gone into prostitution to support her husband, who is in jail. Samorn goes out in the
streets to earn enough to support her friend and her child. She loves Ruen more than she would a
sister and does not want her to prostitute herself. But she falls sick and eventually dies of
consumption. To support the threesome, Ruen goes back onto the streets. After Samorns death, she
relinquishes her infant daughter to the care of an old, poverty-stricken couple, who scrounge
whatever they can from her. She pretends not to notice: uppermost in her mind is her childs welfare
and her own destitution.
From a chance encounter with a man from her native village, Ruen learns that her father and mother
are dead. Later she will pay a discreet visit to the village during the Thai New Year festivities, to
learn how her parents died of grief over her elopement and how even the family house has been pulled
down by its new owner.
With her daughter in the care of the greedy couple, Ruen goes back to prostitution in a friendlier
After months of struggling in the brothel, Ruen decides to try her luck upcountry. She travels for
four years before realizing that life is perhaps more bearable in Bangkok, where at least her daughter
is. When she visits her again, the child is at first confused but finally she instinctively accepts Ruen
as her real mother. Ruen is both delighted and broken-hearted, and her health deteriorates further as
she does her utmost to secure enough money for her daughters basic needs. Out to buy shoes and a
schoolbag for her daughter, she witnesses the arrest of Wichai, her one-time lover, who has murdered
a girlfriend who had refused to hand over her gold and copper belt to him.
One day, a reluctant Wit accompanies some friends to the brothel where Ruen is staying. It has been
six years since their last encounter; she has changed so much that he does not recognise her. She lets
him know that he has fathered a daughter. A visit to the slum where her guardians live convinces
him that the child is really his, and he is amazed by Ruens sacrifices and moral uprightness. His
story is that he was forced by his parents to leave home and pursue a four-year education in the
Philippines where he came to realise that his puppy love for Ruen should be abandoned for his
obligations to society at large. He has been married six months. He offers to do the decent thing: he
will rent a house where mother and child can live and be taken care of. Ruen wants none of this: she
still loves Wit but wants nothing from him. For fear of tainting her childs life the daughter of a
prostitute Ruen decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and abandon her child to Wit. Despite Wits
entreaties and her own growing sickness, she goes ahead with her plan and, after spending the last
few days with her daughter, she hides when he comes to fetch her.

The next day, Ruen took her extremely weary body to the lair of Mrs Phueat and Mr Klin to
inform the couple that Wit would come and fetch the child that very afternoon. They both
reacted with a mixture of excitement, worry and sorrow and took turns holding the girl in
their arms out of an overwhelming sense of loss. Eet was such a lovely girl no one who
knew her could refrain from doting on her, and furthermore, Mrs Phueat had spoon-fed
her since she was a baby and almost felt as though she were her own daughter, so she
broke into tears and had no heart for work anymore. Mr Klin recklessly said he was giving
up trimming wood for kites, then sat with his arms around his knees, and the cloth he
usually put around his neck to wipe sweat with was left hanging on the wall. As for Little
Eet, she showed no interest in anything and didnt even seem to realise she was the centre
of attention. She only noticed that today everybody was real nice to her. Nobody shouted
at her like every other day. She could throw the betel box of her big mummy across the
room as often as she wanted without being scolded and run all over the room till the walls
shook without her daddy saying anything. When she got tired, she went to sit by her
skinny mummy and watched her arrange her own newly cut clothes on a large piece of
cotton cloth.
Why are you putting my clothes on this cloth? she asked as her tiny hand grabbed her
mothers arm.
Im packing them up for you, Ruen answered with a shaky voice, not daring to look at
her daughter.
Why is that? What about these, why dont you put them with the others? Eet was
pointing at a couple of garments placed on one side of the cloth.
They are for you to put on later today, darling, her mother said.
Why do I have to put on new ones? My big mummy she will scold me if I do. She
looked shyly at her big mummy, who had chided her for trying on some of her new clothes
when nobody was looking.
Today I wont scold you, dearest, Mrs Phueat said. She furtively lifted a corner of her
chest wraparound to wipe her eyes and beat a quick retreat into the kitchen.
Once she had finished packing her childs clothes it must have been around 2.30 pm,
judging from the shadows outside Ruen gave her daughter a good scrub, all the while
lamenting in her heart that the time of their separation was drawing closer and praying she
could complete the last shower she was ever going to give her own daughter, her darling
daughter, who was about to stay with her father, a man surrounded with servants, yet she
doubted he would bathe and dress her himself and worried he wouldn't even see to it that
she ate and slept well. Her daughter, her very own daughter, who didnt know enough to
take a good look at her so that she would remember what her true mother looked like...
Parting from her was going to be like tearing her own heart off her chest.
She dressed her in the new shirt and skirt, powdered her face lightly, combed her fine,
sparse hair and told her to go and sit outside, then she went into the kitchen and told Mrs
Phueat, who was putting a dish she had just cooked into the larder: Mrs Phueat, would
you please attend to her when Mr Wit comes. I just cant do it. I feel my heart is breaking
apart already. Tears streamed down her face.
Mrs Phueat nodded and her eyes watered. Ruen sobbed as she further instructed: If he
asks about me, tell him I already left, will you.
She went outside, took her daughter on her lap, pressed her against her chest and
started sobbing from her grievous sense of loss. She watched her child intently, scrutinizing
her face all over. Eet looked as though she was about to cry merely for the sake of it. She
buried her head in her mothers bosom and stayed still, which made Ruen almost collapse
on the spot. She kissed the small hands and the cheeks and the chin and the whole face of
her child, without giving a thought to the state in which her father would find her, and
refused to let go of her, sobbing louder and louder, until Mr Klin, who sat in front of the
room watching the lane, shouted tremulously: Here he comes! Here he comes! Ruen put
her daughter down, stood up, bent down and kissed her daughter on the head one last
time and, bursting into tears, hurriedly went to hide into the kitchen.
She heard Wit exchanging a few words with Mr Klin and Mrs Phueat for a while, then
heard her daughter crying as if she didnt want to go with the stranger who was her father.
Her daughters cry startled her and she collapsed on the kitchen floor, seized by a sharp
pain that pierced her very heart. That cry sounded like a reproof for abandoning her
beloved daughter. It was loud and clear but it gradually receded in the distance. Her
beloved daughter her beloved daughter was gone! Ruen stayed motionless as though her
soul had deserted her.
Mrs Phueat walked into the kitchen saying: They are gone, Miss Ruen, you can come
out now. What a generous man! He gave me an extra twenty... Hey Miss Ruen! I say, are
you all right? She was startled when she saw Ruen lying flat on her face on the kitchen
floor. She walked to her and grabbed her. Ruens body felt cold as ice. She shouted out to
her husband: Klin, come here quick! Theres something wrong with Miss Ruen.
Mr Klin rushed in to help, found some pills and made Ruen swallow them, then the two
of them propped her up and took her outside. When she regained consciousness, Ruen
forced herself to sit up. A strong fit of coughing shook her and she spat out blood in the
spittoon. Seeing this, Mrs Phueat exclaimed: Oh, my god, thats blood you are spitting!
You are in a bad way, you know. You cant just go on like this, Miss Ruen.
No, no, it isnt blood, Mrs Phueat. Dont you worry. Theres nothing wrong with me.
Ruen protested wanly. She tried to rally her spirits to show she was all right and wasnt in
pain, and willed herself not to become worse than she already was. She stood up and made
as if she was leaving.
Mrs Phueat reached out to support her. Ruen was now burning with fever. Mrs Phueat
admonished: You cant leave. You are not fit to go anywhere. You still havent recovered
Ruen was crying as she answered: Let go of me, Mrs Phueat. I must leave. I cant stay
My dear Miss Ruen, you cant let yourself drown in sorrow like this, Mr Klin said to
bring her back to her senses. True, your daughters left, but actually shes going to be all
right, shes going to be happy. You cant go out in the state you are in. Youll be better off
getting some rest here. Mr Wit said hell come again tomorrow around eleven to see you
and told me to let you know. Hes such a decent man. When I was about to pick the little
one up and bring her to him, he said no need hed do it himself and so he did. Looks like he
loves her very much. When a father shows this kind of love for his daughter, theres no
need for us to worry, now is there?
Husband and wife took turns comforting her and convincing her not to leave. They
brought her food and made sure she ate some and got her to stay in bed. All night that
night Ruen slept fitfully because of the fever. She kept gasping for breath and felt as though
she had the same symptoms as Samorns. Exhaustion made her doze off in the early
evening and she dreamt she saw Samorn standing in front of her and asking her in a cold
voice: Dont you miss me? How about coming to stay with me? The voice turned into a
shrill laugh which startled her and she woke up trembling. Samorn had come to take her
hand and was calling her from the top of the mosquito net, and it wasnt only Samorn: the
faces of her father and mother were swirling in front of her. Perplexed, she tried to reach
out to them while muttering in her sleep loud enough for the startled couple to come
rushing to her bedside: Is this you, Samorn? Youve come to see your niece, havent you?
Gone, your niece is gone. Oh, my darling daughter, do come back to Mummy now. She
stretched out her hand. Mrs Phueat caught it and called out to her: Miss Ruen! Miss
Ruen opened her eyes, which were very red, looked around and laughed in such a
mirthless way that Mrs Phueats hair stood on end. Is this you, Mrs Phueat? Arent you
pleased that the little girl youve raised almost since she was born has gone away to find
Of course I am, Miss Ruen. Now, now, calm down and go back to sleep, Mrs Phueat
forced herself to say soothingly as she brought a cup of water to Ruens dry lips. Drink
some water and go back to sleep. Try to take hold of yourself. Tomorrow, Mr Wit will
come see you.
As she heard the name of the person she loved most passionately, Ruen wearily smiled.
She tried to do as Mrs Phueat had said and she did calm down a little, but the faces of
Samorn and of her own father and mother kept haunting her. She tossed and turned
restlessly. Recent scenes between Wit and her crossed her mind and she also thought of her
daughter, who must be happily resting on a soft, soft bed by now. As she recalled happy
times, Ruen smiled and laughed softly, but as she recalled times of distress and sadness,
she sobbed and so it went on till dawn.
Mrs Phueat and Mr Klin felt relieved that morning when Ruen was able to get out of
bed and sit down. She looked as if she was no longer feverish and was getting herself ready
to welcome Wit, but this wasnt to be. Close to the time fixed by Wit for his visit, Ruen
instructed them to tell him, if he did come at all, that she was not there, because she didnt
want him to concern himself with her any more. Upon hearing this, Mrs Phueat and Mr
Klin felt sad and took pity on her and finally understood what sort of person she was. They
had long looked down on her for being a prostitute, a woman of easy virtue, but now they
realised that, though she did prostitute herself, Ruen had a purer and more resolute heart
than anyone they had ever known.
At the appointed time Wit did come, and he came happy to see Ruen. He pitied her so
much that he felt he wouldnt be able to live with himself any more if he didnt come here
today. He was determined to take her to see a doctor and to convince her to stay in the
house which he had rented and prepared for her especially, but as he came in front of the
room he found Mr Klin sitting there by himself. He asked: Is Ruen here?
Wits voice, which Ruen had been eagerly awaiting as she lied on the bed, startled and
stunned her. It was soft and sweet yet had the strange power to compel her to slowly and
ever so painfully raise up and move little by little to a sitting position. She wanted to see
once more the face of the beloved husband of her dreams. She clenched her teeth as she
dragged herself to the chink in the curtain of red flowers that partitioned the room, but her
strength failed her and she fell back. She forced herself erect again and her hands, a spider
web of skin and bones, seized the curtain and grabbed it tightly. She adjusted her blurred
vision to take a good look at Wit and finally saw him clearly, her beloved Wit, who had
come to see her out of sheer pity. The fists clutching the curtain drew closer to Ruens chest.
She smiled through her tears a smile of pure happiness and when she saw Wit moving and
starting to walk away, the hands that clung to the curtain slowly began to unclasp and
slipped and dropped by her side. Her face was livid but still beaming with a blissful smile.
She languidly let herself sink slowly to the bottom of the curtain.
Mrs Phueat came out of the kitchen carrying a ceramic plate full of steaming rice soup.
She intended to take it to Ruen, but when she saw that Mr Wit still stood talking to Mr Klin,
she hesitated to enter the room, but then she put on her busiest look and just walked in. She
was hardly out of sight when Mr Klin, who had been looking at Wits handsome figure,
was startled out of his wits by the loud, ominous crash of a plate shattering on the floor. He
was covered in goose pimples as the crash signalled that Ruens pure soul, whose goodness
the world had paid back with injustice, had finally departed from her pitiful body. There
was nothing left, but the echo of a faint whisper hissing: Oh, evil rearing goodness...

This last paragraph is a rare case of complete rewriting from a nonsensical, catatonic Thai
prose. K Surangkhanang is not the best of stylists, so much is obvious.
This realist melodrama was an explosive story in pre-war Siam, where prostitution had yet
to become the major service industry of todays Thailand which straight-laced officials still
tell us it isnt. At the time the novel was written, women who lost their virginity outside of
matrimony were despised, not only by society but by many of the women themselves as
well; having lost their self-respect, many went into prostitution. Even now, this black-and-
white, guilt-ridden perception remains prevalent, and explains, beyond economic realities,
why girls jilted by their lovers or victims of rape represent the majority of the hundreds of
thousands of prostitutes this kingdom is infamous for.
K Surangkhanang got the idea for a novel on prostitution when she was still a teacher
and a colleague told her the story of a friend who had to prostitute herself to feed her
family while her husband was in jail Samorns background in the novel. At the time, she
also happened to be living next to a brothel and saw some of the goings-on and listened to
what other neighbours reported. To further gather true-to-life material, she was taken to
brothels by her husband and other male friends. The novel was written in a mere three
As a noted critic of the time remarked, in a complimentary review which amounted to a
welcome certificate of good character

, tales of golden-hearted prostitutes were nothing

new in world literature but this one was excellently told and even educational. The
same critic expressed doubts about the title, though, fearing it would lure smut-seekers and
keep upright readers from a book they should rightly read.
The stark contrast between the physical debasement and moral nobility of the central
character is sustained throughout the fast-paced novel and gives it its tragic dimension:
Ruen is a superb heroine who sacrifices herself for those she loves her lover Wit, her
friend Sa-morn, and her daughter. She is utterly aware of her initial fault eloping with the
first man who took her fancy and of her lowly status as a prostitute. Out of hate for her
condition as much as out of love for others, she wills herself to death, since her life has no
longer any value other than giving her daughter a chance to live without the stigma of
prostitution and being faithful in her heart, and no burden, to the man she worships.
By contrast, most of the men of rank who are her clients debase themselves and think
nothing of it, yet despise her and the likes of her. Even a decent man like Wit conveniently
absolves himself of blame for failing Ruen and deserting her for years: Nobody is to blame
for this situation, he says, adding that it was altogether a good thing he didnt marry her
as it allowed him to further his education and realise he had a higher calling, that of
making that education be of benefit to the whole community including my family and
myself. Ruen didnt call his bluff, but the reader does.
Without preaching, the author repeatedly makes the point that society is ruled by
unacceptable double standards. For example, she tells of a boy, whose father had forbidden
him to ever patronise brothels, who finds himself face to face with his father in one.
The novel presents a realistic image of segments of Thai society between the wars, and
abounds in felicitous social touches, such as the picture of the changes taking place in
Ruens native village under the influence of Bangkok.
K Surangkhanang excels in presenting true-to-life secondary characters, who are neither
totally evil nor truly blameless. Even the scrounging couple who despise Ruen as a
prostitute and cheat her blind are redeemed by their love for her daughter, whom they
almost think of as their own, and by their final realisation that Ruen is a person of
outstanding moral integrity.
The friendship between Ruen and Samorn is beautiful and moving, all the more so as both
meet the same tragic fate. However, Ruen, an uneducated girl of peasant stock, is unrealis-
tically articulate, especially in her long conversations with Wit.
The novel does suffer from a regrettable error in construction: the introductory chapter,
though well written, adds nothing to the story and should have been left out. The body of
the novel reads like a literary text, rather than a narrative or conversation between two men
killing time during a train journey. As it is, the author feels compelled to bid her two
characters farewell at the end of the chapter, explaining that they have no further role to

Wijarn Rueang Ying Khon Chua Khong K Surangkhanang, A review of K Surangkhanangs A woman of
easy virtue, Phra Ong Jao Junlajakraphong, 21 Oct 1937, in Ying Khon Chua, K Surangkhanang, Odiansto
Publishing House, Bangkok, 1987.
play, and to add three lines at the very end of the novel to remind the reader this was a
conversation during a train journey.
Thanorm Maha-paoraya

Rare photographs of Thanorm Maha-paoraya show a plain-faced woman with honest eyes,
an upturned nose and a generous mouth with a thick upper lip the kind of face that gives
credence to the eulogies she received at her death, which stressed her openness, man-like
straightforwardness, sense of fun and love of life. She was smart, funny, reserved, soft-
spoken or hard-hitting as the occasion demanded, said one. Very active all the time and
she spoke like a man, said another. A compassionate woman who loved and understood
life, added a third.
Little is known about Thanorm, who wrote eight novellas and dozens of short stories.
Did her outspoken nature scare away admirers? Or was it that this office worker didnt
possess a proper attitude to literary creation? Thanorm considered writing a hobby, which
she indulged in when the mood took her or when she needed extra cash. Professional
biographers have so much more to say about her husband, Theip, a journalist and short-
story writer whose main claim to fame in Thailand was the translation into English of one
of his stories, Jampoon, twenty years after his death. To this day no one knows when
Thanorms best novel, An elephant named Maliwan (Phlai Maliwan), was published!

This gem
of a novel is Thanorms only available work, because it is recommended reading for
students the country over, and therefore routinely dismissed by adults as kids stuff.
The eldest of two daughters of Morm Luang Anuthanakarntruat (Thom Orrachunka) and
Mrs Mueang [or Nueang], Thanorm was born in the heart of Bangkok, at Nang Leung,
then called Ee Leung, in the house of her maternal grandfather, Morm Rarchawong
Borribarnsukphacha. As a scion of the nobility, she had access to the Back Palace boarding
school for girls. She returned home on weekends and would save every satang to buy
books and movie magazines (western movies were the latest craze in the early 1920s). She
is said to have hated every minute of her boarding life. In her fourth year of secondary
studies, she left school to avoid being punished for naughty behaviour and applied for a
job at the Louis T Leonowens trading company. She was one of the very first girls to be
employed by the firm, and it was there that she met Theip, who also shared her passion for
fiction. He lent her romantic novels, they discussed them, and soon they were writing their
own romance: they married in 1927; Theip was 24 and Thanorm 19.
One year later, she wrote her first short story, which was swiftly published. Theip and
Thanorm continued reading, and writing short stories. Thanorm, with her husbands help,
also translated Boccaccios Decameron (from the English version) as well as Nehrus Letters
from a father to his daughter (written while in prison to daughter Indira) and a few other
In 1932, as Siam turned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, the Maha-
paorayas had their first son, Thammanoon (who would be a founding member of The
Nation daily newspaper in the 1970s), and they moved to Seerarcha, where Theip went to

According to bookworm Prawit Wongweera, the first instalment of Phlai Maliwan appeared in the first
five issues of Sinlapin (Artist), starting in July 1942 and signed Thanorm. The monthly magazine went
under after six issues. The story was first published as a book in March 1946.
work for a lumber company. It was during this time that Thanorm gathered the material on
the lumber business that was to provide the background of Maliwan. The family later
returned to Bangkok and Thanorm gave birth to another son and to a daughter. On 31
December 1942, her husband died of tuberculosis.
Left with three young children, Thanorm began to write in earnest under her full name
rather than the pen names Thanorm and Orrachun she had been using until then
while working at a war-time government department overseeing Japanese property and
interests. In 1946, she joined the staff of the Thai Farmers Bank, which had been set up by
the Lamsam family. After a while, she left the bank for a stint at another trading company,
Yip Insoi Co, only to return to the bank later as executive secretary. She stayed there until
the end of 1960, when she was diagnosed with cancer, which took her life in July 1961.
Her short stories and novels are reportedly based on her experiences and observations.
Her realist style is exemplified in Maliwan, and, together with the subtlety with which she
analyzes human psychology, it puts her, as a writer, a cut above nearly all of her

An elephant named Maliwan (Phlai Maliwan) 1946

This well-crafted short novel starts in a puzzling way.

Above and to the left, a whip of buffalo hide was raised as high as it would go, and at the
count of five, came down lashing the back of the culprit. Thirty seconds later, a similar
whip was raised on the right side and came whooshing down in the same way, and this
went on at a steady rhythm, from left to right, under the command of one man, who stood
arms akimbo, shouting unremittingly: Left < Right < Right hardah < Lefts gooood!
The punishment proceeded without mercy or the slightest attention to the groans and
moans of distress that betrayed the culprits excruciating pain. A group of men and women
stood by, exchanging comments in low voices. Some gritted their teeth, and tears welled up
in their eyes; others whispered to one another that had the haulage equipment manager not
stood there issuing instructions, the officials would probably have lowered the punishment
to fifty or sixty lashes out of compassion.
The slim, tall man who stood leaning against a tree behind a group of workers at some
distance from the crowd of local people clearly heard their compassionate whispers and
the scene he saw made him wince inside at every crack of the whips, until he felt he could
not stand watching that heartbreaking sight any longer but then, he was not quite sure
whether what was happening wasnt a dream.
He did remember that early the night before, the captain had invited him over to his
cabin for a nightcap, and he had stayed there until until when? He had no idea. On the
way back, it seemed that he had stopped and stood clutching the railing of the deck,
looking at the water the ship parted into waves big and small. He had seen the crests of
white foam crash into each other and disappear into the dense darkness ahead. He vaguely
recalled that the ship had veered to anchor at a port he did not know, nor did he know
whether it had been right or wrong for him to leave the railing, take a few staggering steps
and stumble clumsily down some stairs to find himself sitting among a few passengers in a
row boat which had come alongside the ship. A little after that, he had hauled himself up
onto a kind of bridge the row boat had come to, and then walked aimlessly until a roomy
container of sorts had stood in his way. He remembered clearly that he had eased himself
onto it to take some rest because the thought had crossed his mind that he shouldnt
wander too far away from the ship, though he understood the row boat would return soon
and stop by to take him back to her, as he was certain she would never leave any passenger
behind on the long and cluttered bridge.
So how was it then that at dawn the water had turned into land and the white-crested
waves into a thick forest of trees? The men and women standing around seemed ready to
go about their daily work, and the most amazing thing was that he could see in front of
him a white elephant, whose legs were tied to big poles, and who was being lashed left and
right. Had he become raving mad because the alcohol had gone to his head, as several
doctors and many friends and relatives had warned him about time after time? Had his
destiny finally caught up with him now that his latest attempt at giving up alcohol had
once again failed, and he had been far from any bottle this morning? He knew himself and
was aware that shunning alcohol by going on a cruise aboard the Pharnurangsee had been a
grave mistake and, even worse, that his own obduracy would never again allow him to try
and accommodate the pleas of Orraphin and other members of the family, because he
hated to be such dismal failure in circumstances that would make him an object of pity,
even if it was failure in trying to turn his useless self into a worthy person.
His rambling thoughts were brought back to the scene at hand by trumpeting that
resounded all over the forest, as the elephant who was being punished called to other ani-
mals at liberty somewhere in the deep jungle. He wondered again about his sanity. He
definitely wasnt mad. All of his organs were performing normally. Each shriek made him
feel as if the threaded dry-leather laces with which the officials lashed the raw hide of the
elephant were inflicting sharp pains to his own chest. Therefore, instead of forcing himself
to witness the torture of the animal and share the excitement of a few of the men there, he
made up his mind that he had better find a way out of the area and return to the ship, so
that he wouldnt show his compassion for the pitiful creature. This would be tantamount to
meddling in other peoples affairs, the sort of behaviour which had taught him a painful
lesson in the not-so-distant past.
As he stood there thinking carefully of a way to extricate himself, another kind of doubt
arose in his mind. In this thick forest, all the workers were dressed in the same way, with
dark-blue shorts and shirts of the same colour. Both shirts and shorts looked like they had
never been washed and showed streaks of dry sweat and grime at the edges. They gave out
a foul body odour every time their owners gesticulated as they enjoyed watching the
animal being tortured. These men, when they turned to look at him, did not seem to have
any curiosity as to who he was or where he had come from, though they did whisper
among themselves as they looked at the way he was dressed before turning back to watch
the whipping. Therefore, if he hoped to find an answer to his puzzlement by asking for
answers from these workers, who spoke Thai with an accent so strange and words so weird
that at times he could not understand them, he was bound to be disappointed.

When the manager appears and talks to him, the stranger finally realises that, in his drunken stupor
during the night, he has mistaken a train carriage for a container and, while he slept on, was taken to
a logging district, fifty kilometres inland from the port of Seerarcha where the ship had docked to
deliver mail and pick up passengers before sailing on for Bangkok.
The white elephant, whose name is Maliwan, is being punished for killing his mahout. After
receiving a hundred lashes, he suffers a further thrashing from his mother, who beats him with her
trunk. Maliwan, the manager explains, has a fondness for moonshine. Only two days before, he had
drunk all the rice wine which the villagers had left to settle. The company puts up with him because
of his tremendous strength he can do the work of three elephants.
When it is time for the stranger to leave, he is found asleep next to Maliwan, with two empty cans of
rice wine nearby. The manager warns him to beware of the elephant, who is excessively jealous and
can be vicious and vengeful if his friendship is spurned or threatened. Let me put it this way: if you
go to the toilet, hell wait in front of the door, and maybe hell open it and have a look inside as well if
you take too long.
The stranger, it turns out, is Prince Suriya, a bright, unassuming aristocrat who was so dedicated to
his work that he quarrelled with his superiors and had to resign, whereupon he took to the bottle and
became a drunkard. Obsessed by the reproachful eyes of his uncomplaining wife, Orraphin, and by
his responsibility to their two-year-old son, he embarked on a cruise to try and stop drinking. To
everyone in Bangkok, Prince Suriya is lost at sea and presumed dead.
His new taste for the local moonshine makes him postpone his return indefinitely. He stays in the
house of a worker, Mr Mui, who becomes his friend. When his money runs out after two months, he
accepts a low-paying job and stays on. But Maliwan, who dislikes Mr Mui because of his friendship
with Suriya, becomes such a nuisance that the two men decide to move to Khlong Yai, further
southeast, and find work as drivers.
Two years later, as Suriya (now known as Phueak

) is struck by malaria, Maliwan suddenly appears

to keep him company! That day, after an inspection at Khlong Yai, the general manager of the
company, Prince Niphon Wannasarn, agrees to take the sick man to Seerarcha Hospital in his car.
When he hears the man in his delirium say, Orraphin ... Orraphin ... Suriya is back, Prince
Niphon realises his true identity and takes Suriya to his house and puts him under the care of his
personal doctor.
Prince Niphon is caught in a dilemma: in twelve days, the widow Orraphin is to marry her old
sweetheart, who happens to be Prince Niphons nephew. The prince hesitates: should he alert
Orraphin? He decides to wait until Suriya comes to. Suriya does so on the sixth day, but is too weak
to talk, according to the doctor, who forbids alcohol for at least three months.
Four days before the wedding, the prince is called on to help with the preparations. Before leaving, he
talks to Suriya, who confesses he is staying away from Orraphin because he cant stand making her
unhappy due to his drinking problem. He asks for time to decide whether he should let Orraphin
know he is still alive. The prince gives him until the evening, when he must leave. By then, Suriya
has downed a bottle of whiskey and passed out.
The marriage takes place, on the very day Suriya fully recovers. He returns to the forest and takes a
better job offered by Prince Niphon. A jealous Maliwan does everything he can to keep Suriya from
his friends.
Almost two years later, Orraphin, her husband and her son Jiu return from a lengthy honeymoon in
Europe. Her husband is named general manager of Prince Niphons company in Bangkok and, to
familiarise himself with the job, undertakes an inspection tour which takes the three of them to
Khlong Yai.
The child is attracted to the white elephant and wants to see him up close. And so it is that father and
son meet again.

Who did you come with, Master Jiu?
I came with Mummy, Uncle and His Serene Highness. When the elephant sleeps, does
he lie down? Has he got a big bed?
Elephants dont lie down.
Dont they feel sleepy?
At night, they eat grass; in the daytime, they have to work. How about your uncle? Is he
a nice man?
Very nice. He bought me a small horse to practise riding. He says when I grow up Ill
ride horses very well like Father. Mummy says Fathers even nicer than Uncle. Do horses
and elephants bite each other?

Phueak means white elephant (chang phueak), as well as locally made liquor in the local dialect.
The man bowed his hand and stood still, grinding his teeth, then answered without
thinking: N-n-n-no, they dont bite each other. Dont you know your father at all?
The little boy shook his head slowly, with a sad face and absent eyes, either because he
was still wondering about elephants and horses or because he was missing his father. But
the man who was his father felt a sharp pain sear his heart. He thought about his
responsibility for this little child. He had the right to do anything with his own life, but if
by doing something he made the little boy lose confidence in his father, he had to ask
himself whether such an action was fair on the child. Almost every boy at this age sets up
his father as his hero. Other people, however much they love and care for the child, can
really never replace his father or mother.
Where is your father then?
The little fellows face went blank for a while before he answered: I dont know. They
say he went to heaven. Do you know where that is?
But the adult went back to asking evasively: Wouldnt you like to see your father?
Oh yes, very much. Id like to have a father. Chaichanas got one, Suphalak too. When
the schools over, they come and fetch em in their cars. Thanits fathers got racing horses.
When they win, he boasts about it at school. And Phichits fathers good at tennis. Phichit
says hes got lotsa cups what are they for, do you know? And, without waiting for an
answer: Yan-yongs father is director general, so they had to move to a new building in
Bang Kapi. What does a director general do?
The adult almost groaned aloud, because the childs innocent words showed as plainly
as if they had been spelled out that he felt disappointed he had no father to boast about to
his friends at school.
Have you ever seen a picture of your father?
Yes. Mummys hung a big picture of Father at the head of my bed.
The one in a military uniform and a helmet with hair like a horses tail, isnt it?
Yes, and an officers badge, and a sword also, and lotsa things stuck on the breast
Phueak extended his hand and broke off a small branch, stuck it across the top of his
worn-out helmet and put it on his head, stretched himself erect and, grabbing his walking
stick, asked the child who was his very own son: Does he look the same the same as me
The little child scrutinised the face hidden behind a bushy beard. His own face
brightened but only briefly.
The same, yes, the same, but Father hasnt got a beard and also I dont think hes dirty.
If the little fellow was only three years older and able to use his powers of observation,
the picture of that adult face which had lit up only to dim along with his own would have
stayed with him until the day he died the picture of a man who fully realised that, even if
the blood in his veins had let him know right then that he was his father, he probably
would not have been proud of him at all. On the contrary, he would have felt sorry for
having to lose face with his friends because his father was a dissolute man. He had to thank
Orraphin and the other relatives a great deal that they had not taught the child to despise
the author of his days, as he had seen so often in the case of divorced parents. Anyway,
Suriya forced himself to probe further and asked with a hoarse voice: Why dont you boast
about your uncle at school?
The little fellow twisted his neck for a little while before answering: I dont hear
anybody talking about their uncles.
Do you love your uncle very much?
Oh yes.
Whom do you love most, your uncle or your father?
This time, the little child stayed quiet and thought for a long time, the frown on his face
reflecting the turmoil in his heart.
I really dont know. Ive never seen Father, but Mummy says Father is a good and
handsome man, a gentleman just like Uncle, because they are both kind, they are the same
in everything, but maybe I love him more, because everybody must love their father,

Prince Suriya, impressed with his sons cleverness, for the first time feels that his family line is
secure. But what does Maliwan think?

Maliwan probably saw his beloved Phueak protecting this little human being with the
utmost care as if he was afraid that he would get bruised or burst into pieces at the merest
touch if his hand was not there to protect him. Maliwan probably did notice the love and
longing radiating out of the eyes and attitude of his dear Phueak, who was prepared to
protect the small body at all times with every movement he made, in a way Maliwan had
never seen human beings demonstrate to each other. All the time that his dear Phueak had
forced him to do this or that for the entertainment of the little man, he had not once turned to
look compassionately at him as he never failed to do every time he gave him an order. On the
contrary, his master had only been watching the face of the little man with a look that
showed the deepest love a sight which had pierced Maliwan to the bone. Other men had
merely tried to befriend his Phueak on their own and Maliwan had been able to get rid of
them thanks to his cleverness and enormous strength, but now it was his Phueak who was
hankering for this puny creature as if he was to worship him over anyone else, including
himself. Could he possibly stand for this? His quietness seemed to indicate that he might,
and in any case, so long as the little man was near his Phueak, whom he, too, loved,
respected and worshipped above anyone else, he was not going to do anything that might
endanger him. Furthermore, in anger, love, greed and infatuation, Maliwan could hold his
own with any human being, but he was superior to most human beings in that he knew the
danger of his feelings and he knew how to control his own temper until he found the right
time and the right opportunity to give vent to his anger he had never let an occasion go by
without making full use of this ability.

We are four pages from the end, a splendid climax which comes about with the inexorable precision of a
Greek tragedy.

An elephant named Maliwan is an unusual variation on the eternal love triangle theme here,
a man, a child and an elephant.
Remarkably, moralizing is absent from the novel in contrast to A person of quality or The
woman of easy virtue, which were published at about the same time. The psychology of each
of the main protagonists, including the elephant, is given equally sympathetic treatment,
and the understanding and empathy we feel for them makes the ending even more poignant.
Unlike most Thai novels, this short and tragic tale has precise, realistic descriptions of
the characters, with careful psychological profiles of the protagonists, who are both men
Prince Suriya and Prince Niphon though the hero of the story is of course the white
Maliwan, a combination of brute force, primitive instincts and shrewd yet pathetically
blind calculation, is an extraordinary creation, presented in such a way that we pity and
like him and forget altogether that he occasionally kills his mahouts. If anything, as we
close the book, we still pity him for the tragedy he has brought upon himself. His
possessive love is the antithesis of his masters, which is unselfish and compassionate. The
message of the tale lies in their fates.
Suriyas wife, Orraphin, although well sketched as a dutiful, loving spouse who suffers
without complaining and hopes against hope her husband will reform himself, remains a
quiet background figure.
Prince Suriya, alias Phueak, a destitute yet unpretentious aristocrat, is a moving
character. Despite his self-destructive addiction to drink, he is redeemed by his
compassionate love, which leads him to a double sacrifice: by staying away from the
woman he loves but can only hurt, and by putting his life on the line in order to save his
son. Ironically, the same compassion (and their common weakness for alcohol) links him to
Maliwan, his nemesis.
Equally sensitive is the portrait of the elderly Prince Niphon, an old-fashioned aristocrat
who embodies all the qualities of the well-bred: an upright man of honour concerned with
the welfare of his fellow (gentle)man, yet a man without illusion. Used to the ways of the
world, he is resigned to the unavoidable injustice of life (for example, he accepts that most
of his wealth will be inherited by his undeserving nephew) but goes out of his way to
rectify wrongs which are within his powers to correct. Like Duke Phonlawat in A person of
quality, Prince Niphon never expects reward or praise for his good deeds.
Both men are a cut above everyone else; they are natural leaders, especially Suriya
who, despite his destitute state, is loved and respected by the people around him.
The author neatly contrasts the sense of hospitality and gratitude of country folk with
the selfishness of Bangkok aristocrats. In the forest, everyone works hard, drinks hard and
pays little attention to tradition; yet, for all their coarseness, these simple men and women
accept a stranger and do not desert him when his money has run out.
An outstanding element of the novel is the life-like portrayal of what alcohol does to a
man. The mischievous drinking of the managers of the two forestry concessions (the one
off Seerarcha, the other in Khlong Yai) is a subtle contrast to Suriyas desperate, even
suicidal, drinking just as the easy-going friendship between these two men contrasts with
the torments of Maliwans morbidly jealous friendship for his beloved master.
The world described here is a world of men; that the author is a woman makes the story
even more remarkable.
For all its qualities, however, the novel suffers from two weaknesses.
The plot has one flaw. Prince Suriyas alleged death at sea is credible. However, the
two-year gap between his flight to Khlong Yai and the sudden appearance of Maliwan by
his side strains the readers imagination. Although such a delay is needed for Suriyas
widow to get over her loss and marry again, no reason is given why Maliwan has waited
so long to find his beloved master.
The other weakness is the style, which is at times needlessly contrived and repetitive.
As a stylist, Thanorm is certainly no match to Dorkmai Sot, Seeboorapha, Marlai
Choophinit or even K Surangkhanang, her more famous contemporaries. Yet as a
novelist, she holds her own against them and deserves far more recognition than she has
received so far.

Seinee Saowaphong

History has played a hide-and-seek game with novelist-diplomat Sakchai Bamrungphong,
better known as Seinee Saowaphong. It started by depriving him of his first name,
Bunsong. Twenty years after his birth, the West-aping policies of Field Marshal Plaek
Phiboonsongkhrarm decreed that Bunsong was a womans name and he had to rename
himself Sakchai in order to stay in the civil service he had just joined. When in 1939 he
received a grant to study economics in Germany, he resigned from the civil service but
only travelled as far as Harbin in Manchuria, where he waited for three months for a visa
to cross the Soviet Union. The visa, of course, never came, but the experience proved
useful: Harbin provides the backdrop of his first novel, The losers victory (Chaichana Khong
Khon Phae), published in 1943. In the early 1950s, he wrote two socially committed novels
that flopped and as the diplomat prospered the novelist fell into oblivion. Two decades
later, however, the student revolution of 1973 resurrected these generous, prophetic
works and their author was given a second literary life and pride of place as Thailands
foremost progressive writer.
Sakchai was proclaimed National Artist in 1985, the year his elder brother, Army Chief
Gen Bunchai, was deputy prime minister. The diplomat who ended his public career as
ambassador to Burma (1976-78) after 36 years in the foreign service that had him posted
successively to Moscow (1947-51), Buenos Aires (1955-60), Delhi (1961-65), Vienna (1968-
72), London (1972-75) and Addis Ababa (1975) was born in July 1918 the last of six children
in a thatch hut in a hamlet of Bang Bor district of Samut Prarkarn, a distant seaside suburb
of Bangkok. His parents, Hong and Phae, hailed from Ayutthaya. After eking out a living
in the capital for a while, they took care of a fruit plantation, then turned to growing rice,
and Hong was elected village chief in Bang Bor. The Bamrungphongs were exceptional in
that they made sure all of their children received the highest possible education. Bunsongs
mother, Phae, had an unusually extensive knowledge of classical literature and her songs
and recitations instilled a love of language in the little boy. He also inherited from her a
sense of fairness and an inquisitive mind which, together with his gentle manners and
tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, have contributed to his reputation as a gentleman both
in the foreign service and in the world of letters.
There was no school in Bang Bor, so at 7, Bunsong went to stay in Bangkok with his
eldest brother, Thawin, to study in a temple school, before his secondary studies at Borphit-
phimuk School, where he learned English and German. Because of his fathers death, he
had to interrupt his studies at Jularlongkorn University in 1936 after only one month, and
went to work for newspapers while studying law at Thammasart University. He received
his BL degree in 1941. By 1939, he had become a translator of economic news in the
international trade department of the Ministry of the Economy (now Commerce). After his
abortive trip to Germany, he returned to newspaper work until he entered the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs in November 1942.
In 1952-53, between his assignments in Moscow and Buenos Aires, he betrothed and
married Khruephan Pathumrot. (They have two sons and two daughters.) At the time of
his marriage, the first of his two most famous novels was being serialised and he was
writing the second in the evening after work.
One of his favourite achievements as a diplomat was that, as first secretary in Argentina,
he arranged for boxing world champion Pascal Perez to defend his title in Bangkok. Perez
lost to Phoan Kingphet, who became the first national hero in a long line of Thai boxing
champions. As a teenager, Bunsong had wanted to be a boxer, though he never stepped
into a ring and soon turned to drawing and painting before finding his real vocation in
He started writing short stories at school and had his first published just before the war.
In the course of half a century, Sakchai has penned more than fifty (some say a hundred)
short stories, as well as numerous travel pieces, columns, translations and ten novels.

As a
rule, he would collect material for his writings and read extensively while abroad and write
in Bangkok between postings. Because most of his novels and short stories have foreign
backgrounds, Seinee Saowapong is considered an exotic writer, which does him little
justice. He started as a romantic novelist The loser's victory; No news from Tokyo (Mai Mee
Khao Jark To-kio), 1945. His next two novels The Manchu sky (Fa Maenjoo), 1945, and Life
over death (Cheewit Bon Khwarm Tai), 1946 were inspired by his activities as a Free Thai
during the war, like his latest novel, Earth, water and flowers (Din Narm Lae Dorkmai), 1990.
He came into his own with his two art-for-life masterpieces, the intellectual novel
Wanlayas love (Khwarmrak Khong Wanlaya), 1952, and Ghosts (Peesart), 1953, which both
found their public twenty years later. Because of political repression at home, his later
works gave up shoot-from-the-hip social criticism for subtle symbolism, but suffered from
weak or contrived plots Cold fire (Fai Ien), 1961, another romantic novel; The Amazon lotus
(Bua Barn Nai Amarsorn), 1961, a lame and pedestrian adventure story; The good citizens of
Ayutthaya (Khon Dee See Ayutthaya), 1981, a simplistic historical novel; Under the star of death
(Tai Dao Maruetayoo), 1983.
All of his novels and most of his short stories deal with ordinary people who, like him,
have a brain of average size, as he is wont to say, and he is the only Thai novelist able to
portray foreign characters as convincing and true-to-life as Thai ones.

Primary sources: 72 Pee Sakchai Bamrungphong Nak Khian Sarmanchon, 72-year-old Sakchai Bamrungphong, The
peoples writer, Sathian Janthimarthorn ed, Samnakphim Matichon, 1990; Cheewit Lae Ngarn Khong Nak
Praphan, Writers lives and works, Dork Ya, 1988; Phatthanarkarn Ngarnkhian Nawaniyai Khong Seinee
Saowaphong, The development of Seinee Saowaphong's novel writing, Preecha Paniarwachiro-phart,
Prasarnmit, 1984.

Sakchai has used his real name for some short stories as well as an array of pen names for specific
works: Sujarit Phromjania also for short stories, Kratsanai Pro-chart for short stories and translations,
Bo Bangbor and Wanlaya Sinlapawanlop for some poems. Seinee Saowaphong allegedly comes
from the real family name of a girl he loved and it is also the name of the narrator in his first novel, The
losers victory.
Wanlayas love (Khwarmrak Khong Wanlaya) 1952

I love Paris.
Not because Paris has excellent wine and champagne. Not because Paris has dancing
cabarets such as Casino de Paris, Tabarin, Follies Bergres, Lido and Naturiste. Not because
Paris has the charm of the women of the Champs Elyses, Pigalle, Madeleine and Clichy.
Of course I will not deny that such attractions are part of what makes Paris the Paris
everyone talks about, but they are only a small, nonessential part of it. Whoever knows
only this much of Paris does not know Paris.
I love Paris because Paris is a city of life, a very old city which has seen many events of
great import for the history of mankind, a city which has seen blood, tears, cruelty,
struggle, sacrifice, betrayal and revolution. Paris may not have the latest buildings or be as
spick and span as the capitals of some other countries, but its antique splendour and the
events of the past which have etched invisible marks in the stone of its walls, on the cobbles
that cover Place de la Concorde and on the stone slabs of the Bastille jail, which was so
thoroughly taken apart that nothing of the main structure remains to be seen, the blood
and tears that still flow and mix in the Seine over lichen-covered human bones and the
rusty remains of old weapons all this is the pride of Paris which no other city has and
which makes it unlike any other. I love the Paris of Balzac, Voltaire, Hugo and Rolland, the
Paris of Pasteur and Joliot-Curie, of Bizet and Gounod, of Delacroix, Rodin and Picasso, the
Paris that artists and writers such as Heine, Goya, Chopin, Rabine, Belinsky, Hemingway
and Ehrenburg came to know at various periods in their lifetimes.
I like the ancient feel of Paris, the small, old houses along the steep streets of
Montmartre, the narrow, dark alleyways of Saint-Germain-des-Prs and Montparnasse, the
movable flower and book stands along the quays of the Seine, the shade of the chestnut
trees on a summer afternoon...
Some thirty years ago, after the First World War, young Thai students congregated at La
Source and Dupont coffee shops in the Latin Quarter to discuss everything from affairs of
the heart to political developments at home. At that time, the world was going through
momentous changes: the Hohenzollern and Habsburg dynasties had fallen, the Austro-
Hungarian empire had been dismantled and replaced by socialist republics in a new trend
towards democracy Poland, Czechoslovakia, Finland and Yugoslavia and, most
outstanding of all, the socialist revolution in the former Russian empire.
Amid the disorders of post-war daily life, the economic depression prompted new
thoughts and new struggles. The disintegration of the old institutions foreboded the end of
any lingering faith in the sacredness of the old order. No one was invulnerable, nothing
was everlasting. The old had to give way to the new.
After the Second World War, the coffee shops are still there but many things have
changed. At the very least, the customers are no longer of the same ilk. Maurice Chevaliers
song Paris will always be Paris had been on the lips of all Parisians before the war and
even when the town was crawling with soldiers wearing the Swastika, but no one thinks of
singing it now. Is Paris still Paris, I wonder. The time has come for a new generation. Even
Delacroix painting La libert guidant le peuple (Liberty Guiding the People) still gives
heart to those who witness quarrels and arguments, as now Paris is the Paris of the Fourth
Life is something that does not hold still. The good old days are gone forever, but better
days must surely lie ahead, as life definitely tends to evolve towards perfection and excel-
At first glance, it looks like nothing has changed. The coffee shops are still crowded in
the hot season. The people of Paris still like to relax and discuss their thousand-and-one
problems over a glass of Martini with small ice cubes and a zest of lime in it. The women
with slender bodies and fashionable, much-copied hairdos and clothes are still around. In
the little streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prs, which look so much alike that at night you
hardly know which is which, under old-fashioned lampposts that throw a dim light in the
evening, couples and groups of all sizes walk by, often singing songs of love or songs of
strife, as some think of love and charm while others think of struggle. Cest la lutte finale...
I love Paris and this is the reason why I am writing about life in Paris. It may be a task
beyond the capacities of someone of my calibre but I am not worried because I write out of
love. I have met many people in Paris; their life stories are interesting and, taken altogether,
form a picture which highlights the progression of life in both wisdom and feeling during
the era in which you and I live. Of all the natural phenomena, life is the most beautiful, and
the most lovable lives are those of the young, because the door of their future is wide open
to all kinds of wonderful possibilities. Besides, as you know, students usually crave beauty,
and this being so, how could they possibly neglect life?
Talking of Paris makes me think of Wanlaya, a Thai woman I met there. She is 24 years
old, beautiful and a bright student. Would you like to know her?
Her name is Wanlaya, her surname her surname is of no importance whatsoever,
because one day she will probably use someone elses, maybe yours, if you are a really
good person. But beware, I am warning you, a woman like Wanlaya does not love easily.
No, I am not trying to interpose myself, and I will tell you her story presently.

Her story, the author will not tell. We only learn that Wanlaya hails from a modest Bangkok family
and has a scholarship to study music in Paris, with two more years to go. In the next few pages, she
breaks up with her well-bred Thai boyfriend, who offers to marry her, by explaining that she has no
intention of becoming a traditional housewife, and certainly not a high-society blue lady; she wants
to marry a man who really works, not for himself or for his status ... but for his work and for the
world in which he is born, a man who is a cog of the giant machine that is building the new era, not
someone < who is only concerned with his personal happiness from one day to the next until he dies
without leaving any print in his wake.
Thats the way Wanlaya talks and talk she does, about love, art, music, literature, womens rights,
the need to serve and trust people. Her love is idealistic, ethereal, intellectual, and this is no ordinary
love story. There is no surreptitious hand squeezing, no echo of a kissing, and Wanlaya, a Thai-style
Simone de Beauvoir, is just one of the protagonists. She is only important for the messages she
conveys, although we are given to understand that she has found her future life partner in Yong, an
improbable travelling son of the paddy fields who speaks and writes like a lecturer and goes back
home to put himself at the service of the people.
The time is the post-war period, with its hope, enthusiasm, generosity and idealism, and the events of
the world of Europe, at any rate are uncommonly present throughout. The big topic is the
impending World Congress for Peace, organised by the Soviet bloc.
The setting is Paris, the Paris of students and the little people the Left Bank bookseller who tells us
about the Commune and the Occupation and the crucial role of women; the strangers confiding their
troubles over a cup of coffee; the hospitable workers, full of pride for their work. People are easy to
befriend, they are alive and warm, they are the ones who make things change and shape history.
In swift, bouncy chapters, half a dozen characters interact and talk and then talk some more over
a period of about a year. French or Thai, male or female, they are given equal treatment sketchy
and, except for Yong, almost devoid of background. The narrator, Seinee, is a journalist. Why he is in
Paris, who he is working for, why he eventually leaves, we are not told.
The only substantial story is that of Phaijit and Tueanta, and it is a counterpoint to Wanlayas form
of love. Phaijit (the word means refined) is second secretary at the Thai embassy. The consummate
careerist, he married Tueanta (reminder), the daughter of an influential politician, to forward his
career. He is clever, knows how to flatter and when to lie. He shows some interest in Wanlaya, but
she makes it clear that she is not interested. When her father falls out of power, Tueanta becomes a
liability and Phaijit treats her like dirt. His hostility only deepens when she tells him she is pregnant.

For a man like Phaijit who had lofty ambitions and a carefully planned future, a sudden
reversal of fortune was deeply unsettling. He was not interested in playing politics, even
though he despised some politicians for their lack of substance. He understood well that
nothing is certain in politics, but he was clever enough to use politicians for his own ends,
ingratiating himself to them and currying favours on occasion in order to forward his
career in the civil service. But even so he could not simply dismiss his marriage to the
daughter of a politician. His long-term plan, so meticulously thought out, had turned out to
be a mistake.
Actually, Tueanta was a good person, a good wife he acknowledged that much and
she would have been good enough had she not turned into the daughter of a politician
who had lost his position and was under investigation as an adversary of the current
power holders, which put him, his son-in-law, in a most precarious situation, as it brought
him under suspicion too. The bright future that he had contemplated had turned dark
less from actual fact than in his own perception. He was afraid that even his current posi-
tion was no longer secure. He could not sleep, and went to work with a trembling heart. A
telegram recalling him could arrive at any time. A few days ago, someone had whispered
to him that officials were investigating members of the opposition and even their
Phaijit was too much taken with himself to think about anything else and he was
sparing no effort to find a way out.
Tueanta could feel the change in him, and as time went by she became increasingly
aware of his true character. She was a woman with no greater expectation than a happy
and secure life centred on her house and her husband. She had never thought about rights,
social life or politics. What she wanted was more or less what traditional wives had always
wanted, but Phaijit was unable to provide even this old-fashioned life, and not all women
saw such modest expectations equally fulfilled.
She felt vicariously happy whenever she thought about the child she was bearing, as is
usual for women anticipating motherhood, but even that feeling gave way to bitterness
when she thought about the behaviour of her husband, who was standoffish, chiding and
threatening at times. She felt lonely and desolate. Her narrow world was murky. To find a
way out of it, she felt it necessary to confide in her friends Jaemjan and Wanlaya.
Jaemjan was understanding, but she had a happy family life, she had never had a
problem like the one Tueanta was facing, and it made Tueanta sad whenever she thought
about herself. Phaijit had once said disparagingly: That fellow Chit has no education.
Chit [Jaemjans husband+ had not studied abroad, but a high education was no yardstick
for goodness, a truth which Tueanta had learned from the strife of real life.
She did her very best to keep hoping that one day Phaijit would see the goodness in her
heart. She had always been on the lookout for lapses in her duties as a spouse and house-
wife, two words which were little else than synonyms of slave, but she finally realised
that the problem was not there. The basic question was why he had married her. Was it out
of love? And if so, what was it that fostered love?
That evening, Phaijit came back home late as usual. Tueanta had sat waiting for him
with vacant eyes, even though she knew that such behaviour did not do any good at all,
but she still hoped against hope that he might yet change his heart, and in any case he was
an ordinary human being, not some frightful giant or demon.
Are you going to take a shower, Khun Phee

? she asked, readying herself to open a

drawer to take out a new towel for him.
Leave me alone, he said brusquely.
Tueanta sat dumbfounded, shocked and pained as a well-meaning child berated by a
grownup for doing something she did not know was wrong.
Phaijit poured himself a peg of brandy and drank it up. Tueanta rinsed out the glass in
cold water and put it back on the table without a word.
Why arent you asleep?
I am not sleepy, she answered. Er Khun Phee, I
Dont you call me Phee, he retorted angrily. Since when are we brother and sister,
Tueanta turned pale. His words were like a knife slashing into her heart.
And now you call me brother! Since when are we concerned with love? Tueanta could still
remember from her schooldays Wiyasakams sarcasm addressed to Sangkha Marrata

. She
almost broke down in tears there and then, but her throat constricted and no sound came
out, though sobs racked her chest.
Youve completely ruined my future, do you know that?
Her vision blurred. Her ears heard the sound of what he said only faintly but his words
reverberated loudly in her heart. Rallying her willpower, she staggered to the bed and buried
her face in the pillow, giddy as though her heart would break.
Let us separate, she heard Phaijit further say. I cant do better than this, because you
are not the same as before and I must look after my own future.

Literally Mr Elder Brother a formal term of address implying respect and subservience, originally
used among the gentry.

Two brothers, in Inao, the Thai version of a Javanese epic

Tueanta did not have the strength to answer. She felt as if, at that very moment, Phaijits
words were pushing her over a cliff into sudden emptiness, making her unable to collect
her wits.
Phaijit had finally let his mask drop. He had married her because he believed she would
help him on his way to the top of the civil service, and now that her situation had changed,
she was a handicap to his career.
Love grown on the basis of self-interest if we can call this love can only collapse
when that basis crumbles. She understood this now, but whose fault was it? Certainly not

As springtime came over Paris, and the clear sky, the warm sunshine and the fresh breeze
carrying the fragrance of the new leaves were like symbols of liveliness, eagerness and
strength and signs of the beauty born out of the cheerfulness of life, Tueanta had an

Tueanta will divorce Phaijit, go back to Thailand and find employment as a teacher, moving of her
own accord from wealthy to more deserving students. For all his fears, Phaijit will be promoted.
Tueanta, the typical traditional Thai wife, finds her salvation in taking control of her own life. Like
Wanlaya the music student, like Ren the hard-up painter, like Yong the farmer, she is moved to
enter the service of the people the more ordinary the better.

The central message of this intellectual cum political novel is that life generates love and
love generates change for the better. Real love is not self-centred; it must expand to
include all people. Wanlayas love is much like that of Komeit and Nancy in
Seeboorapha s Till we meet again, published two years earlier. But Wanlayas love offers
more meat, both in theme and scope. Its thoroughly modern structure, a rapid succession
of sequences, movie-like, gives it the fast pulse of life. Together with a breath of French air
and criticism of the social and political realities of Thailand (from scathing comments on
the works of national poet Sunthorn Phoo to a satire of the new rich), Wanlayas love
introduced radical ideas that were common currency in existentialist Paris but way ahead
of their time in Bangkok.
The novel, first serialised in a magazine in 1952, sold hardly more than one thousand
copies during the 1950s, but twenty years later it would be reprinted several times over
the current, 1990 edition is the tenth.

Ghosts (Pheesart) 1953-54

The novel is set in the early 1950s and this is how it starts:

Her lover was an ordinary man. He had no especially attractive feature or noticeable
deformity that would have immediately singled him out among all other ordinary people.
He was neither taller nor shorter than the average Thai man at large, and he came from a
family of simple folk who had to use her own parents expression no blue blood in their
veins, whereas she, in the opinion of most, did not stand in the back rows of feminine
beauty, and was born into an aristocratic family whose ancestors could be traced as far
back as the Ayutthaya kingdom. Yet when these dissimilar man and woman came to meet
and befriend and love each other, her father blamed this unforgivable mistake on the
modern way of life, which granted women too much freedom. Part of the problem was that
women were allowed to study at the university together with male students. Even though
access to the various university levels was restricted through high tuition fees and
expensive books and services, it was not enough to ensure that only children of families of
suitable or at least almost suitable social standing would attend. True enough, as a rule the
children of the poor did not get past the gates of academe, but it happened all too often that
some of them did manage to sneak their way in, and by mixing and socializing with this
lowly lot, the other children developed preposterous ideas and were led astray from
accepted behaviour, forgetting themselves, their rank and their dignity.
And another reason was that women were given the opportunity to leave the house to
work in offices, venturing out of safe and orderly homes into a wide, wild world full of
trickery and deceit.
Her father thought that because she had entered university and studied together with
other girls and boys of the same age, some friends of the same sex who were never brought
up in good families had put improper ideas into her head. As for the young fellows there
who came from lowly families, he thought with contempt that they had no other purpose
than to shed their skin and pass themselves off as gentlemen with these girls of good
breeding and high standing through all kinds of tricks and deceptions.
Ratchanees grandmother had opposed sending her to senior high school because she
could not bear the shame of having to meet and listen to these people and she knew that
her granddaughter, who was now a fully grown woman, would have to wear shorts and
raise her legs and thrust her bosom and wag her behind and squat and jump in public in
what was now an adjunct to education they called physical exercise or sport. She had
successfully opposed Ratchanees elder sisters from doing the same, which explains why
they only graduated at secondary-school level and stayed at their grandmothers beck and
call for years on end doing nothing but waiting until a brides settlement took place and
they passed from her custody to someone elses. It was Ratchanees good fortune that she
grew up much later than her sisters, and to her grandmothers ill fortune that she had aged
so much that she no longer had the strength and stamina to prod and poke until her
opinion prevailed and became the supreme law enforced over the whole family as was the
case in the past. Ratchanee was thus able to escape from her frighteningly strong embrace.
Her mother, who held slightly more advanced opinions than her grandmother because
she was born a generation later, just kept her misgivings to herself, maybe because she was
too weak to oppose her little daughter whom she loved and had always allowed to have
her way, and because she could see that times and conditions had changed during her own
These were no longer the days of powder and turmeric but of all kinds of goods with
foreign-sounding names that those overseas creatures made and sent over to sell, names so
odd that a shelled woman in her fifties could neither catch nor remember them. Her
childhood was all topknot and anklets, and her adolescence had meant a belt of splendid
brass. She still remembered the ceremony of cutting the topknot, a magnificent and
protracted affair which had left her sore and exhausted to the point of collapse. But these
days such rites were all gone. Only Dueantems two elder sisters had worn topknots, but
the ceremony of cutting them had been so simplified as to be hardly a ceremony at all.
Ratchanee was the only one who had not worn a topknot as a child, and when she came of
age she did not show any interest in a copper or brass belt. She was satisfied with a mere
leather belt that cost nothing much at all, and simply asked for different colours red,
green, brown, blue to match the shirts and skirts she wore. Gone were the days of silk
robes and chintzes and loose bodices and simple cloth wrapped around the waist or tied at
the back; now it was all trousers for men and skirts for women. Gone also were the days of
powder and turmeric and beeswax, replaced by creams and lipsticks and hair lotions.
Ratchanees elder sisters were all married and had households of their own, which was
extremely fortunate because it left only this youngest daughter to fuss about, and her
mother looked at Ratchanee with constant worry in her heart, silently praying for her,
hoping for some kind of miracle which would turn her again into the good girl she used to
be, amid all the changes that were going on everywhere...
When they first met, Ratchanee became interested in the young man for only one reason,
which is that he did not show any kind of interest in her at all. When one of her friends
introduced him, he did not utter a word, not even that he was pleased to meet her, as
everybody says upon being introduced. Even though she was old enough to know that the
sentence usually carried no meaning and was blurted out automatically for the sake of
politeness, she still would have liked to hear it, and she thought with contempt that that
fellow had no manners at all. As he sat in front of her, he spoke very little, seemingly half-
heartedly. She believed it was for the man to strike up a conversation and that the woman
should wait before pitching in. So she waited but he showed no inclination to talk, and
both remained silent. She looked at him repeatedly from the corner of her eye and sensed
that he felt no less oppressed than she did.
As she made to leave, her friend, who was the owner of the house, and who was busy
chatting with the other guests, saw that he was sitting idly by, so she asked him to do her
the favour of accompanying Ratchanee to her car, which was waiting at the entrance of the
blind alley.
Thank you, that wont be necessary, I can take care of myself, Ratchanee said with a
sarcastic undertone when she saw him standing up. He did not say anything and looked as
if he had not noticed her tone but he followed her to the door, so she turned round and
looked him in the face in a way which meant Didnt you understand what I said?
His impassive face seemed to show some sort of concern. unless it bothers you, he
The fierce glitter in her eyes abated and he must have understood from her expression
that she would not object because he went on following her quietly. She was not going to
keep her feelings to herself any longer, so she turned to him and asked bluntly: Why are
you following me?
He looked at a loss. Well, Im seeing you to your car, arent I?
You dont want to know me or even talk to me, isnt that so?
I never said that, or if you think I did, then tell me where and when.
Your behaviour is more telling than anything you say.
What! he exclaimed, then fell silent. Ratchanee thought that his remark, indeed his
whole attitude, was a deliberate and outrageous provocation and she felt utterly offended.
You misunderstand my reserve and restraint, he said forcefully.
Restraint? Ratchanee repeated in a loud voice and thought that he was lamely trying
to excuse himself.
He nodded. I am restraining myself in front of you for two reasons. The first is that I
know who you are, and the second is that you are a beautiful woman and you are well
aware of it. You have seen enough men fall over themselves in their eagerness to approach
you. Indeed you are beautiful and I dont deny it, but I am not one of those men and, as for
the first reason, you and I are as different as the sky and the earth.
Ratchanee blushed deeply, seething inside. She had never heard such infuriating
You only know that my name is Citizen Sai and my surname Seema, he went on.
You still dont know who I am, where I come from and how unimportant I am. Therefore
you cannot understand my own restraint. People with different stations in life see
everything differently. But this isnt your fault, and anyway there is one thing I appreciate
in you, and that is your frankness. When you are upset, you say so without beating around
the bush. Thats something thats hard to find... I think that once you know me better, you
will understand me better.
Ratchanee shook her head brusquely, entered the car, slammed the door and drove
away without a goodbye...

Ratchanee treats her best girlfriend, Kingthian, a teacher, to lunch, then receives the confidences of
her elder sister Darunee, whose arranged marriage is a painful disaster. These two examples
convince her that she must assert her own independence by finding work. Throughout the book, at
regular intervals, as a counterpoint to Darunees woes, we will follow Kingthians exemplary love
story with a young civil servant posted upcountry with whom she will be finally united to light the
spark of knowledge in the surrounding darkness.
Sai has spent his childhood by a canal on land recovered from the forest, and disputes over territory
between farmers are part of his earliest memories. When the monk who teaches him decides to go to
Bangkok, he takes him along and this is how Sai escapes the paddy fields and gains access to higher
Ratchanee finds work in a bank, as assistant to Jittin, the brother of one of her friends and a friend of
Sais, whose legal services are also retained by the bank. This multiplies opportunities for Sai and
Ratchanee to meet, and her earlier distaste turns into growing trust and friendship. She is
particularly impressed by the fact that he is a man with a thinking of his own, who acts often in
shocking manner.
When his benefactor the monk, now living with a landowning widow, asks Sai to sue four of her
farmers who have failed to pay their land rent for years, the young lawyer asks for time to go and
investigate whether some compromise cant be found.
At this point, a lengthy flashback tells how, during the Second World War, local farmers
resourcefully fought against the occupying Japanese, who viewed them as thieving ghosts.
Convinced that the farmers cannot deliver and will lose in court and be evicted from the land, Sai
prefers to betray his debt of gratitude to the monk rather than to contribute to the misery of his
Similarly, when he is asked to represent the bank in a case involving the eviction of derelict
shophouses, he prefers to terminate his services with the bank rather than fight against the destitute
occupants, who are like urbanised relatives of his own folk.
Meanwhile, Ratchanee is being besieged on two fronts: her boss Jittin, who is loved by his own
secretary, a woman of modest condition who sees him as her stepping stone to a comfortable life, is
increasingly taken with her; and so is Kraisee, an overconfident stud freshly returned from overseas
who is encouraged by Ratchanees parents to come and court her at home, though he has several
other irons in the fire.
She tactfully keeps both suitors at arms length, and makes the daring step of inviting Sai to her

And he actually came. She was happy to meet him yet could not but feel oppressed at the
thought of how her parents would react when they came down. She felt that in this house
she had no freedom and was considered not as an adult but still as a little girl who needed
to be watched over and should not be let out of sight. There was no harm in friends coming
for a visit, she thought to comfort herself, and since the others can come, why shouldnt he?
As she was the one who wanted him to visit, she would be more than a little relieved if it
was left to her to receive him.
They had only exchanged a few words when her father entered the room. He lowered
his head and looked over his spectacles in the direction of Sai.
Father, Ratchanee said, this is my friend Mr Sai.
Sai stood up, raised his joined hands and bowed politely. Her father walked to a chair.
Sai kept standing, thinking that he would let the older man sit down first before taking a
seat, but presently her father said in what was more a command than an invitation: Sit
He did so and adopted as formal and proper a posture as he could.
Whose child are you?
Ratchanees throat tightened upon hearing this. This was the very question which her
friend Kingthian was asked every time Ratchanee brought her over and which made King-
thian feel like she did not want to set foot in Ratchanees house ever again. Father always
used this form of address with young visitors whom he had not met before. She stole a
glance at Sai. He sat in the same pose. He did not turn to look at her but faced Father in an
ordinary way.
Er my father is a farmer, sir, he answered. He had had a slight hesitation at first, like
someone taken by surprise, but then he went on in a firm yet polite manner: His name
would not tell Your Lordship anything, because he is not a person of note or of any
significance whatsoever.
From which province?
Sai told him the name of the province where he was born.
Oh, there are many prominent people from that province, such as my good friends
Lord Rarchaneithisart, who used to be a Supreme Court judge, and Lord Rarchanarwik of
the Navy. Do you know them? They are from the same province as yours.
I do not know them personally, he answered. I have only heard of them.
How big are your rice fields?
I dont have any.
Then what do you do for a living?
I earn my living as a lawyer... he said, then, after a slight pause, added forcefully: At
your service, Your Lordship.
What happened to your fields?
They were divided between my brothers. I was the only one to come to Bangkok so I
gave them my share.
I see... A lawyer, hey? Are you making enough to live on?
Enough to take care of myself, Your Lordship.
What kind of lawyer? A court tout? asked His Lordship, scrutinizing him over his
Er I just passed as first-class lawyer, Your Lordship.
Going through law is so easy these days; the town is full of lawyers.
Indeed, Your Lordship, but aristocrats of all ranks will soon be past history, Sai
countered levelly.
His Lordship looked shocked and astounded by such an arrogant rejoinder. Sai went on
in a way in which it was hard to tell whether he was expressing his opinion or talking sar-
castically: If nobility was hereditary like in some countries, it would be a good thing, Your
Lordship, then it would never disappear.
He is probably thinking, Cheeky bastard!, Sai thought, but old people are like that, they
like others to show respect and kowtow to them, and force them to when they dont, but
for people like himself, Sai knew that even if he kowtowed and worshipped the old man
there was no way he would ever win his approval, therefore when he was aggressed
verbally he just answered in kind.
Ratchanees father sat still for a long time, perhaps because he thoroughly despised this
upstart of a friend of his daughters or because he was no longer disposed to converse with
the son of a peasant, a fellow without a drop of blue blood who did not even know a single
family of note. He sat impassively smoking a fat and fragrant cigar, looking right over Sais
head, and remained sitting like that as if he were alone in the room.
Ratchanees heart beat wildly as she sat listening to the exchange between the two men.
She had never heard anybody answering back to her father in this manner. The awe in
which she had always held her father made her feel at times that Sai should give in and
humour him instead of answering back unremittingly, but even so she could not but
admire his boldness.
If I didnt already know that Your Excellency is a court official, I might have thought
that Your Excellency worked at the Ministry of the Interior.
His Lordship remained impassive, but he lowered his vision to the level of Sais
forehead. Why?
Sai said with laughter in his voice, as if talking more in jest than in earnest: Your
Excellency has been questioning me rather like a district official investigating family
records, which would have made me wonder whether Your Excellency was not at least a
lord lieutenant if I didnt know better.
His Lordship raised his eyes to their former position and went on drawing on his cigar
at regular intervals with the characteristic deportment of the master of the house, sitting
motionless and silent.
The prolonged silence oppressed Ratchanee. She looked at her father, then stole a glance
in Sais direction just as he turned to look at her. Their eyes met briefly and he resumed his
previous pose.
They all remained frozen. Ratchanee felt that if the situation kept on like this for another
five minutes, she would have to do something even though she had no idea what, but a
short moment later her father put down his cigar on the ashtray, stood up, turned his back
and walked out without showing interest in anyone and not even looking at his daughter.
After he had left, Sai kept sitting in the same pose until Ratchanee moved. He then
turned to her.
He seems very angry, he said wearily.
He is, Ratchanee answered with a forced smile.
I am sorry that I made him so.
It doesnt matter really, she replied as though to comfort him. She knew it was not his
fault, even though his remarks were rather infuriating, as Father, who sized up everyone
according to their lineage, would never have been satisfied, whatever Sais manners, given
the young mans origins.

Sai and Ratchanee continue to meet, to her parents utter dismay. This ghost gives me nightmares,
grumbles His Lordship.
When a delegation of farmers from his village come to ask for his help as they are being evicted from
their paddy fields, Sai takes on the case, free of charge. Faced with financial pressures, he breaks up
with his partner rather than compromise over his principles. During his investigation in the field, he
is shot at but escapes unhurt. He leaves soon after to attend the first hearing of the case in Bangkok,
but promises to return soon.
He delays his return, however, when Ratchanees father invites him to dinner at their house.
The dinner drags on painfully.

And finally the meal came to an end. It had taken two full hours. When the servants put
down bowls of fruit on the table, His Lordship spoke up in a rather loud voice. Some of
you may be wondering what the occasion for this party is. He spoke slowly like an old
man but with full authority, and Sais nerves tensed up like the strings of a fiddle strung to
breaking point.
Actually, this is no special occasion at all. The gathering today is for the entertainment
of our relatives and close relations.
He sat motionless yet relaxed, his eyes roving around the table.
But there is just one person who is an outsider, a stranger there! His voice was loud
and he pointed his finger straight at Sai, like a schoolteacher designating the culprit to the
attention of his classmates. Everyone glared at Sai.
Ratchanees heart beat faster; she had never imagined that the situation would take a
turn like this. She wished Sai would look at her so that she could let him know how she
felt, but he was looking straight ahead, a little above everybodys heads. He held himself as
still as a lifeless statue.
I organised this gathering for us to have the opportunity to know that person, His
Lordship went on. Nothing would be further from the truth than to state this party was
called in his honour. Do meet that person. He pointed at Sai again and said in a voice full
of sarcasm: Let me introduce Citizen Sai, family name Seema, a farmers son from the
district of ...
Giggles and laughter broke out around the table. An old woman with the demeanour of
an aristocrat of the bluest blood brought her hand, which sported an enormous sparkling
diamond ring, up to cover her mouth as she laughed. Those whose fingers were adorned
with jewels moved their hands more than the others. Someone whispered, loud enough for
Sai to hear: No wonder I sniffed a rank smell from somewhere.
Thats right. Ive noticed his complexion has no distinction whatsoever, hissed
someone else.
Sais immediate neighbours dames or persons of a higher rank he had no way to
know pulled their chair further away from him, with an expression of disgust as if they
had seen a worm or a millipede.
Ratchanee would have liked to shout He is my friend! but she could not do so as her
throat was constricted. She glanced at Darunee who looked at her with a stunned
He came to know our little lady, His Lordship went on, and since then he has been a
regular visitor to this house, therefore it has become necessary to introduce him to you all
so that there is no misunderstanding or gossip of any kind regarding his reasons for
meeting our daughter and his purpose in visiting this house.
He paused for a while. His audience fidgeted, some were immersed in their own
thoughts but nobody dared speak up.
Our little lady here is my own daughter. They say this is the age of freedom, that these
days anyone can do whatever they please without regard for tradition or proper behaviour,
and that nobodies popping right out of the jungle can become powerful people. I hold that
this kind of thinking degrades people instead of improving them, makes them forget their
place, forget the order of the land. We are surrounded by crooks who are only good for
tricking their way to the top. People like this dont look at themselves as others would see
them. They hanker for status without realizing that nobility comes from the blood. Crows
must be crows and swans will always be swans.
His Lordship marked another brief pause.
Let them have their freedom wherever they please but it wont be in my house. Our
little lady is the daughter of a lord, not some strumpet on the pavement, and those who are
trying to raise themselves by their bootstraps and pass themselves off as gentlemen should
give up any hope that this would ever be so. The door of this house is always open, but to
some people only.
His Lordship stopped and remained still for a long time, as if he had nothing more to
I think, his elder son-in-law said, it would be proper to ask that gentleman to leave
this house forthwith.
Everyone around the table including Ratchanee turned to look at Sai and saw him sitting
stock still as if he did not breathe at all, his gaze fixed on the window frame, his face blunt
as though sculpted out of wood, clay or stone.
The room was frozen in a strangely oppressive silence which lasted and lasted. A lady
swept a glass with her hand and it broke on the table, startling everyone.
Ratchanee felt dizzy as if she was about to faint. Sai kept the same pose, as though a
spell had turned him into an unmovable block of granite devoid of life.
More time elapsed. His Lordship sat reclining on his chair, looking straight ahead at the
dinner table where no one moved. Nobody had touched the fruit since they had been
served. Someone raised a hand to pick up a piece of fruit and disrupt the stifling
atmosphere but the hand froze in midair when there was the noise of a chair being pushed
back and Sai stirred.
He stood up ever so slowly.
Does anyone want to add anything? he asked, then looked around the table. A few
old women who had been watching him closely shook their heads as one.
If no one has anything more to say, I will take my leave. He marked a pause then went
on: But before I go, I would like to waste a little of your precious time in order to state a
few facts only a little, because when someone like me speaks, nobody indeed cares to
listen. But for once, whether you want to listen or not, you will have to.
I am delighted that you have all had the opportunity to know me, thanks to the
kindness of our host, who invited me. Indeed, I am one of the invited guests, the only crow
among swans. His Excellency invited me for a certain purpose. Therefore it is not the fault
of this particular brazen crow that it finds itself among a flock of swans tonight, because it
did not impose itself on the present company but was duly invited.
I am extremely proud today that I was born the son of a farmer. I dont know why my
father was not an aristocrat, but there are many more farmers than aristocrats, and my
father belongs to the majority. I therefore have no reason to feel ashamed that I did not
happen to be born in some noble family of ancient lineage, because nobility is a condition
that we ourselves created and chose to uphold. That situation wont last, as time, which
never stands still, will change it irresistibly.
Indeed, differences in eras and times give us conflicting views. I am not an invader of
those of you who live in lofty ivory towers, but when you spit your mucus to the ground
from your towers, I have to wipe it off because it is something filthy. There is no need to
harm you, however, because no matter what you must disappear in time. You wont be
able to resist the changes brought about by time. Sooner or later, all the old things will be
confined to museums, one after the other.
You misunderstand if you think I am trying to pass myself off as an aristocrat, because
that would be going backward. Much time has elapsed already, and your world and mine
are getting further apart. I am the ghost that time has fashioned to scare those who live in
the old world, to give nightmares to those who hold to the old way of thinking, and
nothing can comfort you, just as nothing can stop the march of time, which will produce
more and more ghosts like me. You thought you could destroy this particular ghost tonight
amid such exalted company, but there is no way this can happen, because this ghost is
even more invulnerable than Achilles or Siegfried as he is protected by the shield of time.
You may hold on to a few scraps for a while but you wont be able to control everything
forever. We are worlds apart. Mine is the world of ordinary people.
He slightly bowed his head when he had finished talking and left the dinner table,
stepped outside and down the stairs, walked along the driveway, through the main door
and out in the street out of a world in which he had no inclination to linger and which
had no wish to see him stay.

Sai walks about aimlessly in the streets only to find himself in front of his own house, where
Ratchanee is waiting for him. She has rebelled against her family. They talk all night, and though
their bodies are about to part, their hearts beat as one. In the morning, Sai leaves for his village to
pursue the eviction case, and Ratchanee travels to her friend Kingthians house in the Northeast to
start teaching. They say goodbye and She stepped out into the golden light of dawn as the sun
gradually brightened the sky over Bangkok.

Ghosts was meant as a follow-up to Wanlayas love. Unlike the first novel, which is teaming
with brilliant conversations but little else, this one is packed with action. But it is equally
inconclusive. The fate of Ratchanee in the provinces is left untold, and we are not given an
inkling as to whether Sais defence of the farmers will be successful. What is important in
both novels is the protagonists decision to side with the people. What siding with the
people actually implies is another story altogether.
Yet, one asset of Ghosts is its precise description of how ordinary farmers are victimised
through various means by the powerful and how they try to fight for a better life.
Wanlayas love had a very broad scope and carried plenty of new ideas on society, art,
education and politics. Ghosts is narrowed down to one main theme: the conflict between
the old world of aristocrats and the new world of ghosts, the new counter elite of ordinary
people that Sai personifies. Ghosts are symbols of impending change, scary new forces
endangering established powers and notions the thieving ghosts harassing the occupying
Japanese, the ungrateful ghost (Sai) who rejects the old sacred value of reciprocating good
deeds for the new value of solidarity, and the ghosts of time (Sai and his like) who are
giving the old aristocrats nightmares by heralding their prompt demise. The implied
message is that history has meaning, direction and finality. The book ends on a double note
of social commitment and hope for the future.
Seinee Saowaphongs storytelling technique owes much to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and,
as in Wanlayas love, the plot is woven through fast-paced scene changes involving a host of
rich characters.
Sai and Ratchanee, both intellectuals, evolve psychologically from beginning to end,
especially well-born Ratchanee, the typically sheltered daughter of a good family who,
thanks to her education, sense of justice and personal integrity, makes a courageous break
with her past to face an uncertain fate upcountry, but on her own terms. At the same time,
she graduates from annoyance with Sai to trust and finally love. Her intellectual and
emotional growth parallels to some extent that of Wanlaya and Tueanjai in the previous
novel. Ratchanee puts herself at the service of the people, and so does Sai. Her
transformation is much more radical than Sais, however, inasmuch as the young lawyer is
an ordinary man siding with his own people.
At first, Sai pulls out from case after case rather than compromise his principles, leaving
it to others to do the dirty work a passive attitude, as both he and Ratchanee realise.
Finally, he takes the positive step of siding with the downtrodden. Yet, even in his
impassioned denunciation of the old elite, he is not a revolutionary: he tells a tableful of
aristocrats that because they are doomed he does not have to fight or even hassle them. He
is not out to change the system: he will only contribute whatever he can to the fight for
social justice and help the farmers fight their cases in court.
The novel suffers from a major fault in construction, however: the lengthy flashback
about the daredevil stunts performed by Thai farmers fighting the Japanese occupation
during the war. The section is well written and funny, and scores an intellectual point, by
presenting the forefathers of the ghosts Sai embodies, but it breaks the narrative flow and is
irrelevant to the farmers present-day antics.
Ghosts was serialised in a magazine but not published in book form, and it was forgotten
for nearly two decades until the 197376 democratic interlude gave it a new life. Thousands
of ghosts by then recognised themselves in Sai Seema. Because the novel focuses on the
old elite-new elite conflict in Thailand, it is more popular among Thai readers than the
more intellectual, more scattered Wanlayas love. Yet it lacks its general ebullience and
international scope.

Marlai Choophinit

Marlai Choophinit, whose journalistic career spanned 37 years, was a top editor and master
writer of his time, but by all accounts he cut the unassuming figure of a hack. A slim, soft-
spoken and controlled man who dressed casually and loved jungle outings, big-game
hunting and boxing, he had a genial but plain, slanted face, with a flat nose, big, sad,
dreamy eyes, a mop of hair forever dropping to the right of his forehead, and a cigarette
forever dangling from his lips. He read voraciously, both in Thai and in English, had a
phenomenal capacity for work and for going without sleep for days on end, drank coffee,
chain-smoked and died of lung cancer at age 57.
His contemporaries describe him as honest, straightforward, decisive, yet good at
striking compromises, and helpful to his friends. He once kept fellow journalist-novelist-
activist Kularp Saipradit out of jail by appealing to the wife of then strongman Field
Marshal Plaek Phiboonsongkhrarm, whom he knew as a neighbour.
He was born in a village along the Ping River in the district of Khlong Suan Mark (Betel
Orchard Canal) of Kamphaeng Phet province (some 360km north of Bangkok) on 25 April
1906, the eldest child of Sorn and Rabiap Choophinit. The Choophinit family had a long
history in the civil service (on the na Barnchang side) but Marlais parents chose to break
new ground and went into the timber business.
He spent his first ten years attending the local temple school and then the provincial
school. His younger brother died of smallpox as a child an episode evoked in The field of
the great (Thung Maharrart), his masterpiece, which chronicles the growth of his native
district. When his mother died (his father remarried and had two more sons and two
daughters), Marlai was sent to Bangkok, where he stayed at first with a relative and then at
the minister of interiors palace until he completed his studies.
In 1916 he started studying at the Borphitphimuk temple school and five years later took
advantage of a government scheme to study teaching. After the course, he entered Suan
Kularp, while taking English courses at Theipsirin the two top schools shaping the
nation's elite at the time. Simultaneously, he began teaching at a temple school, and moved
out of the ministers palace to digs with friends at Makkhawan. After only two years, in
1926, he quit teaching altogether to become the editor of a new newspaper in Songkhla, in
the South. It was the beginning of a highly successful career in journalism which saw him
hopping from one publication to the next, due as much to political pressure as to his own
health problems. After his national service in 1931-32, he took the helm of the influential
daily Pracharchart, but in 1937 Marshal Plaek forced his team to resign. Only months before,
Marlai had married a girl from the South, Sa-nguan Jantharasing (they had two boys and
three daughters).
After a short experiment growing soya at Hua Hin, Marlai was back to editorial work,
but by 1943 had to resign due to poor health. He moved to the seaside in the southern
province of Chumphorn to grow coconuts, but this proved to be another disastrous
It was during this time that he started Our country (Phaendin Khong Rao), a very well
written but lengthy and excessively dramatic romance of absolute love and destitution,
which he completed exactly seven years later and which was published in 1951. Marlai
temporarily held the serialisation of his novel after Marshal Plaek introduced his unpop-
ular reform of the vernacular.
From the end of the war until his death in 1963, Marlai worked for the same press group,
as a highly regarded editor and writer. In 1959, he became a member of the constitutional
convention and at the invitation of governments or of the Asia Pacific Anticommunist
League started travelling to Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even took a
round-the-world trip courtesy of one airline. In 1962, he received an honorary degree from
Thammasart University.
Under more than thirty pen names, the most famous of which were Noi Inthanon,
Riam Eng, Mae Anong and Norn Nangsue (Bookworm), Marlai Choophinit wrote
thousands of articles and editorials, thirty plays for the theatre, perhaps a dozen more radio
and television plays, some five hundred short stories (occasionally borrowing heavily from
English or American writers) and nearly fifty novels. The best of these, The field of the great,
which he signed Riam Eng, and Our country, under the female-sounding pen name Mae
Anong, are in their 12th and 10th editions respectively. Another ten novels are worthy of
mention. Four have been turned into movies, and two into plays.
Marlai was one of the best stylists Thailand ever had. Many readers fondly remember
his adventure stories with jungle settings such as Jungle adventures (Long Phrai) and Son of
the jungle (Look Phrai). He also wrote detective novels The sleeping tiger (Suea Jam Seen); The
man with three faces (Chai Sarm Na), 1960. But it is his social novels that have withstood the
test of time.
From romantic love stories with sad endings The essence of love (Thart Rak); Born a
woman (Keurt Pen Ying) and historical novels A virile man (Chai Chartree), serialised in
October 1931 and considered the first Thai historical novel he rapidly made his mark as a
realist writer, increasingly exploring social themes and conflicts in his later works: The red
wind (Lom Daeng), 1959, focuses on conflicts between capitalists and workers; Barn Sang
highlights problems in the countryside; The beloved (Kaeo Ta) explores the problems faced
by a child whose parents divorce; and Blood under the sun (Tawan Lang Lueat) examines the
strife of a small village victimised by civil servants.

Primary source: Marlai Choophinit Lae Phon Ngarn Praphan Cheung Sangsan, Marlai Choophinit and his creative
works, Suthira Sukniyom, Karraweik 1979, Saeng Dao 1989, Bangkok
The field of the great (Thung Maharrart) 1954

Viscount Nikhom Borribarn breathed his last on a Sunday, on the fourteenth day of the
waning moon in the fifth month of the Year of the Tiger, 2493 of the Buddhist era [1940
AD] ninety-two years after he first opened his eyes to the world, such an extensive life as
few men have ever known. He died peacefully in the embrace of his wife, a contented
smile on his slightly parted lips, his eyelids about to close, his wide forehead and his cheeks
deeply sunk in a sharp structure of bones.
Viscount Borribarn passed away on the first day of a new year of the Thai minor era

. He
died like we all must, only so very untimely, when the spirit of the new year celebrations
was still floating in space, and the scent of the lustral water mixed with ground
sandalwood, musk and saffron that the young pour on their elders hands still clung to
clothes, the only day when one should not die, as flowers bloom all over the jungle, birds of
all kinds sing beautifully all over the forest, and the giant reeds and clumps of tall grass on
the island midstream put forth white flowers in a sea of snow.
After three full days of merit-making following the cremation gathering, the old woman
felt as if she had entered a totally dark maze that offered no way out. She did not know
where to turn to, what to think, what to do, except sit next to the betel tray on the porch of
the house, a wide platform which opened onto the path meandering along the northern
bank of the Ping river, now almost dry and turned into an expanse of sand stretching as far
as the eye could see.
Viscount Nikhom Borribarn had passed away! His cremation was a clamorous and
magnificent affair such as villagers seldom have the good fortune to witness during their
lifetime. There were all kinds of entertainment, from mask and musical folk drama to
puppet and shadow plays. These may have lured people but their power of attraction was
not as strong as the magnetic personality of the deceased. When rites and ceremonies were
over, the entertainers packed up and left on carts and boats, the spectators returned home,
but no one would forget Viscount Nikhom Borribarn. For sixty full years, he had spent his
life among these villagers. For sixty full years, he had gone through what the forefathers of
the new generation in this very province had gone through; for sixty full years that were at
times peaceful, at times adventurous, he had known the bitter taste of poverty and what
sorrow, torment, danger, endurance and sacrifice mean to the human race, while he fought
his way to his present status.
Viscount Nikhom Borribarn had passed away, but still remained in the memory of those
he had come to know, relatives, friends and foes. He still remained in the air that they
breathed, in the daily life and customs of Nakhorn Chum, and in his reputation, which was
part and parcel of the district, a local symbol which no new custom, civilisation or even
time would erase.
Sitting on the porch that afternoon, the old life companion of Viscount Nikhom
Borribarn was certain that no one would forget him. Many would praise his good-hearted-
ness, and many would whisper that he was an evil man, but, good or bad, old Sutjai knew

Beginning 31 March 638 AD

that no one in the whole province would have dared confront him on the same battle-
ground, whether over work or over life itself. Viscount Nikhom was born a real man, who
wanted to spend his life as a real man, and he had done so to the fullest.
Everything here is worth living and dying for, he had told her sixty years ago when
they first met at the landing. A beautiful girl like you, an upright fellow like me, plenty of
food available only one thing is missing, and thats a boss, and I am the one the gods have
sent to be the boss.
Sixty years ago at the landing such a long time ago, and yet it all seemed to have
happened only yesterday. The old woman felt her eyes mist with tears brought forth by the
memory of his words, which led her to remember the days and events gone by.
Sixty years ago! Nakhorn Chum was still Khlong Suan Mark then, a few dozen houses
with walls of bamboo splits and roofs of elephant grass, plus a few families from Vientiane
who had taken refuge in the neighbouring fields; coconut trees were still wild and sparse;
the outer walls of the old city had not yet been pulled down to allow for through roads;
and the wealthy of the land had deserted the city, leaving its lofty buildings as monuments
to later generations. The island in front of the house was still far from the bank, and the
golden mango tree to the north of the landing was starting to branch out.
A servant with a face made weary by the workload of the past few days crawled up to
The boat you ordered is here, milady, she reported.
Old Sutjai turned to her with a distracted expression.
What boat?
Why, the governor set up a meeting at his residence this evening about repairs to the
temple. You were invited and instructed me to arrange for the boat.
The old woman sighed...

Thus begins the sweeping thirty-year chronicle of a district in Kamphaeng Phet province, some
360km north of Bangkok. We are in 1880. Ruen, the future viscount, is a 32-year-old, happy-go-
lucky travelling salesman from a neighbouring province. He is unattached, has a thick beard and an
easy laugh. He meets Sutjai at the Park Khlong landing on the Ping River, a 16-year-old beauty who
lives with her aunt, Old Khlaeo, and their next-door neighbour Jampa, a young mother abandoned by
her lover. It is love at first sight between Ruen and Sutjai. He has business to attend to elsewhere but
he promises he will come back to ask for her hand at the latest midyear next year. He shows up
nearly two years later. Old Khlaeo, who knew his father, blesses the union. At the same time, Ruen
courts Jampa, who is secretly in love with him.
Ruen plans to settle down and work for the progress of the whole community of Khlong Suan Mark.
Through dedication, daring, decisiveness and rectitude, he becomes the acknowledged leader of the
A week before Sutjai gives birth to their first child, a son, Jampa becomes Ruens lover (I love Sutjai
but I also need you in my life, says Ruen). Although they are not able to sleep together again, Jampa
is happy to stay in the background so long as she feels he desires her. Ruen decides to marry Jampa off
to one of his friends and as he tries to convince her, Sutjai overhears their conversation; once she
gets over the shock of discovery, she forgives and tries to forget.
Meanwhile, Ruen sees an opportunity for the community and for himself by floating logs down the
Ping River. Most of the timber trade in the area is controlled by the local godfather, Phapo, who
handles all teak. One day, Ruen, together with Sutjai and their son, take a rafter down to the main
wood-trading centre of Park Narm Pho (midway between Kamphaeng Phet and Bangkok). They save
a young woman, Lamiat, who is travelling with her ailing father, from bandits on the river.
On their return, they learn that Sathian, the new regional manager of lumber lord Phapo, intends to
exploit a forest at Pong Narm Rorn and forbids anybody from entering it. Ruens people have
traditionally used the forest for their livelihood, and Ruen decides to ignore Sathians threats. After a
showdown, and the abduction of a local girl by Sathians people, Ruen appeals to the upright
provincial governor, and Phapo sacks Sathian. Ruen, proud of his independence and mindful of his
own people, turns down Phapos offer of a job as his right-hand man.
Selling wood at Park Narm Pho once again, Ruen befriends Duandam, a savvy Chinese wood trader
who provides him with priceless advice and support in the years to come, and thus helps his business
to prosper.
The community faces a number of natural disasters; a forest fire wipes out the village, and it is only
Ruens initiative that helps limit the damage. Out of shame over the loss of his family and his own
incompetence, Phoon, the village headman, kills himself. Ruen rejects the mayors demand that he
become the new headman, but finally consents when the people make it clear they want him as their
official leader.
During a visit to Park Narm Pho about five years later, Ruen meets Sathian and his wife, who is
none other than Lamiat, the woman Ruen had saved from bandits on the river.
A grateful Lamiat offers to help him. Sathian is now a big-time lumber boss in Park Narm Pho and
has the backing of the mayor of Kamphaeng Phet, who is a major partner in his company. Sathian
makes friendly overtures to Ruen, and tries to convince him and the others to sell him their timber,
but Ruen makes it clear that he intends to remain his own master.
Meanwhile, his community has recovered from the jungle fire and is prospering again. River
communications with Park Narm Pho and the capital begin to improve.
Sathian has given up his violent ways of the time he used to second Phapo, but he is still intent on
cornering the wood business. He woos Ruens people away with binding contracts which offer
attractive terms initially, and Ruens interests suffer as a result, but our hero decides to bide his time
until his people realise how foolish they are.
During a trip downriver to Park Narm Pho, Ruen learns that his son is ill and decides to hurry back
home. At Sathians prompting, he takes a steam launch which is on a maiden trip upriver, and finds
himself in the unexpected company of Lamiat. When the boat sinks, Ruen saves Lamiats life again
and they become lovers. I know we were born for each other, Lamiat croons in his arms, even
though we wont be able to be husband and wife like any other couple ... My life is just an ordinary
yard covered with grass, while yours is a huge field, the field of the great, on which one and all must
rely to carry on their lives together.
Time passes. The loggers bound by exploitative contracts with Sathian turn round to work for Ruen
again, and a defeated Sathian passes on the business to his more humane wife.
When a smallpox epidemic breaks out, two of Ruens three sons are stricken with the frightful

The two boys lay on small mattresses of soft, cream-coloured banana leaves set up in
different corners of the room. The leaves supporting their naked bodies in lieu of bed
sheets were soiled with lymph and pus, as was their skin, which had turned nearly as dark
as persimmon such a pitiful sight! Ruen, standing still outside of the window which
opened onto the now dark orchard, scrutinised Manees face, the eldest brother, whose
whole body and face were streaked to the point that it was impossible to distinguish his
features, then Milins, the younger brother, whose symptoms had developed more
recently, then turned to look at Sutjai, who sat vacantly by the drug grinder in the middle
of the room.
The doctor cant come, he said. His son is sick, his wife is sick too, he just gave me
some medicine. His wife looked up at him for a while, then, without saying anything,
looked back again at her eldest son as she had done for the past hour. Her face remained
impassive, as though she had expected those words all along. In the course of the whole
week since their return from the meadow, all doctors had found reasons for not visiting
their patients, and there were not many doctors at South Khlong Suan Mark anyway. The
temple priest had been the first to treat Manee as soon as Ruen brought the child back
home, but after three days, the holy man himself had fallen sick and the symptoms of
smallpox had spread even faster in him than in a child. Next came a doctor from town,
who made himself scarce as soon as he realised it was smallpox. Everyday the news from
Barnrai and North Khlong was that in one house or another someone had caught the
contagious disease. Actually, many families had been struck with smallpox even before
Manee came back to Park Khlong. Many accused Ruens child of bringing the disease into
the village, but many others had good reason to argue that it was Phapos workers who
had brought it back from the jungle above North Khlong. As time went by and the
epidemic spread everywhere, everyone was too busy protecting their own health to have
time to think about who was responsible.
Little Daeng has been delirious all the time you were gone, Sutjai said, meaning the
eldest boy. I gave him some ground medicine and bathed him a moment ago, and hes
just gone to sleep.
How is Little Yai? Ruen whispered, meaning Milin, as he stepped into the room and
sat down wearily next to her. He had not slept for days and his eyes were bloodshot.
He seems to be getting better. She lifted the lamp to look at her second-born, who was
asleep, breathing heavily, his eyes tightly shut. Arun has gone to sleep with Auntie. She
said if he slept here hed catch it too.
Ruen nodded slowly and lowered his body to rest on his elbows next to the drug
grinder. His eyes closed as if he was about to sleep, but in an instant he forced them open
You are too tired. You should sleep; Ill stay up, his wife said. If something happens,
Ill wake you up.
He shook his head without giving any kind of answer but could not help but yawn.
The room was quiet, apart from occasional sighs that rose from the beds of the two sick
boys, and the low hiss of the lantern which sounded like a weevil crunching wood.
Outside, everything was dark and dew was falling. Ruens eyelids dropped irresistibly. His
head nodded drowsily as sleep overtook him, but as his arms gave in he lost his balance
and regained consciousness, forced himself to open his eyes and look at the two children
and then at his wife, until sleepiness overcame him again.
Sutjai, who had not moved at all, reached out to grab a cushion on the woven mat she
had unrolled between the two children and placed it behind him to support his back.
Why dont you sleep for a while? Itll give you strength, she said again.
Ruen opened his eyes, gazed at her absently but went on shaking his head in refusal.
Trust me, she pleaded. She lifted his back, slid the cushion under his head and he let
her handle him like a docile child.
Dont forget to wake me up if something happens to the kids, he said looking at her,
then sighed once again and soon fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
Sutjai turned her face to the window. She still sat in the same position, her hands joined
on her lap, her attitude as collected as that of a nun lost in meditation. The sound of her
sons strained breathing came up intermittently, louder from Manees corner than from
Milins. Once, she heard a temple bell ringing in the distance. From somewhere dogs
barked furiously then howled then fell silent. Her heart froze when she thought of the
emptiness of the night and of her two childrens dark future. She looked out towards the
crowns of the coconut trees in the orchard which the waning moon now softly lit up, then
turned to watch her childrens faces, which were like horrifying masks, then stooped to
observe Ruen, whose face was strained even in sleep.
The strong realisation surged again as it had every time she had nursed the children:
these individuals were all she had. Her life had had no value or meaning until she had met
Ruen, and once she had met and come to love him, she had not known the true value of
married life until she had had children to bind her.
What will I do if I lose any of them? Sutjai thought time and time again, fighting
sleepiness and weakness as she worried about other peoples welfare, as well as her own.
She had never thought that love would make one selfish to such an extent, and yet at the
same time she had never thought that there was anything she would not be able to sacrifice
for these three people.
Towards dawn, a loud groan came from Manees corner. Sutjai flew to his side and
whispered with a trembling voice, while her emaciated face turned paler: What is it,
darling? Is there anything you want? How are you feeling?
Manee groaned again even though he did not try to open his eyes, which had been
sealed for two days by a curtain of pus. She knew that her son had not regained
consciousness, yet she could not help but call him until the groans finally stopped.
In the loneliness of the house and of the surrounding space, which the dew made nippy,
every minute passed slowly in utter misery. The soft dazzle of the lantern began to fade,
the horizon began to pale and, while the moon crescent still shone brightly in the middle of
a dull grey sky, Sutjai, unable to resist drowsiness, nodded into a nap.
For the whole of the next day, Milins condition improved, while Manees deteriorated
further. He lay completely still and silent, and could not take any food, not even some rice
broth. His whole body was covered with boils which festered, revealing black spots that no
amount of mopping and cleaning could have wiped out, and his faint breathing was the
only sign that he was still alive.
Auntie Khlaeo, who was the first to come in and check the childrens condition in the
early morning before Ruen and Sutjai woke up, went back with tears in her eyes to Jampa,
who was waiting to take her turn to nurse them.
Little Yais boils have scabbed already, I think hell be all right, but poor Manee she
stood still for a long time before she was able to fight back her tears poor Manee hasnt
improved at all.
Ruen was next to notice the unusually bad symptoms of his firstborn, whose face, which
no longer looked like a face, had taken ashy overtones. Nevertheless, he said nothing to
Sutjai, who woke up after him. The whole day was spent in complete isolation, with news
of new deaths at Barn Rai, at Thai Wat, at North Khlong. From the veranda of his house,
Ruen could see several boats taking the bodies of the dead across to the batch of Chinese
date trees, the traditional burial ground since time immemorial. From some of these boats,
the cries of relatives and friends of the deceased could be heard clearly across the water.
Ruen knew well that one day, at some time in the future, he, Sutjai, Jampa, Auntie Khlaeo
and the other people in the house whom the poor children loved so much would know the
same fate. He knew that with every tick of the clock, with every minute, he waited for such
a time with resignation, but now that the final moment for his firstborn child had come, he
could not help but feel hurt and despair over the sorrows of life.
Death came to Manee the following night, a dark, desolate night which resounded with
the howls of dogs and the shrieks of flying squirrels sliding up and down the coconut
grove at the back of the house, while the waning moon cast a dull glow as if the whole
world had been deserted by mankind. That night, Manee moved for the first time in many
days, flinging his hands upward to grasp wildly at the air while uttering a shrill,
inarticulate cry.
Ruen sat up and brought himself closer to the child and whispered in a hoarse voice:
What is it, son? What is it?
The small boy did not answer but went on pawing the air above him. His eyes, which
had been tightly closed because of the pus from the boils, opened wide but remained
Tell Daddy, what is it? Ruen encouraged him.
Hes no longer with us, Ruen, Sutjai sobbed and choked, unable to speak any further.
Tell Daddy, what is it? Ruen whispered again, and he put out a hand to stroke Sutjais
back, his eyes still fixed on his son.
The little childs severely distorted lips quivered in a persistent effort to speak. Ruen
bent his head closer still: Tell Daddy, what do you want to say?
Shes come a little closer closer, I can almost grab her, Manee mumbled, softly but
distinctly. He stretched his arms out for the last time, then stilled. His pus-filled eyes closed
again, his arms fell across his chest, his jutting chin fell open, and it was the last instant
Ruen and Sutjai saw him alive in this world.

After the epidemic, Ruen decides to have the whole village burned down and all families resettled to a
nearby site temporarily. One year later, under pressure from the governor, as a visit by His Majesty
is being talked about, Ruen moves back to the village (We dont conquer fear with good arguments,
we conquer it by setting an example) and his people follow.
Ruen and Lamiat have few occasions to meet privately, but their relationship remains as intense as
ever. How about Ruen and his wife?

One evening as he came back rather drunk from Barn Rai where he had gone to ask for
some girls hand on behalf of a neighbours son, Ruen unsteadily climbed the stairs leading
to the veranda. He had hardly reached the railing when he fell. Lying on the floor, he called
Sutjai, who was inside. Their youngest son, who had just stopped crying, was cuddled up
against her and she did not dare move or call out lest he wake up. Ruen called and called
with the blurry, insistent whine of a newborn, until he finally lost his temper, scrambled up
and staggered to the door, to which he clung, looking at Sutjai and then at their son.
You were in here all the time and didnt even answer. He hiccupped.
Sutjai looked up and brought her index to her lips to warn him to lower his voice.
Let him howl why are you afraid of a child crying?
He tried to lift his foot across the threshold to enter the room, but as soon as his hand let
go of the doorframe, his heavy head plunged forth, sending him staggering forward as if
he was about to collapse on the child, but his wife sprung up and supported him as he fell
on the bed.
I said be quiet: he just fell asleep, she remonstrated.
Hes already big as a buffalo, how long will you keep cuddling him? Ruen said.
Come and sleep with me instead.
Come on, you havent even had a bath, you stink all over, Sutjai said, to show her
Her husband took her hand. We are in this together, the same ol flock, so whats a
little stink?
He forced her to lie down by his side. The light from the lantern which flickered on the
little table at the head of the bed shone over their naked bodies, but whatever flash of
desire had burst up under the influence of alcohol simply vanished nothing of the Sutjai
of yore was left in the present Sutjai. Her hair which used to be soft and had a clean, natural
fragrance was now dishevelled and scruffy with dandruff. Her skin which used to glow
and felt so smooth had become coarse and wrinkled due to work and exposure to the sun.
Her breasts once ripe and taut now hung shrivelled and shapeless. Sutjai lay there, lifeless
as a chunk of meat on the chopping block, her neck stretched waiting for the knife, like a
slave waiting to perform her duty at her masters behest not like a wife waiting for her
husbands ministrations! For a moment, he held his breath then bent over to kiss her on the
cheek, which felt wrinkled and cold. He did it for no other reason than sheer necessity, as
he saw her lying there expecting him to kiss her as he often did, but as soon as they
touched, he pulled back, grasped her in his arms and held her tightly until she opened her
eyes in alarm.
What is it, darling? Her tone was fraught with panic.
At first she thought she had imagined it, but then realised it was real, when a warm tear
coursed down her ear. Ruen was crying!
Darling, what is it? Sutjai tried to sit up and slightly raise her head to have a good look
at his face, but she was unable to free herself from his embrace. She brought out a hand and
stroked his cheek, which was still warm with tears.
Sutjai! he blurted out after he had held his breath for a long time. His tone, though
throaty and blurred, was sober now, even though the smell of alcohol was still on his
breath. This isnt a dream now is it, Sutjai? It isnt some raving delirium its all true, you
and me, our children, this family, the months and years weve spent together such a long,
long time, an eternity, but its all true. You are still you, Im still me, even though so many
people and so many things have been cut off from life.
A gust of cool wind entered the room, bringing in the sound of distant thunder. The
flame from the lantern briefly shot up and smoked before settling again.
Such a long time, an eternity, but its all true. His beard was grazing her flat chest as
his chin moved.
Sutjai opened her eyes and looked at the ridgepole of the roof above her. She said
nothing and did not try to move again. It was the same pole she had seen from almost the
same place in the same bed before she had closed her eyes to sleep tightly, overcome by the
charm of the Thai orchestra serenading the two of them on their wedding night.
Such a long, endless time. Ruen sighed again, his face finally coming to nestle against
her neck. But it all looks like yesterday.
She did not understand a single word of what he was saying, but it was not important,
so long as he kept talking and gave her the opportunity to think. As a maiden, Sutjai had
never wanted anything in life but one man she would love, respect, trust and worship, a
man who would be the bulwark of her security in life, but after she got such a man she
wanted more children to carry on the line, a piece of land that would allow these heirs to
earn their living without demerit in the eyes of old-established villagers or more recent
neighbours. She had never thought until now now that the memories of her adolescent
days were coming back in waves as she looked at the ridgepole and thought of the warmth
that seemed to have never left the floor of the room right where the nuptial bed had been
that to own a man and to understand that mans feelings and needs were two different
things, two separate sets of problems.
Many years ago, so long ago that she nearly could not remember, she had virtually lost
interest in how she looked and how she dressed. Reciprocating his love and needs had
become a duty: he asked and she gave. There was no bashfulness, no attempt at resistance
or evasion which would have rekindled his desire.
Like a dead body, like a corpse, he once had grumbled out of despair and bitterness
before standing up, getting dressed and storming out of the house. And Sutjai had thought:
He doesnt want me anymore, because I am no longer fresh and pretty.
Yet it was the same man who was clutching her tightly to his chest and mumbling in a
language she did not understand about things that she used to think of as riddles, except
that this time she knew what he meant.
Are you asleep, Sutjai?
The memory of all the New Year celebrations and of the folk songs that everybody sang
during harvesting flooded her heart, the smell of stubble in the fields of Narm Lart and the
smoke from the forest fires suffused her brain, and the room was full of people and events
of days gone by.
Ruen turned his body, raised his head to look at her face, then sat up astonished when
he saw her eyes were wide open.
I thought you were asleep. You dont answer me and dont hear what Im saying, he
said and bent to watch her at close range: What are you looking at, Sutjai?
You and me!
Me and you? her husband exclaimed, nonplussed.
Then he understood, when he saw the spark of love in her eyes, the full smile on her lips
and the desire persistent-ly calling in her heart. Life turned back to the time and era of long
ago, to that day when she was a girl of sixteen wearing bracelets and going down to the
landing and he was again Ruen, the able-bodied young man who was ready to give up his
bachelor status for the first woman he loved...
You are still you, Im still me, Sutjai, even though time has passed and we are in our
declining years. Ruen bent over again and kissed her on one cheek then the other. What
was the meaning of time, what was the meaning of age, when the eyes were still bright, the
heart still faithful and compassion stronger than anything else? From this thought, Ruen
woke up to a new life in which everything that was Sutjai or belonged to Sutjai became
beautiful again.

King Rama Vs long-awaited visit to the province finally takes place in August 1906. Khlong Suan
Mark prospers and expands, the village becomes a tambon and Ruen is named kamnan.
After several years without involving himself in logging, Ruen stockpiles logs ahead of the
competition, and makes a killing at Park Narm Pho.
Lamiat, who has fallen sick, retires to her family house in Bangkok. While Sutjai is visiting Nakhorn
Pathom, Ruen accidentally runs into Lamiats carriage in the capital. The two resume their sexual
relationship. Sutjai almost finds out, and a suspicious Sathian has a stormy scene with his wife, but
both Lamiat and Ruen get away with their adultery. When he realises that Lamiat is pregnant,
Sathian is ecstatic and Lamiat terrified that he may find out it isnt his child!
When a new conflict over the logging concession at Pong Narm Rorn comes to a head, the governor
arbitrates in favour of the people: the forest will remain their main source of livelihood.
But more hardships await the dwellers on both banks of the Ping River, who are in for an
unprecedented flood. As the water rises, Old Khlaeo lives her last days, and dies just as the water
starts receding.

The water kept receding as fast as it had risen. After only five nights and six days, it was
flush with the banks once again, leaving the earth soggy with slush and mud as far as the eye
could see. All rice fields on both sides of the Ping River were wrecked, and almost nothing
was left in the fields and orchards from north to south. West of Phrarn Kratai, which was the
granary of all the provinces straddling the Ping, everything was desolate. The old people
who still remembered the flood of twenty-five years ago started to be worried at the thought
of the starvation and hardships that had followed.
And yet, that time it wasnt nearly as bad as what weve just been through, explained
one of them. The water only came half way up the stilts, it wasnt flush with the verandas
like this time. And you know how bad it was? Well, from the Phrarn Kratai meadow and
Barn Khoan all the way down to Khlong Khlung and Wang Khaem, we all had to mix rice
with yam. I think this time itll be even worse.
Ruen did not realise how terrible an impact the famine was having on peoples lives in the
various provinces of the whole river basin until he returned from selling lumber, after the
funeral rites for Auntie Khlaeo had been held and the water had receded enough for rafters
to be floated. As he travelled upriver through district after district, the deserted village at Kao
Liao was the first place that made him aware of the conesquences of the flood. In the subse-
quent districts of Barn Mai, Hart Cha-om, Koh Moo and Mae Lart, there were only houses
without people, barns without paddy, coops without chickens or ducks, and pens without
pigs or buffalo. It looked as though an epidemic had wiped out all living creatures in those
districts. Only the sadness and terror that transpired in the accounts of the villagers who had
fled to neighbouring districts gave an idea of the cruel torments these people had suffered
from starvation and deprivation during the past four or five months.
Since the flood had destroyed the fields that produced the daily staples, the only food left
was un-husked rice, corn, sorghum and tear grass, which had been kept for the purpose of
tying families over until the main rice crop, but these reserves were soon exhausted and the
fierce drought that followed prevented the replanting of any cereals. Finally, with no grain to
be gathered from the fields, poverty struck, and everybody turned to the jungle, whose
various wild roots and yams were dug up, sliced and dried in the sun to be cooked with rice
in the manner the farmers ancestors had practised since time immemorial. But the edible
plants that grew naturally did not come in unlimited amounts, nor were they available
everywhere, so that each village, each family had to take to the road, regrouping somewhere
for a while and trying to stay there as long as possible and eat as best as they could. When the
jungle had nothing more to give them, they were forced to scatter all over neighbouring
districts. People died of fever, many families died of starvation and dozens more were
poisoned by yams, which contain a toxic substance also found in some other kinds of tubers
and vegetables.
Confronted with these pitiful scenes, Ruen could not help but shudder. When the first
famine had struck the Ping river basin, he was travelling in another part of the country and
had been spared the hardships and disturbing sights the calamity had provoked.
At that time, I was in Chiangmai, he told Sutjai, and nobody ever dies of hunger in
Chiangmai unless you are bone lazy.
The news that he gathered in the various districts and provinces he crossed on his way
back home all pointed to the extreme hardships people everywhere were experiencing.
Besides the famine, they had to contend with bandits, who sprang up at every corner like
mushrooms after the rain. The whole province of Kamphaeng Phet, which had been safe
for quite some time, was in trouble, and despite all their attempts, the authorities were
unable to control the situation. Those who had cows or buffalos kept them within the
house. No more strolling about. At dusk, all families locked the doors, blew out the candles
and went to bed. Real or false, rumours spread that bandits were to attack this or that
village. Sometimes, it did happen and nobody could do anything about it, and sometimes it
proved to be unfounded gossip.
Of all the districts in the central and neighbouring provinces, Khlong Suan Mark was the
only one that was spared these tribulations. The rice that each household had stocked up
was the main guarantee against the famine, and the fences around the various dwellings
were tightly knit, making it easy to face up to any group of plunderers gutsy or foolhardy
enough to try their luck. On several occasions, the buffalo the children took to pasture were
stolen under their very eyes, but each time Ruen and a posse of villagers went out and
came back with the animals and their abductors when the latter were lucky enough to
survive the fight with the villagers. His dedication to controlling people and suppressing
bandits did not escape the attention of the governor, even though official reports only
reached the mayor.
If we had village headmen and kamnans like Ruen in all constituencies, Kamphaeng
Phet wouldnt be filled with bandits like it is now, His Excellency once told Earl Rarcha-
borrikarn at the town hall. The season for planting rice is almost upon us. If we cant curb
the activities of these bandits, next year itll be even worse. Who will dare go out and till the
fields when the bandits have their eyes on their buffalo all the time? At Phrarn Kratai, its
worse than anywhere else. Yesterday, the mayor asked for a reinforcement of the municipal
police, whose ranks have been depleted. If the crisis continues, I think we may have to call in
the regional forces or enlist people once again like we did when we fought the Haw ...
But before the end of that year and the New Years celebration, one district after another
fell quiet as the attrition of bandits ended. Some said it was because people had nothing left
worth looting, and some said that the bandits had simply shifted to other areas. Whatever
the reason, as days went by and the rainy season began, in all the villages and districts of
Kamphaeng Phet except Phrarn Kratai everyone went out to till the fields once again. The
happiness that had disappeared for so long progressively returned on everyones face, and
so did hope. The air again resounded with folk songs and merry laughter, and like in all
previous natural disasters, the flood and famine this time around may have taken hundreds
of lives among the dwellers on both banks of the Ping River, brought incalculable damage to
property and left untold marks of torment, but once they were over everybody felt as if they
had been reborn, and twice as enthusiastic and energetic. Crisis strengthens mans fighting
power, when it does not destroy him.
Every time he evoked the days gone by with Sutjai, Ruen could not help but think about
Auntie Khlaeos prediction, when she had told Sutjai, before her weak and tired soul departed
from her body: From now on, Park Khlong will know peace and prosperity. Until next year,
there will be trouble and famine everywhere, but Park Khlong will be spared.
What power had inspired the old woman to reach this truth? No one could explain what
had made her able to predict the future of Khlong Suan Mark as if she had seen coming
events reflected in a mirror. But whatever power or instinct had prompted her, every word
of her prophecy had come true. No unbearable hardship or dire danger had visited the
district in any drastic way that would have left an indelible mark in the memory of the
dwellers of Park Khlong, who had had their share of catastrophes in the past, and thus the
impact of the current flood and famine on Khlong Suan Mark was hardly significant.
Ruen believed what the old woman had told Sutjai, that the jinx had been removed from
the ancient earth of Park Khlong, and he made offerings and prayed for the future of the
district to remain unchanged.
After smallpox, malaria, fire, cholera, flood and famine, let this be all, and may I be
allowed to establish myself firmly so that the villagers can keep depending on me, he kept
repeating every time he prayed before going to bed.
A discreet sigh next to him in the darkness of the room reminded him that his wife was
watching him with interest at all time.
Dont forget to pray too, Sutjai, he would say once he had finished his prayers and
gone to lie down with a sigh. It will help you escape from sickness and all other evils. At
the very least, itll make you sleep well, because the deva will see to it from above.
And every time she answered: I also pray and make wishes, Ruen, but I do it in my
heart, once you are asleep.
What are you wishing for?
That the souls of our little son and Auntie go to heaven and that you and everyone else
be happy and healthy.
And what about you? he would wonder aloud.
If you are happy, then I am happy too.
The slow withering of middle age had made her aware of the value of solitude. The
suffering and sadness brought about by the countless events she had gone through had
made her see the inescapable truth: there was no greater happiness than seeing other people
happy thanks to ones sacrifices, however big or small. Relations between her and Ruen,
which at first were mainly physical, had gradually become essentially spiritual. This was not
because the body of a person in the autumn of her years had less appetite for the satisfaction
of the senses than that of a younger person, but because the experience she had gained
during her much battered life had taught her to remember the true value of pure happiness.
She knew that Ruens body was still full of vigour and desire as much as or even more than
during his erstwhile youth. Being old has nothing to do with age, generation or the state of
the body if the heart and feeling are still attuned to the five senses, to the beauty of the sky
when the sun rises or begins to set, to the graceful songs of the birds flying about in the air
and to the colours and scents of nature which never repeat themselves. There were times
when his vitality made her envious as she thought that day after day her withering body was
growing idle and sluggish. There were times when his clear laughter and the glint in his eyes
made her feel miserable because she was afraid he would no longer see in her the Sutjai he
had loved and worshipped. She feared that a new love, a new woman in his life, would
eventually leave no more room for her in his heart. But once the sacrifice was made, the
agony due to fears of this kind had vanished. She no longer felt irritated when she saw him
bantering with village girls, and no longer rehashed the same old stories of what had
happened between him and Jampa and with whoever else, including the woman she had
crossed on the stairs of the rest house in front of the gambling den in Bangkok that time. The
only thing that remained securely in her heart now was her sincere desire to see him happy,
even if it meant he would return to his old gallivanting ways.
I wont say anything to him, whether or not he is by my side, she muttered, her eyes
wide open in the dark. What is the value of life when we dont know the value of sacrifice?
The Lord is right: love is suffering. Those who are full of jealousy and
possessiveness cannot find happiness I will definitely not say anything, she thought for
the last time, meaning it, before her eyelids heavy with exhaustion due to lack of sleep
closed as the heavy sound of his breathing and the dim light of the moon and the stars
pervaded the room.

To undercut Ruens business, Sathian and his partner, the mayor, try one last trick and use a
loophole in the law to expropriate most of Ruens log suppliers. Some irate villagers propose to get rid
of Sathian, but Ruen, who has the highest ever stake in this years log consignment, stays put until
he can appeal to the governor.
Lamiat rushes to warn Ruen of the trick and makes him promise to meet her at her house to discuss
the matter further. When she opens her door, however, she faces not Ruen but the mayor, who has
long suspected Lamiat of betraying her husband, whom he despises, and is now seeking his revenge.
He tries to rape her.
But why give away the action-packed ending? As the opening of the novel suggests, good will
triumph over evil.

There is everything in this masterly novel: adventure, romance, social and historical depth,
a vivid account of the life of upcountry folk, the mechanics of the wood trade, the changes
brought about by progress, and the workings of upcountry administration. The plot is well
crafted and rich, the pace quick, the language always accurate and often beautiful. Most
important, the characters are well-rounded and have psychological depth. They love, they
fight, they suffer, they doubt.
The novel is dominated by the personality of Ruen, whose social ups and downs we
follow over a period of thirty years until his social status and business success become
secure. Ruen is a doer, an upcountry self-made man and a born leader. An ambitious yet
upright man, he dares to act but knows when to bide his time and when to stubbornly stick
to his principles. His character is consistent, except for one discrepancy: the laughing
travelling salesman of the first chapters, bantering with his new-found love, has little to do
with the mature, responsible leader of the rest of the novel. The beard is never shaved, but
the laughter fades away all too quickly. Ruen has a strong appetite for life, for riches as well
as for women, whom he considers his due, and his macho figure fits well in the historical
context and Thai society. His bouts of self-doubt, need for friendship and loyalty to friends
are endearing features which bring this larger-than-life hero down to size. An important
appeal of the novel is its celebration of friendship and loyalty to the community.
All four main female characters are more than simply sketched: Old Auntie Khlaeo, the
no-nonsense matriarch, whose long life is a fount of shoot-from-the-mouth wisdom; Sutjai,
the faithful, tough and understanding wife; unlucky Jampa, jilted by her first lover,
married off by her second to a man she does not love, but uncomplaining and immersed in
her undemanding love for Ruen; and Lamiat, the mismatched aristocrat, a woman of steel
with a soft touch and a pure heart even in betrayal.
Well-sketched too is the figure cut by the local godfather, who is both shrewd and
benevolent, but the other male characters are less coherent or compelling: somehow, almost
overnight, fierce bully Sathian turns into not only a by-the-book businessman who feels
uneasy about pulling dirty tricks but also a meek cuckolded husband, at once suspicious
and understanding, suffering and forgiving. Perhaps as an inheritance from Chinese
novels, which routinely oppose all-angelic and all-evil officials, the mayor and the
governor are painted in black and white. The governor embodies all the virtues (and some
of the weaknesses, such as impatience and mild arrogance) of old-fashioned administrators
(a dying breed), whereas the mayor is the incarnate of all the evils of power and has
absolutely no saving graces: he is greedy, resentful, vindictive and shameless and does not
hesitate to rape, humiliate and bully Lamiat as he rapes, humiliates and bullies all of his
constituents in a telling demonstration of the many opportunities for corruption local
administration allows.

Khuekrit Prarmoat

Major Gen

Morm Rarchawong Khuekrit Prarmoat [MR Kukrit Pramoj], royalist, writer,

journalist, politician, historian, Buddhist thinker, dancer, movie actor, businessman,
banker, former prime minister, elder statesman and latter-day pillar of democracy, has
become so much of an institution that it may seem callous or even unwise to remember his
historical record as a sincere opportunist who consistently sided with dictatorship in the
name of fighting the greater peril of communism, only denounced strongmen in earnest
when there were clear signs their rule was coming to an end, and disposed of worthy
democratic opponents by questioning their loyalty to the throne.
The author of more than one hundred and twenty books has six novels to his credit.
Two are highly personal adaptations of Chinese tales (Susee Thai Hao and Sarm Kok Chabap
Nai Thun, both 1957). Two were plagiarised from Western novels: Red bamboo (Phai

, 1956, is a wholesale if unacknowledged transposition of Giovanni Guareschis

Don Camillo stories to a Thai rural scene, and Kawao Thee Bang Phleing, 1989, a Siamese
copycat of John Wyndhams Midwich cuckoos, a science-fiction classic.

This leaves two

novels entirely his own, and one, Four reigns (See Phaendin), is masterly if not exactly
Thailands one-and-only masterpiece, as it was touted during the dark ages of Marshal
Sarits dictatorship.
To give the deva his due, it should be stressed that Khuekrit also contributed to the
fostering of democratic ideas, not merely through his talented if mercurial peddling of his
own brand of democracy parliamentary institutions run by the royalist elite but also
through his thirty-five years at the helm of Sayarm Rat daily and weekly, which have been
breeding grounds for generations of journalists, writers and thinkers. Many of these
intellectuals grew into their own by breaking away from the father figure he projects as a
white-haired, long-eared, bespectacled prima donna with a gravel voice.
An exceptional man, Khuekrit came to the world in exceptional circumstances. He was
born on a boat while his family was travelling between postings on the Jao Phraya River in
the province of Singburee in 1911, the fifth and last child of Phra Ong Jao Khamrop and
Morm Daeng, ne Bunnark.

Prince Khamrop, who had a previous spouse, was a palace

security officer and provincial army commander who later became the first chief of police
in Siam.

Honorary, 1988 vintage

This funny, hard-hitting but mediocre anticommunist novel was printed fourteen times between 1956
and 1974 and made into a movie. Thanks to the US Information Service in Bangkok, it was promptly
translated into English and eight other languages.

In Khuekrits favour is that he belongs to a generation of Thai writers many of whom borrowed
extensively from the wealth of foreign fictional works and got away with it. The undying controversy
over the extent of influence of Gorky and Dostoevsky on the works of Kularp Saipradit, who duly
acknowledged his models, and the discreet silence surrounding Khuekrits shameless pilfering of others
works suggest, however, that double standards are still being applied in assessing Thai literary works.

Death in a boat accident is the common fate linking the eleven unrelated characters profiled in his
Several lives (Lai Cheewit), 1982, an excellent portrait of typical Thai figures: the cold-blooded murderer,
the saintly monk, the victimised aristocrat, the prostitute, the theatre actor, etc.
Khuekrit was educated by women in an old aristocratic environment. A difficult child,
he attended a palace primary school before entering Suan Kularp. In 1926, on his last year
of secondary education, he was sent to England. He went to Trent College then Queens
College in Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, and drank enor-
mous quantities of beer with equal gusto. Once he graduated, he returned to Siam in 1933,
to learn that his mother had died a few months earlier. With the 1932 abolition of absolute
monarchy engineered by Preedee Phanom-yong and the failure of a royalist rebellion in
1933, the future of the old aristocracy Khuekrit belonged to appeared dire indeed.
He was conscripted into the army as a lance corporal, then entered the Income Tax
Department of the Ministry of Finance, and soon became secretary to the English advisor at
the ministry as well. After two years, Khuekrit quit public service, claiming that the
prevailing corruption left him little hope of advancement, and joined the Siam Commercial
Bank in Bangkok. One month after he married Morm Rarchawong Phakphring Thong-yai in
1938, the couple moved to Lampang, where Khuekrit ran the banks local branch. Con-
scripted twice in 1941, he was detached the following year to the newly created Bank of
Thailand and taught finance at the universities of Thammasart (1942-48) and Jularlongkorn
(1942-53). During the war, the Free Thai movement, which, under the domestic leadership
of Dr Preedee, was resisting Japanese occupation and trying to link up with the Free Thai
movement abroad, asked him to go to Southern China to try and locate his own elder
brother Seinee

. He refused.
At the end of the war in 1945, he quit the central bank to write and play politics. He
formed the Progressive Party with sundry aristocrats and was elected to Parliament in
January 1946 at the age of 35. That year was a turning point for him. A father of two with
no house of his own, he divorced an unusual decision, which triggered gossip for
decades about his sexual proclivities. He joined the newly formed Democrat Party as its
secretary general (his brother Seinee was deputy leader) and was soon nicknamed the MP
with the scissors-sharp tongue. On 9 June 1946, the mysterious death of King Anantha
Mahidon shocked the nation. A well-orchestrated slander campaign got the better of Dr
Preedee, Khuekrits archenemy. When in November 1947 the army under Field Marshal
Plaek imposed a new government, Khuekrit, 36, became deputy minister of finance. In
April 1948, Marshal Plaek took over as prime minister, and the Democrats were relegated
to the opposetion. In September, Khuekrit resigned as an MP and a Democrat to become
deputy commerce minister two months later. He resigned after only one month, however,
and turned to writing, acting and travelling.
In June 1949, he launched a daily, Sayarm Rat, which he managed and later published.
With prodigious ease, he wrote frantically, penning day by day his Four reigns saga in 1951-
52. In 1950, he took two months off and went to Hollywood to play the Thai prime minister
in The ugly American, which featured Marlon Brando.

Seinee Prarmoat, as Thai ambassador to the US, refused in Dec 1940 to hand over to the Americans
Siams declaration of war against the Allies a gesture which went a long way in helping post-war
Thailand make an about-face and join the winning side and announced the formation of the Free Thai
movement abroad. Prince Seinee went on to launch the Democrat Party in 1946 and formed short-lived
governments in 1975 and 1976. The man eventually dispatched by the Free Thai to try and contact Seinee
was willed in Southern China.
After years of gentle barbs against the Plaek government, Khuekrit went on the war
path suddenly in May 1957; four month later, Marshal Sarit Thanarat engineered a coup
that forced Plaek into exile and, in October 1958, carried out a second coup and took power.
Khuekrit, whose business interests were prospering (besides the Sayarm Rat group, he
became a shareholder in a soft drinks factory and a hotel), occasionally criticised minor
points of policy and the behaviour of some ministers. When in 1963, Field Marshal Thanom
Kittikhajorn succeeded Sarit, Khuekrit became a senator, and for nearly ten years adopted a
wait-and-see attitude, travelling, lecturing, writing. He started criticising Thanorm about a
year before the latter was ousted by the 14 October 1973 street revolution, which he missed
(he was in hospital for a routine check-up).
With the political game wide open, Khuekrit threw himself headlong into the mle. His
newly formed Social Action Party won 18 seats in the January 1975 election. After a short-
lived government run by his brother Seinee, Khuekrit was named prime minister on 20
April, and it is a measure of his political acumen that he managed to run a coalition govern-
ment for a full year despite an extremely volatile domestic and regional situation. It was
during his tenure that the Ugly Americans, winding up their Indochinese war, closed
down their military bases and left Thailand.
When the reactionary government of Tharnin Kraiwichian was put in power by the
palace after the 6 October 1976 massacre, Khuekrit returned to journalism only to enter
politics again when Gen Kriangsak Chamanan sent Tharnin packing one year later.
Although Khuekrit and his party won a majority in the 1979 election, Parliament appointed
a military prime minister, and Khuekrit was left with the role of leader of the opposition.
By 1985, at 74, he washed his hands of active politics, but remained, through his opinion
pieces in Sayarm Rat and on- and off-the-record sessions with the press, a fly in the
ointment for the government and cultivated his new image as a progressive democrat.
In a sober assessment of Khuekrits life and writing

, one of his former journalists

defines him as: a conservative liberal who sided with progressive elements only when it
suited his purpose; a staunch royalist and anticommunist fighting tooth and nail when he
perceived his interests and those of his class to be threatened and who did much to restore
the prestige of the monarchy; a brilliant, caustic and versatile intellectual given to criticizing
details and personalities rather than questioning the system and whose criticism was
stronger in words than in substance; and an independent member of the elite whose time
in power seems to have made belatedly sensitive to the plight of the common people.
Thanks to the prestige of his palace connections and excellent education abroad, the
analyst adds, he was able to combine old statecraft and modern knowledge. His ability to
adapt to any situation as well as his populist gift have allowed him to cultivate his own
image over an exceptionally long period, unlike more progressive personalities of equal
calibre such as Kularp Saipradit.
Khuekrit the writer is fun to read whatever the topic, but his quirky logic does not bear
examination. His aristocratic wit, extreme facility of expression and defence of old things
Thai have paradoxically turned him into everybodys favourite uncle, at least among the
rural masses. For all the skeletons in his closet, he is the Thailand that was.

Sueksa Botbart Lae Khwarmkhit Morm Rarchawong Khuekrit Prarmoat, A study of MR Khuekrit Prarmoats
role and thinking, Witthayarkorn Chiangkoon, Samnakphim Phloel, 1989

Four reigns (See Phaendin) 1954

Book I. Rama V (Jularlongkorn) 18681910

The year is 1892. Phloi is 10 when she enters the Royal Palace. Fed up with being a minor wife, her
mother, Chaem, has left her husband, a wealthy nobleman. She intends to leave her daughter at the
Inner Court under the care of her former benefactress, Sadeit (a younger sister of the king), and Her
Royal Highnesss housekeeper and chief attendant, Khun Sai. Phloi is to be educated in the ways of
the palace.

While Mother sat selecting clothes, Phloi became uncomfortably aware of a natural need
she had been suppressing since morning because of all the excitement of the day. At home,
she would sit on a pot and, once the routine was over, the maid would take the pot and
empty it in the canal. But here in the Inner Court where did you find a pot? She looked for
the maid and wondered where she had hidden herself. Anyway, this was the big one, and
if she was to stay in the palace, she had to know how people of her rank managed that
particular business.
She looked around again, could see no convenient canal, so she whispered in her
mothers ear, on account of the young girl, Choi, who sat next to her, but Mother laughed
and said loudly: Of course! Lets do it this way, Phloi: I will take a shower while you go
with young Choi here. She turned to Choi and said: Please take her to the tunnel, so that
she knows where it is. To Phloi she ordered: Once you are done, come back at once, dont
linger. Ill be waiting to give you a bath.
Phloi looked at Choi in puzzlement ... She had no idea what that tunnel was. The name
itself was rather scary. But Choi just smiled, got up and beckoned her to follow. Since it
was Mothers order, a still puzzled Phloi stood up and followed Choi.
Choi walked out of the palace and Phloi hurried after her. After a while, Choi turned to
her and asked: Is it urgent?
Not so much, Miss Choi.
Dont you dare call me that! Choi remonstrated in a loud voice. Phloi did not know
where to hide herself. Choi was Khun Sais niece, and since Mother called Khun Sai Khun
every other word, maybe she should call Choi Khun too. Having thought this over, she
said, with the hesitation of a greenhorn: All right, Khun Choi.
Choi burst out laughing then shouted: Silly girl! Nobody calls me Khun, no one except
Phart, Aunt Sais servant. Just call me Choi like everyone else, and Ill call you Phloi.
Phloi took heart again, and the sympathy she had felt for Choi from the very first
moment grew immediately, so she felt confident enough to ask: Choi, why do people go
to a tunnel?
What do you mean? Choi answered. Didnt you say you wanted to go poopoo?
Thats right, answered Phloi. Then why are we going to a tunnel?
If you dont do it in the tunnel, where else will you do it? Choi answered, in a way
which explained nothing. Then she added: Hurry up. You dont want to let go and do it in
the street and shame us all.
Choi quickened her pace, forcing Phloi to follow suit. Barely acknowledging the
greetings of Chois friends along the way, they hurried along the road that Phloi had
walked that morning on her way in. It was paved with flagstones and lined on both sides
with small and large palaces. They reached Teng Row, proceeded to the Seesudarwong
Gate where Phloi had gotten into trouble that morning for stepping on the threshold,
turned again and finally came to a construction of brick and cement a long tube which
protruded out of a section of the inner palace wall and did indeed look like a tunnel. Choi
led Phloi to the entrance and, when she signalled for her to get in, Phlois heart sank,
because never in her life had she had to relieve herself in such a weird setting.
Inside the tunnel a middle lane separated two rows of slightly raised platforms divided
into open-top, chest-high cubicles which you entered and squatted in. Quite a lot of heads
of all ages could be seen above these enclosures, and everyone was doing their business in
the most natural way, without any trace of embarrassment or shame. Some who sat next to
each other or looked at each others face from a distance conversed noisily, others who
were on their way in or out noticed faces they knew and greeted them in the usual
boisterous way.
When Phloi saw the press and lack of privacy, she remained petrified and moaned:
Choi, I cant do it, not with all these people!
Nonsense! Choi cried impatiently. Hurry up and go and sit there. Force yourself.
Next time youll be on your own, you know. Everybody comes here.
As Phloi was still reluctant to comply, Choi took her by the hand and said: Come on,
Ill keep you company.
Phloi crouched in one cubicle and Choi did the same in the next, head raised up like
everybody elses. Choi kept a flow of conversation going which slowly melted Phlois em-
barrassment and made her feel indebted to her right away.
As soon as she was finished, she pressed Choi to go back, but Choi was in no hurry. She
walked at a leisurely pace, pointing out to Phloi the various residences on the way and
telling her who stayed in them. She seemed to know everything and everyone, and Phloi
could not possibly keep up with all her explanations.
Dusk was coming as they walked through the palace gates, which the guards were
closing and bolting in a great clanging and banging of metal and wood which made Phloi
shudder for some reason. At home, she had never gone outside of the compound after dark
but there were always comings and goings in and out of the back gate until late at night.
But here, as Choi explained, the palace gates had to be shut tight at dusk and kept shut
throughout the night until dawn the next day, nobody could open them no matter what
happened, and Phloi felt as hopelessly cut off as when her mother left her alone in a locked
room to punish her.
As soon as they had gone through the gate, Choi told her to hurry to reach the Inner
Court. We must return before dark, she warned, because we havent brought a candle.
What for? asked Phloi, perplexed.
Dont you know? Choi answered. To walk in the palace at night you have to have a
light. If not, you are looking for trouble. Remember that, Phloi.
But Phloi still did not understand. As the palace was all lit up, there seemed to be no
need for a candle to walk about or was it that dangerous people were lurking around, or
maybe a snake, or even a ghost? With such childish thoughts, she began to feel scared to
the point that she felt compelled to ask: What kind of trouble, Choi?
The guards will arrest you! Choi answered as a child too, because she did not know
that a palace regulation forbade anyone from going about in the streets at night without
holding a lit candle or lantern. Choi only knew that if you did not have a candle the guards
would arrest you, and her answer was convincing enough for Phloi, whose dread of the
guards power had started with her very first step in the palace. She immediately
quickened her pace because she could not imagine what would happen if she were
arrested without her mother around to help her.
As soon as they reached the Inner Court, Choi took her to Khun Sais room and they
were told to go out at the back to a large courtyard paved with the same flagstones that
covered all the streets within the palace grounds. The ground-floor veranda of the palace
formed three sides of the courtyard, which were lined with pots of shrubbery alternating
with jars containing lotuses. The fourth side was a low wall with a small gate in it, flanked
by a row of orange jasmine and ixora bushes. At the far end of the wall stood a tall mimu-
sops tree, next to several large jars decorated with dragon motifs and full of water for
bathing. Mother had already taken a shower but had yet to go back and dress. Seated on
the brick border that circled the trunk, she was chatting with a servant who was dousing
herself while sitting on a small stool.
When she saw that Phloi had returned, Mother thanked Choi for taking her back
promptly and promised her a reward. She gave Phloi a bath as she did at home, then took
her back to Khun Sais room, powdered her all over and chose clothes for her before
attending to her own toilette, which, Phloi noticed, she did with a far greater care than was
her custom. She covered her whole body in scented water, fanned herself all over to dry
fast, then repeated the operation before she applied the powder. She inspected her face in
the mirror for a long time, slowly combed her hair and parted it in strands which she
carefully adjusted and clipped with a brooch, then pulled out all the little clumps of hair
that stuck out. Watching her, Phloi could sense that Mother had gone back to the ways of
the palace, pampering herself as she had never done at home.
Once her toilette was over, Mother went to sit in front of the chest of clothes which the
maid had dragged into the room. She asked Phloi to sit with her, opened the lid and took
bunches of bodice tops and wraparound patterned skirts to match their colours. Khun Sai
saw her at it as she entered the room and asked: Whats all this, Mother Chaem?
Nothing much, Mother answered. I am just taking it out to have a look. Since I left
the palace, I sort of lost interest in dressing up and I just picked up whatever came first.
People outside are strange these days, you know: they put on whatever they feel like; they
dont match colours the way we do here. Sometimes they dress all in one colour. Like my
husbands eldest daughter: she puts on whatever she fancies. I once told her that she did
not dress like a palace person and she was angry at me for days. Phloi, here, is the same. At
home, she dressed just like her sister.
Mother then turned to Phloi and said: Look carefully, Phloi, I am going to match the
colours according to the days of the week. Since you will be staying in the palace from now
on, you must know how to dress properly.
She picked up wraparounds and bodices and arranged them in pairs, explaining: This
is for Monday, a light-yellow chintz with a light-blue or pale-pink top, but if that day you
choose a pigeon-blue material, then the top must be orange-red. She picked up a bodice
the colour of a jampa flower and put it over the shiny dark-blue wraparound already
selected. For Tuesday, Mother went on, lime pink or soft purple with a chartreuse top is
in order, but if you prefer a chartreuse or light-green cloth, then the top must be light
purple. For Wednesday, both bean green and iron grey are correct with a red-orange
bodice. On Thursday, you match leaf green with vivid red on top, or red-orange with light
green on top. Dark blue goes with a yellow bodice on Friday. As for Saturday, light purple
or deep purple with off-colour patterns will do, with a chartreuse bodice in either case. This
one, you see, deep purple and patterned, is so beautiful but, oh, so hard to find only one
per lot of twenty samples of material. You can also wear it for mourning, but with a beige
bodice cloth. On Sunday, you can dress as on Thursday, green wraparound and red top, or
else a bright-red or deep-red cloth assorted to a chartreuse top. Remember all this, Phloi.
You dont want to dress like a clumsy peasant, or else people will say that your mother is
from the palace but she hasnt taught you anything.
My dear Mother Chaem, Khun Sai exclaimed, you are dumping everything on the
poor child all at once, how could such a young thing possibly remember it all? Let her stay
here and watch and she will soon figure it all out by herself.

Phlois mother soon leaves for Chacheungsao, east of Bangkok, where she opens a business, remarries
and dies delivering a child prematurely.
At 16, Phloi falls in love with Nueang, the eldest brother of her dear friend Choi. As a newly
graduated army officer, Nueang is posted to Nakhorn Sawan. Before he leaves, he swears eternal love
and promises to set Phloi up in a beautiful house as soon as the situation allows. He will sin with a
local girl, however, and settle for a shotgun wedding. Phloi is deeply hurt, but out of the goodness of
her heart easily forgives him.
During a theatre performance, a young palace official, Khun Preim, stares at her meaningfully, and
he manages to watch her from a distance in the days that follow, despite Phlois and Chois attempts
to discourage him. When Phloi decides to leave the court for a while to stay with her father, Preim
arrives again. He arranges another, more daring encounter during a royal outing at Bang Pa-in an
exciting expedition.

The brass band was announcing the arrival of His Majesty. The Honour Guard saluted and
all the officials who had come to see him off stood at attention on the platform. Phloi sat up
straight and did not dare look out of the window. The buzz of conversation in the
attendants carriage died down.
As His Majesty proceeded to the Royal Coach, followed by several of his princely
daughters, he stopped to exchange a few words with almost all of his officials. Phloi sat still
and erect, head bent, not daring to look out, but she could hear the august voice which was
more resounding than any of the other persons present. His Majesty enquired about public
matters as well as personal problems. Although she could not hear everything, Phloi
gathered that the topics covered road-building and urban administration as well as the
schooling of someones children and the illness of someones wife. Nothing was too big or
too small to escape the kings attention and he seemed to know everything in detail.
Everyone there felt that all aspects of their lives whether private or public were being
brought up in the open and discussed by an incomparably wise being whose questions and
suggestions were put forth essentially out of compassion, because he was the Lord of Life,
who had the power of life and death over one and all in the land of the Thai.
Phloi herself belonged in the palace and was close to the powers that be, and she only
had to look out of the window to see the residence of His Majesty. She knew intimately all
kinds of stories that related to him, such as on which days he was not feeling well, which
gifts had pleased him and which had not, and of course who among his entourage was
currently in favour; nevertheless, every time that she had the opportunity to approach or
merely see him, she felt elated and on the verge of tears out of sheer delight.
A few minutes later the train started to move forward, slowly left the station and
gradually gathered speed. Phloi soon forgot everything else and became very excited as
this was the first time ever that she travelled by train and ventured beyond the heart of the
capital. The train was passing by small houses and properties on the edge of the city. Those
who knew that the king was travelling by train had come out of their houses to prostrate
themselves and, as the Royal Coach went by, they looked up and their faces were brim-
ming over with delight.
Phloi saw how the populace were expressing their feelings to His Majesty, and she felt
overwhelmed by the loyalty demonstrated by the thousands and thousands of subjects
who had filed out of their modest dwellings, orchards or paddy fields, out of any nook and
cranny, to greet their sovereign. Whenever she had gone about on her own, she had never
felt that the little people, the traders and farmers and other ordinary folks she was seeing
now, were in any way related, but now she could see clearly that, in all their diversity and
whatever their station in life, they all belonged to one and the same family.
The train sped on. The clusters of houses began to thin out, giving way to the green
peaceful openness of the paddy fields, with groves of trees in the distance. Wherever one
looked there were only clear waters and lush green rice stalks and lotuses of various
colours. Phloi could not take her eyes off the scenery. Her heart swelled with delight and
she forgot all her troubles, all her sorrows, she forgot everything, even Nueang, because after
all she was still a young woman whose worries could be dissipated by a momentary bout of
A group of farmers going about some business on a boat dropped their paddles as soon
as they saw the Royal Coach speeding past and prostrated themselves as one. Old men
who were fishing by a ditch kneeled down and raised their joined hands to their foreheads,
eyes closed, mouths mumbling blessings to their Lord. A gang of children playing in a
pond in front of a temple pavilion started to shout and jump about as innocent kids are
wont to do. Buffalo grazed close to the track while some went on laying about, munching
peaceably, and Phloi turned round to keep looking at them, because she was seeing such
animals for the very first time in her life like many of the other courtiers, who were
exclaiming in amazement, prompting some satirist at the back of the carriage to send up a
sharp cry: Oh, dear, the buffalo have horns! whereupon a wave of laughter ran through
the whole carriage.

After a persistent yet discreet courtship, Preim marries Phloi, who moves to his huge estate. Theirs
will be an exclusive, devoted, loving relationship. He is the master, she belongs to him.
They have two sons, An and Ort, and then one daughter, Praphai, and Phloi adopts Oan, Preims
son from an earlier liaison.

Book 2. Rama VI (Wachirarwut) 19101925

As well as being very wealthy, Preim is a model palace official, a staunch royalist and a typical
sincere opportunist who eventually achieves a lordly rank. During the First World War, he
supports the Germans until Thailand sides with the Allies. He follows the latest fashion and develops
a passion for horses.
Oan becomes a military cadet, then an officer and is posted to Ayutthaya. An and Ort leave for
France and England respectively to study. Six years later, An returns first, married to a French girl.
His father is dismayed, but finally tolerates her.
Ort comes back from England, the same easygoing fellow, happy to stay close to his mother in the
compound and running errands for her.
Phloi is compassion itself. She welcomes her ruined eldest half-sister, although she had done
everything she could to victimise Phloi and the other children when she was younger.

Book 3. Rama VII (Pracharthipok) 19251935

Each reign introduces changes in style and personnel, as Preim, who has prospered under the two
previous kings, is well aware.

At that time, the funeral pyre was erected in the heart of the city. The preparations for the
various ceremonies related to the Cremation Rites [for His Late Majesty Rama VI] kept
Khun Preim busy day and night over a long period. When the cremation was finally over, it
looked like he would have some respite and could take some rest, and indeed his condition
improved. But before long insistent rumours spread of imminent changes in the royal
service. Many ministers were replaced, triggering further changes in the lower echelons,
but nowhere as sweeping as in Khun Preims own ministry, the Ministry of the Palace.
He explained to Phloi that most of the pages of the previous reign would have to leave
the service, and certainly all those in the Bed Chamber, and he knew that several depart-
ments and divisions would be closed down.
It is only natural, Mother Phloi, he concluded. A change of reign brings changes
everywhere, particularly in the Royal Page Corps they must all change with a new
sovereign. It is natural that His Majesty would promote his own pages and servants,
because they have always been with him and enjoy his trust. But I feel sorry about the
departments that will be scrapped. I used to see so many people, I have made so many
friends, and now they are to be retired, and I dont know who is who anymore. You should
see all the ashen faces in the ministry these days. Those who have private means or have
found new patrons will do all right, but those who havent will be in trouble. Some who
have received grants and gifts during the previous reign will be all right too. Some are
couched in the Royal Will and will receive at the very least one or two hundred baht a
month; together with their retirement pension, they should do well. But I really feel for
those who will get nothing.
From then on, reports of further retrenchments kept multiplying. Some explained that
these retrenchments were made necessary by the need to balance the national budget,
because the kingdom was going through a period of so-called economic depression. The
government could not gather as much tax as before, so expenditures had to be cut. This
kind of explanation left Phloi completely nonplussed. What did they mean by economic
depression? From what she could see, the prices of household goods had gone down
considerably and she actually spent much less than before. She felt on the contrary that the
country was doing well and that nobody should suffer hardship. Even more so, the
allegation that there was no longer enough money in state coffers left her absolutely
befuddled, because she could not bring herself to believe that all the silver and gold of the
Twelve Royal Treasuries had simply disappeared. Besides, one no longer used bullet money
to buy goods these days but paper money called bank notes, and she simply could not
understand why His Majesty did not print more of those notes, which looked easy enough
to do and should not cause any problem.
In any case, the word balance was on everybodys tongue and wherever you went
there was only talk of balance this and balance that, and people even started talking
about being balanced out.
One day, Khun Preim returned home in the afternoon as usual, took a shower and told
Phloi with an even voice: Mother Phloi, I have been balanced out.
Before she had time to ask any questions, he hastened to explain: I was instructed to lop
off seven hundred and fifty baht from our salary allocation. I could have laid off a few
menials but I just couldnt bring myself to do it. I feel sorry for my underlings. As it is, my
own salary is of the same amount, so I tendered my resignation. Now the budget is very
nicely balanced, he added with a dry chuckle.

Khun Preim does not enjoy his retirement. When he dies in a horse fall, An takes over the running of
the estate. Predictably, his marriage with a foreign girl turns sour, and he sends her packing back to
France and divorces her quietly.
The year is 1932. Despite a dire prophecy, the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the founding
of Bangkok and of the Jakkree dynasty is celebrated in April without a hitch. When Phloi is told by
her brother Perm, however, that a group of people are plotting to overthrow the Royal Power and
that her son An might be involved with this group, she simply refuses to believe it, but feels
tremendously relieved when An swears to her that he will never be party to any plot or plan to
harm our sovereign and his family.

Early one morning in June, Phloi had just woken up but was still lying in bed, thinking
idly. She heard the servants opening doors and windows on the floor below and decided
she would get up soon, when suddenly someone came running up the stairs and she heard
Perm shouting in front of her bedroom door: Phloi! Phloi! Get up! Its happened!
She sat up in fright. Perm had never come this early, and never to wake her in this
manner. What he was about to say must be really important. With a trembling hand, she
unbolted the door. Perm was pacing back and forth in the front room, his face at once
worried and excited.
What is it, Perm? What happened? she asked as soon as she saw him.
He turned to her and said: A revolt! Thats whats happened, sister!
Oh, no! She sat down on the floor. Her brother came to sit beside her, heaved a deep
sigh and said: I thought all this was past history, but then here we are.
Are you sure its true? She did not know what to say.
I am certain, he answered. There are soldiers all over the place in front of the Royal
Lawn. I saw them with my own eyes. And here, read this, he added, handing her a piece
of paper. The rebels proclamation. Read for yourself.
She took the small sheet and started to read but her eyesight blurred and she had to
force herself to finish. She was horrified by the violence of the words, which offended
everything she had ever been taught and believed in. She kept repeating in her heart, Its
not true! It cant be true! How can people possibly write and think like this! This is foul! Its
not true!
Who are these people? Phloi asked with a broken voice. She swallowed and went on:
This this Peoples Party, who are they?
They are the ones rebelling this time. I only know a couple of them, I dont know them
all. Perm went on to give her the names of some leaders in the Peoples Party, but this told
Phloi nothing as she had never heard of any of them before.
What do they want? What are they going to do with our King? Are they going to kill all
of our Royals?
I dont know, sister. I dont think anybody knows whats going to happen yet. The only
thing I know is that, if they succeed, our country will be ruled by a constitution.
By who? she asked, puzzled by such a weird name: was His Majesty going to be
replaced by a person [khon] called Satituchan?
No, no, its a farang word, not a person. In farang, it means er... Well, I dont really
know how to explain it, either.
Never mind, Phloi said. But I cant make sense of what you say. These names are
impossible, and then you tell me its not a person, and you cant explain what this is all
about. How am I supposed to make head or tail of all this?
Wait, wait, Perm said, trying once again to explain. Its like this, you see. His Majesty
has always been above the law, but now these people want to put him under the law.
What for? she countered. I have never seen him break the law, and I have always
been told that he is the one who makes the law, so how can he come under it?
You are right, he has never broken the law, but suppose he did something wrong:
nobody would dare say anything. But from now on even he will be under the law. [He is in
Hua Hin, and the rebels have sent a delegation to him.+
And if he refuses?
Thats it, sister, said Perm. Thats the big question. What he does or does not do is
going to make a big difference, thats why I told you from the start that nobody knows
whats going to happen next.
Any news about Their Royal Highnesses?
I hear some are under arrest, Perm answered.
Lord Almighty! she exclaimed, not knowing what to say. She knew that lately more
than a few people had become unhappy with some members of the royal family and these
people would probably be rejoicing by now, but she only felt pity and concern for the
unfortunate royal victims, and even more so for those she had known for a long time and
had always treated and thought of with the utmost respect and deference. Their misfortune
was so sudden, so violent, that it looked as though it extended to Phloi herself. She thought
about the precarious status of all the royal persons mentioned by Perm who, only
yesterday, received all the attentions due to their high birth and now were under arrest.
What their fate would be, nobody could guess.
Why such violence? asked Phloi weakly.
In an upheaval like this, what can you expect? her brother answered. Even people
like us may get caught up in it. From now on, we must be careful: there is no telling what
will happen.
The warning only increased Phlois unhappiness, because she had always thought that
the future was uncertain, but what she had faced until then was nothing compared to what
they were now confronting.
Ort entered the room silently, bowed to his uncle and sat beside him. To Perms
question, he answered: Yes, Uncle, I know. Ive been hearing about it for some time.
Its good that you are here, Perm said. You can explain to your mother about this
constitution business. I am not too good at this sort of thing.
Ort turned to his mother and smiled, then said: I dont think you want to hear about
this now, right, Mother? It isnt something you can explain just like that. Let us wait and
see how things turn out.
[Phloi suddenly notices that An has not joined them and berates Ort for suggesting that An is
involved in the revolt.]
The rest of the day passed in utter isolation. Phloi stayed home and no one came
visiting. Everyone in the capital seemed to be on their guard and did not venture outside.
Bangkok was holding its breath, waiting for the next development. Everybody kept a
watchful eye, wondering what would happen, but no one dared to offer a prediction or
make a guess as to the likely turn of events. Phloi waited and waited for An to come back
home, because she felt that he was the only one who could dispel her doubts, the only one
knowledgeable and mature enough to give her all the facts so that she could understand
what was going on. Her brother lost himself in details and was unable to provide a
coherent explanation. Ort was just too young, sometimes annoyingly so, and he could not
be relied upon. She was sure An would come home that day because he would never leave
his mother alone in these troubled times, but she was to be disappointed. An did not come
home that night, or the following day, and by the evening of the third day he still was not
back. On the second day, Phloi started to hear rumours, and they were all bad, all
thoroughly disquieting: the king was going to send in provincial forces to quell the revolt,
and fierce battles and bloodshed were only to be expected; the rebels were going to put all
the royals in a boat and sink it in the ocean; all properties belonging to aristocrats and other
rich people were to be confiscated all rumours seemingly designed for the sole purpose of
instilling fear in the hearts of the listeners.
[During the evening meal of the third day, An suddenly walks in.]
Oh, there you are! Phloi exclaimed joyfully. We were just talking about you.
An smiled, surveyed the food on the table and said: How very nice! Im famished. Just
on time. It looks like Im going to have a proper meal for a change.
While Phloi was happily stacking rice on Ans plate, Ort smiled at his eldest brother and
said: Congratulations, Brother An!
Thanks, Ort, thank you, An answered pleasantly and he sat down at the table. I knew
you would understand and approve, because educated people like us must all be pleased.
From now on, our country will never look back. How about giving us a hand, Ort? We
could use someone with your knowledge and ability.
Ort smiled at his rice plate, then said: Any more news, An? Is everything going well?
The best of news, An answered proudly. His Majesty has agreed. We received a
Royal Telegram. He agrees that the constitution will rule the land and he agrees to become
a constitutional monarch, which means that we were right all along, and I am immensely
Why? Did you think he would refuse? asked his brother.
Well, one couldnt be sure at first, An answered.
Thats strange, Ort retorted, because we were sure from the start that he would
definitely accept.
What made you so sure? asked An, putting a spoonful of rice in his mouth.
You just said it yourself, An: all educated people must understand and approve. Now
you know very well that His Majesty is highly educated, more so than most of us I should
An did not answer but concentrated on his food instead. After a long silence, he said:
Ort, as your eldest brother, may I give you a piece of advice?
What about, An?
I would like you to be careful about what you say from now on. Dont blurt things out
when you please like you always do. I wouldnt want to see you get into trouble.
What! All right, An, then let me give you a piece of advice too.
Go ahead, Ort, Im always prepared to listen.
Dont go around saying what you have just said to me. People would lose faith in you
if you did.
Why is that? An asked.
You say you want to change the old regime to a democracy. I dont know how you are
going to translate that word into Thai, but anyway, the new regime recognises freedom of
speech, does it not? Under the old system whoever talked against the institutions would
have a coconut rammed down his throat. You dont want that, right? So if you go around
forbidding people to speak their minds, wont that be contrary to what you stand for and
ultimately dangerous for your own cause?
Instead of getting angry, An laughed good-humouredly, then told his younger brother:
Have patience, Ort. Everything will come in due time, and the sooner the better as far as
we are concerned. But dont forget that this is only the third day, we are still at a turning
point and its only normal that we exercise some caution.
From her seat at the head of the table, Phloi listened and thought that it hardly mattered
that she understood next to nothing of what her two sons were talking about. The im-
portant thing was that An was home safe and sound. Never mind what he had been doing
in the past few days. But she felt that if she did not intervene right away, An and Ort would
end up quarrelling, so she laughed and said: Here you go again! Every time you two
brothers talk to each other, you cant help arguing. Stop right now and talk about
something else.
An and Ort burst out laughing. Ort said: Sorry, brother. I rather overdid the freedom
Never mind, Ort, An said genially. I am glad that you are interested. We will surely
work together in the future. From now on, everyone with ability will have the opportunity
to work for the nation, whether or not they are well-born, and especially people like you.
You are just the kind of educated person we need. Think it over carefully and once you
have decided where you want to work, let me know and Ill talk to my friends and our
Phloi shot a warning glance to Ort, who understood its import and kept his peace,
concentrating on his food. So did An, who ate hungrily, and the rest of the meal went
pleasantly enough. As soon as the meal was over, Ort complained that he was feeling
sleepy and took his leave.

An assumes an important post in the new government. Oan is among the leaders of a failed military
rebellion to reinstate the king. He is sentenced to death and incarcerated at Bang Khwang. In time,
he is exiled to Tarutao Island in the South.
Praphai marries Seiwee, the son of a rich Chinese merchant.

Book 4. Rama VIII (Anantha Mahidon) 19351946

Phloi is getting older and weaker, but remains the same old-fashioned, upright, well-bred lady with a
big heart. When she finds out that An has had two children on the side, she invites their mother to
live with them in the compound.
During the Second World War, Thailand is invaded by the Japanese and Bangkok is bombed by the
Allies. One bomb destroys the main house in the compound. Money-mad Seiwee, who is ogling the
familys fortune, becomes filthy rich through his wheeling and dealing with the Japanese.
Oan is finally released from detention in the South and ends up in the monkhood. Ort the loafer, who
has found himself a job in the South, dies of malaria.
The new king, Anantha Mahidon, spends his childhood and adolescence studying in Lausanne. On
his first return to Thailand, the whole population turns out to greet him. A few years later, he comes
back for a brief stay.

Since that day, His Majesty became the main topic of most peoples conversations. All other
topics paled in comparison, because whatever their importance, they were likely to induce
discord and cause tension and worry, whereas talking about His Majesty made everyone
feel at ease, and for those who were interested in the latest news, he was very hot news as
he had not lived in the capital for many years. Phloi never tired of listening to
conversations about him and she also kept up with the royal news in the newspapers.
During all the months that he stayed in the capital, Phloi heard and read of many instances
that told of his sublime glory, of his kindness to his subjects and of the loyalty of those, Thai
and foreigners alike, who sought his protection. Comparing what she was witnessing with
what she had known of the three previous reigns, Phloi felt that the loyalty to the throne
that had always been present in the hearts and minds of the people had never been so
openly and widely demonstrated than in the current reign, and that this loyalty was felt by
most people in a more personal, more intimate way.
She could feel that the general situation was more stable than before. As for herself, the
pains and strains due to her heart condition had eased off enough for her to cease being
bed-ridden and move about and do small chores. She knew very well that she was not
cured and would never be, but this did not in any way alarm her. Her children were lead-
ing normal lives Oan knew the peace of the monkhood; An was a responsible family
man; and Praphai, even though she was not getting along too well with her husband,
seemed more mature these days and could be trusted not to do anything rash. If only Ort
was still alive... Whenever she thought of him, Phloi felt a cold, wet shroud wrap itself
around her heart, and she knew her sorrow would stay with her until the end of her days.
She led a simple life and the days went by, bringing closer the time when His Majesty
would leave again for a last, short stay abroad. Whenever she left the palace to visit her,
Choi was full of stories about the king, and whenever Perm came visiting, he too was full
of stories about the king. Perm, who was particularly interested in political affairs too
much, to Phlois taste tried his best to hold back while His Majesty was here and
concentrated instead, like everybody else, on any titbit that had to do with the Royal
That day it was a Sunday, because An was at home and had not gone to work that
Sunday morning in the month of June, Phloi woke up at dawn as usual. It was a day of
bright sunshine like any other day, and everything looked fine and ordinary. Life was
going on, and the boats and rafts floated up and down Bang Luang Canal as they had for
Towards eleven that morning, an ashen-faced Perm came up the stairs and walked to
the corner of the veranda where Phloi sat and An was playing with his youngest son.
Phloi! An! Perm said with a voice Phloi had never heard before. Terrible news the
King is dead.
Deeply shocked, she shrieked: What are you saying? Thats not true! It cant be. He is
too young, he cant possibly...
An looked at her with concern and alarm.
I stopped for a cup of coffee at the shop in front of the Grand Palace, Perm went on.
Everybody was talking about it.
Phloi felt greatly relieved. Brother Perms coffee-shop rumours! No truth in them.
People these days would stop at nothing, even the most ill-omened lies, just for the sake of
Its true, you know, Phloi! Its true, An! Perm said in a tearful voice. But Phloi did not
pay him any attention, thinking only that he must be wrong this time. How could he be
right when he maintained that such an unbelievable rumour was true?
Choi came from the palace about one oclock and as soon as she saw her all dressed in
black, Phloi stayed transfixed where she was sitting. Choi walked up the stairs in tears, but
Phlois heart could only cry: Its not true! Not true! I wont believe it! Yet she did not dare
to ask any questions because her heart also knew that it was indeed true.
Choi gave her certain details about the Kings death which made the event even more
unbelievable. It was growing dark outside and the wind and the birds and the water
sounded like someone crying...
Choi left, saying there was much to do in the palace and she had better hurry back
Choi, who had spent her whole life in the palace and who would keep doing her duty there
till the end of her days. Phloi rose to her feet and slowly walked to the bed to rest her
aching back. She had never felt so tired and feeble in her life. She lay down and closed her
eyes and tried to stop thinking altogether.
But rambling thoughts kept surfacing. He shouldnt have died. So young and strong
and handsome all destroyed like that. It shouldnt be, but he has departed, though he was
our Lord, beloved by all... Departed like Ort, who was just my son. How could he be dead?
Our Lord who had everything, and who still could not avoid... Sleeping in the Bed
Chamber, watched over by all his entourage... And yet death did find a way to him... Just
like it reached my son and soon will reach that body of mine... The same for everyone... Just
a matter of time.
Phloi felt as though she were floating on a higher plane. All the sorrows that had
accumulated throughout her life seemed to have begun to ease out. She thought of Khun
Preim, who seemed to always be near her in her moments of need.
Khun Preim, there are so many things I dont understand that I could ask you to
explain. But its all right. Never mind... Actually, I am beginning to understand some
things, but I have lived so long, Khun Preim... Seen things I never thought I would come to
see... I have lived through four reigns, Khun Preim... Four reigns... Such a long time... I am
so tired, so tired my heart will burst... To outlive four reigns, isnt that too much? Or am I
tired for some other reason? I dont know... Four reigns...
That Sunday evening, on the 9th of June 1946, when the water in Bang Luang Canal was
leaving its banks exposed, Phlois heart, weakened by illness and repeated sorrows, went
drifting away with the tide...

Mother Phloi dies a woman who has seen too much and understood too little. We scan half
a century of momentous events through her eyes, but she is watching history through a
peephole, as it were. Her world is narrow, her interests narrower still. She grows up during
the reign of Rama V, seemingly the golden age of absolute monarchy Jakkree-style, and
that is when her mental processes freeze over. After leaving the womens quarters of the
palace, she leads a sheltered life centred on her family and her sovereign. Her duty is to her
king, her husband and her children, and after being the perfect palace trainee, she is the
perfect wife and perfect mother. She has learned how to control and hide her feelings for
the sake of social bliss. She only cares about peace and harmony, and does not want to
know what is going on outside of the family compound. The outside world keeps
intruding, yet she is not interested in why this is so, only in how to limit the damage. To
her, changes are upsetting or harmful, and, since she does not even try to understand what
is going on, they are always unexpected.
For all that, her qualities shine through: honesty, forbearance, and a heart as big as her
sense of duty. Phloi is an immensely popular character among educated Thais. The novel
has known numerous reprints and several TV adaptations; the latest, in 1991, was very
close to the original and won the actress who portrayed Phloi the national acting award for
that year.
The author has long been annoyed at the success of his heroine. He pointed out once
that Mother Phloi is very unsophisticated... Thai readers are delighted, they see [her] as
absolutely sublime, because they themselves are like that, they know nothing better. Most
people are only at Mother Phlois own level: they are bloody stupid, let me tell you. Thats
why Four reigns is popular.

Beyond aristocratic arrogance, there is more than a grain of truth in this harsh judgment:
Phloi is the embodiment of those ideal, genteel values most Thais still hold dear and try to
uphold, and it is easy for Thai readers to identify with Phloi because they too have a
limited understanding of and often interest in what is going on. Unlike his characters,
however, Khuekrit is a highly sophisticated political animal who has an excellent grasp of
what makes the country tick and of his place in the scheme of things. By 1985, when he
made this comment in an interview to a literary magazine, he was a former prime minister
and the acknowledged Grand Guru of Democracy, an enlightened and respected royalist
no longer concerned with the survival and prestige of the royal institution but at odds with
the reactionary forces that were using the royal shield to forward their vested interests.
Khuekrit hails from the aristocratic microcosm he describes so well and he has gathered
much information from old relatives about palace goings-on before his birth. Nobody has
faulted him on his historic accuracy. His rendition of palace daily life around the turn of the
century is impressive, if thoroughly idealised. Here is a self-contained world of wit and
wisdom, where social harmony is paramount and form reigns over substance. We are
treated to the glittering mores of the aristocracy, and to the changes in customs that take
place from one reign to the next. Brought in occasionally for a spirited show of loyalty is an
adoring, problem-free, prosperous populace. The middle class hardly exists, except for a
few notables co-opted into the gentry for services rendered. Khun Preim, the son of a
Chinese immigrant, is the archetype of these worthy few and, by contrast to the detailed
portrait of his wife, a fairly shallow character.
Throughout the book, feelings for His Majesty run the whole gamut between adulation
and awe, and one wonders how it was that some misguided souls plotted against the king,
way before 1932 and all that. While treating his readers to the lengthy names, positions and
titles of a dozen royal grandees, the author manages to leave out the impossible names of
the leaders of the Peoples Party commoners Preedee Phanom-yong and Plaek
Phiboonsongkhrarm. (Indeed, Khuekrit the politician had played a major role in
accrediting the idea that Preedee as Regent had engineered Rama VIIIs death an
acknowledged trumped-up charge that did achieve its purpose of discrediting one of the
best statesmen Siam ever had.) In the early 1950s, when Khuekrit was writing, Field

Thanon Nangsue, Issue 25, July 1985

Marshal Plaek was still very much in the picture, the new king, Rama IX, was young and
still untried, and the future of the royal family was indeed getting dark. Thus, Four reigns
should be read as an attempt to boost the royal image and whip up royal fervour, rather
than as a balanced chronicle of royal times.
The real actors of history are not shown, nor are the real reasons for the changes
explained. Phloi has been taught not to look at His Majesty, and indeed she craves any little
bit of news she can get about him, but is not at all interested in royal policies. Her mundane
preoccupations make for lively, light reading and for poor understanding of what made
the country tick, unless you buy the idea that the events of 1932 happened because Rama
VI invited a lady to share his meal and Rama VII acted in stage plays with his paramour.
For all its political bias, however, the novel is a remarkable literary tour de force,
especially as Khuekrit wrote it day by day to fill in space in Sayarm Rat. The author
claims he started without a plot, determined only to write about the old days at the palace,
although Phlois visit to a Chinese soothsayer some time during Rama VIs reign shows
that by then the novelist had figured out at least the main lines of the rest of the novel.
Four reigns has a very coherent plot, unusually well-defined and diversified characters,
and an easy, almost chatty style. This historical fresco is built around only three families,
and two main characters (cool Phloi and bland Preim) plus a dozen secondary characters,
who come and go as the story dictates.
These are sketched with finesse if not depth, each an easily recognisable human type
and product of his or her time: Choi, the palace friend, who offsets dear dull Phloi
throughout the book, makes us laugh with her antics and comes up with words of wisdom
close to the authors heart; Nueang, your fast-talking but basically weak Thai male; Oan,
the staunch military royalist who hankers after stability and discipline; An, the foreign-
educated lawyer and would-be revolutionary, whom the author depicts as honest and
highly principled but also as secretive and cowardly, and finally disenchanted with his
own cause; Ort, also foreign-educated but a mamas boy and lazybones, who nevertheless
redeems himself through hard work only to find an untimely death; Praphai, the post-war
modern woman who prefers wealth over title and freedom to progeny; her husband
Seiwee, the Ugly Chinaman, greedy, cunning, unprincipled; Uncle Perm, the boozy light-
weight gossip; etc.
As Phloi is staying put in her compound, these friends and relatives take turns to bring
news of change. They relate what happens, but not why it happens nor what it portends.
Whenever necessary, the author muscles in to give an inkling of what the future holds,
prop up a character or explain a point of palace culture, but by and large it is Phlois show.
And Phlois plight is pathetic.
Khuekrit has inherited the celebrated palace sense of humour, and with the sighs come
the chuckles. We end up with the right blend of wit and woe, so appealing to the Thai as it
peppers with levity the exposition of lifes tragedies, the melancholy impermanence of all
The writing is generally refined yet casual. The occasional reference to Buddhist tenets
may seem perfunctory but it should be noticed that the heroine is herself the embodiment of
the essential Buddhist values. The author often uses religious terms which are so much part
of everyday language that they give the Thai reader an immediate feeling of intimacy.
On the other hand, the day-to-day writing has left occasional inconsistencies, some
unnecessary notations and rambling digressions, and above all repetitions which are so
much part of the slack way in which the Thais generally express themselves but are
unwelcome by the Western reader and must be weeded out of even the most faithful
translation (as they have been in the above extracts).
For all that, the novel is a brilliant celebration of the idealised splendours of the royal
past, and offers a deep insight into the minds of yesterdays ruling class, much of it still
prevalent today.

THAI MODERN CLASSICS submitted the preceding 24 pages to Khuekrit Prarmoat and received the
following reply (in bizarre Thai) from his personal secretary: Judging from the sample you sent us, we
think your translation is much inferior to the standard of the novel, which will destroy the quality of language
and depth of Thai culture of a time when the diversity of Western cultures was not as numerous as it is today
[this probably means: your translation is of inferior quality as it harms the quality of language and cultural
depth of the novel, which refers to a time when Western cultural influence was not as strong as it is today].
Therefore, MR Kukrit Pramoj, the author, does not allow you to translate and publish See Phaendin.
Utsana Phleungtham

There was little exciting in the life of Pramoon Un-hathoop, alias Utsana Phleungtham

the author of Thailands best erotic novel, The story of Jan Darra (Rueang Khong Jan Darra).
The torrid, obsessive sexual antics of the characters in his one and only novel (he left
another unfinished

) were inspired, he claimed, by the goings-on in the Barn Mor palace

compound where the father of Dorkmai Sot and Bunluea lorded over his forty wives.
He was born and spent his childhood at the back of the compound, where he often
ventured and chatted with the staff there.
When he was born in June 1920, the first of eight children of Un (a low-level civil
servant) and Pheurm Un-hathoop, he was named Praphatsorn. A disease almost killed him
as an infant, but his name was changed to Pramoon to fool the gods and he promptly
recovered. His native shophouse on Barn Mor Rd, at the back of the palace, sold
newspapers, magazines and books on the ground floor and, from an early age, Pramoon
was a voracious reader, which may help explain his extraordinary sophistication as a
writer. He also started to learn English almost as soon as he could read and write Thai. In
later years, he became a noted translator of bestselling American authors (Sydney Sheldon,
Harold Robbins, Louis LAmour) and his rendition of Steinbecks Tortilla Flat is considered
a model translation. He also translated short stories by DH Lawrence (notably The
woman who rode away) and Pramoon claimed Lawrence had the most influence on his
At 12, he entered a government secondary school near Wat Pho. One of his best friends
there was S [Somchai] Arsanajinda, who went on to become a writer and an outstanding
movie actor. The two took English and French evening classes at another school nearby.
Three years later, however, the Un-hathoop family moved to the Thonburee side of the
As a child and teenager, Pramoon was curious and mischievous but a good student, and
he liked to explore Bangkok with his friends. He never completed his secondary education,
however, and failed to gain entrance to university. Instead, at 18, he enrolled in a
surveyors course but quit after three years to become a journalist. He had hardly started
writing feature articles and advertisements for beauty products when the Japanese
occupation of Thailand began in December 1941. The newspapers he sent his stories to
were closed down and Pramoon returned home, until he passed the entrance exam for the
department of cooperatives. His first postings for the department were outside Bangkok
(Samut Prarkarn, then Bang Phlee) before he returned to the capital. During this time, he

Utsana is Sanskrit for un-ha (his fathers name, Un, is a variation of Un-ha), meaning heat, hot season
or warm. (Pramoon, to bid, can mean to add, which is the meaning of pheurm, his mothers name.)
Pramoon used other pen names as well Jao Jampee, Marlarthorn Un, Thongkhamplaeo, PUT
and Jorree.

Rueang Khong Weik Surisee Rjs, The story of Weik Surisee, Rjs, was supposed to be a mystery novel
spanning a mans lifetime. How much of it he wrote is not known. Perhaps as part of the mystery, the
author always refused to say what Rjs in the title stood for.
courted Prayongsee Narkhanart, the younger sister of a well-known journalist and
publisher. Prayongsee devoted her life to teaching and finally became the headmistress of
the Lower Rarchinee School. They married and had two sons and a daughter, Sireim-orn
Un-hathoop, who has made a name for herself as a short-story writer.
As soon as the war was over, Pramoon went back to journalism, teaming up with his
brother-in-law. Over the next quarter century, he worked for no fewer than six publications
(most notably Sayarm Rat) but had to give up in 1971 due to bad health. A heavy drinker,
he was plagued since his mid-thirties with stomach ulcers. Surgery in 1959 took away one
third of his stomach. Four more operations were necessary between 1970 and 1973, and,
until his death in January 1988, he was in and out of hospital for other ailments and more
surgery, reading English novels but no longer able to write.
The distant, sad eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses never changed, but the neat and
fairly handsome man in his thirties and forties let his hair grow longer in later years as his
face turned puffy with age, suffering and booze, giving him a slightly seedy avuncular look
that befitted his sulphurous reputation as a literary sex maniac. Yet, journalists and writers
knew him as a fastidious editor whose sense of language was the envy of everyone. A quiet
man with simple needs and tastes, he kept to himself, spoke little but was always to the
point. As a writer, he was incredibly fussy, would agonise for days over le mot juste, and
some of his short stories were several months or even years in the making! His output has
therefore been limited only five thin volumes of short stories.
These stories vary considerably in length; some could easily pass as novellas. They all
deal with relationships, and more often than not with sexual themes, in a way which can be
titillating or tantalizing yet is never vulgar.
Pramoon was 44 and a well-known writer when he started penning his masterpiece, The
story of Jan Darra, which was serialised in 1964 in Sayarm Rat Weekly Review, where he was
working at the time under Khuekrit Prarmoat. The novel raised a storm of jeers and a few
cheers, and Khuekrit deflated much of the protest when he answered a readers long
diatribe asking him to condemn this obscene story with only two words: Phom chorp I
like it. Printed in book form in 1966, the novel has been reprinted three times.

The story of Jan Darra (Rueang Khong Jan Darra) 1966

Jan, born in Bangkok, is motherless: his mother died while giving birth to him. His father, referred to
throughout the novel as His Lordship, hates him so much that he names the newly born boy Jan,
short for janrai (damned, accursed). As his son, Jan is entitled, however, to use His Lordships
surname, Witsanan.
Throughout his childhood, Jan thinks that His Lordship is so cruel and rude to him that he cant
possibly be his father. One day, Jan goes back home singing a song that mocks his title. Furious, his
father throws a heavy teacup at him, which cuts a big gash on the childs forehead. Jan is then locked
up in the greenhouse, where the body of his mother used to be kept. He cries loudly and has hallu-
cinatory visions of his mother. Thanks to his mothers best friend, Aunt Waht, who has come from
upcountry after learning of her death and asks His Lordship to leave Jan under her care, the boy is let
out of the greenhouse, but he remains sick for more than a month. From then on, he will brood
resentfully over his unbearable relationship with his father. Unable to concentrate on his studies, he
repeatedly fails his exams and finally drops out of school.
His Lordship, who retired after the death of his wife, spends his life lasciviously at home. He has
affairs with all of the women in the compound, regardless of their age or social position. Aunt Waht
is no exception. Jan unwittingly witnesses their affair at the age of four.

Since I have already mentioned that besides me there was another child called Khun

in the
house, I think it is time to introduce her. Her name was Wilaireik, a name eighty-four
thousand times more radiant than mine. His Highness Prince Mahitsareit or Something-or-
other-reit, whom His Lordship held in the highest esteem, had helped think it up. Wilaireik
Witsanan... The last contraption of the name had been bestowed most graciously and
willingly by His Lordship himself, and she was the only de facto child to have received
such an honour. As for the others, if their mother had a surname they used that surname,
but most didnt, and it was another of His Lordships hobbies to think up patronymics
during his spare time, which seemed to last longer than twenty-four hours a day. Miss
Wilairek was nicknamed Miss Kaeo. She was conceived in Aunt Wahts womb when I was
a little over four years old. Miss Kaeos entry into this world was of much interest and
concern to Master Jan and has never ceased to be so even up to now. I have always felt that
she had been made to be born out of spite, out of spite for one and all out of spite for me,
for Aunt Waht, for His Lordship, for herself even, and for one or two more persons.
As far as I am concerned, even to this day I cant figure out whether she was born to
retaliate against me on her fathers behalf or for me to take my revenge on His Lordship,
my ghoulish progenitor. Father and daughter always and equally hated me as if we had
met and known one another in a former lifetime. The oldest evidence of this is two old
photographs which have always disturbed me I dont really know why. These two
pictures stand in their old frames on my desk right in front of me now. Whenever I cast a
glance at them, I feel that I am haunted by a ghost, despite their compelling clarity, though
their grain has much faded. As for her, seeing her there <

In this context, Master for a boy or Miss for a girl

Just as well you managed to hang on to it: you can look at that bastard mug of yours
and laugh.
< and it was the first time too that I was harsh enough to slap the lady and send her
sprawling on the floor.
These two photographs have exactly the same background, which shows some
multimillionaires park somewhere, and you can see a stately residential building just
behind, and right in front of all this is Aunt Waht, sitting on a high chair and looking
composed and unassuming, and on one side of her is a real dwarf tree growing out of an
antique pot and on the other side a porcelain dog in a crouching position. The only
difference between the two pictures is that one has a girl of about ten standing to Aunt
Wahts right whereas the other has a boy of fifteen standing to Aunt Wahts left.
The photo shop, I remember, was on Pahurat Road towards the Barn Mor intersection.
The shops name began with Cha-ya

as was the fashion of photo shops in those days,

but I have forgotten the full name, which sounded like Cha-ya Khong Beng or something
like that. Aunt Wahts original intention even before she took the two children up the steep
staircase leading to the Cha-ya-something photo shop, which was located on the deck of a
two-story-high shophouse, was that the two photographs be identical. When it was time to
take the picture just as the Chinese photographer had organised the setting and the poses
of the subjects to his satisfaction and was diving under the black cloth behind the camera
the girl Wilaireik, who looked as if she had just thought of something, started to show her
hand. Despite all of her mothers entreaties, she would not allow the boy Jan the honour of
being photographed together. Lest the outing in the Austin car from home through so
many roads be wasted, the boy Jan had to remove himself from the scenery first. Once Miss
Kaeo had had her picture taken alone with her mother, the boy Jan returned to stand at the
previously assigned spot and had his picture taken alone with Aunt Waht, but a smooth
process it was not, because Miss Kaeo stood crying and fretting about while ruefully
remonstrating and criticising her mother in all kinds of ways that hurt Master Jans
feelings. The last thing she uttered that I remember and will never forget was: Hes not
your son, hes not Fathers son, so why should you sit with him? That was too much for
Aunt Waht, who rose and went to give her a spanking before returning to her seat and
having the picture properly taken.
That time, as soon as we were back home, Miss Kaeo hurried out of the car and flew to
her father, who was in the anthurium nursery nearby. Aunt Waht walked unhurriedly,
holding my hand, and we could see Miss Kaeo talking volubly to her father. As soon as we
came to them, Aunt Waht said: I just gave Kaeo a good spanking in front of the Chinese
photographer. She behaved so despicably, I dont know what got into her. Father and
daughter looked at each other and laughed, then His Lordship took his daughters hand
and they went into the house without saying a word. On our side, we too exchanged
glances. Aunt Waht looked suddenly sad, but I smiled cheerfully because I thought the
situation funny: They are in this together, Aunt Waht I wouldnt wonder. What I said
was what I understood, and Aunt Waht took it as such. She hugged me and said
soothingly: It doesnt matter. She froze deep in thought for a while, then turned to me

Cha-ya means shade, reflection, photograph as well as beautiful woman (from the name of the god
Suns wife and Saturns mother).
and said: Change your clothes and then go back to the photo shop for me, will you. She
went with me to my room, asked for paper and pencil and sat writing a letter while I
changed from my school uniform to casual clothes consisting of a polo-neck shirt, a pair of
shorts and an old pair of sneakers. When she was done, she handed over the letter for me
to take to the photo shop together with a ten-satang coin, which could buy a lot of things in
those days, for my service.
The letter was folded width-wise and again at the corners, which was how a letter was
closed in an emergency in those days that is, just enough for others to have the decency
not to open it. As for me, I had hardly turned my back and taken a few steps before I
desperately wanted to read it, but because it was Aunt Wahts letter, I forced myself to
strictly observe proper manners all the way to the Cha-ya photo shop. As soon as I handed
it over to the Chinese photographer, I breathed a deep sigh of relief: the letter was out of
my hands and out of my yearning. But the photographer wouldnt allow me to leave; he
called me back and asked me to read the letter out to him. I therefore happily obliged him
by reading it out loud and clear: Regarding the picture of the boy and me: please change
the order to four copies, at whatever extra cost. Ill come and get them myself. Should
anybody else come for them, do not hand them over. I couldnt but wonder at such a brief
and blunt message, so I asked the photographer how many copies Aunt Waht had
originally ordered. I was told that she had asked for three copies of each, plus one enlarged
version of the picture with the girl.
And it so happened that the day Aunt Waht went to fetch the pictures, I had something
to do in the main house and was still hanging around there when she came back, so I had
the opportunity to see all the photographs. His Lordship ordered a servant to take the
enlarged picture of Aunt Waht and Miss Kaeo back to the shop to get it framed separately
as it would be hung on a wall in the house. As for the postcard-sized pictures, His Lordship
put them on a stool and examined them one by one and then gathered them in his hand.
Thats when Aunt Waht said that she intended to send a copy of each to her father in Phijit,
but he objected, taking no heed that I could hear him, that he did not think it proper to send
a photograph of the boy, for a reason, which I was then unable to understand, that Aunt
Waht should know well, and before she could reply, he cut the conversation short by
giving her one photograph of herself and Miss Wilaireik and telling her that he would take
care of all the others, then he got up and walked inside the house. Aunt Waht did not seem
unduly disturbed by not being able to send the photograph taken of me to Grandfather as
she had intended.
Aunt Wahts attitude neither surprised nor distressed me, because while His Lordship
had been looking at each picture on the stool, I had counted them and was sure that there
were only six, that is three of each and I was never to see them again until two years later,
when I noticed the photograph of Aunt Waht with the girl Wilaireik and that of Aunt Waht
with the boy Jan in twin frames of beautifully carved wood propped up on a shelf in
Grandfathers house in Phijit. Thats where the fourth copy of the picture of Aunt Waht and
me had gone!
I came to learn much later that he had burned the three pictures of me on the very day
he had claimed he would take care of them. Aunt Waht understood his way of thinking
well. The whole episode showed that he did not want any trace of me to be left behind in
my mothers house.
From what I have been telling you up to now, you certainly realise as well as I do that
His Lordship was not my real father. Thats right: he wasnt my father at all. I had been
certain of it in my heart ever since the day of the incident that led to my being confined to
the greenhouse. Even though it was a knowledge which was shaky because it was
something I had figured out on my own, I had enough evidence to be certain. Therefore,
when the ten-year-old girl let out in so many words that he isnt Fathers son, I didnt feel
nonplussed in any way. I only felt like something was screaming inside me: Thats it!
Thats His Lordships confirmation of what Ive been suspecting all along. It was only
from her father that Miss Kaeo could have learned bits and pieces of such a dark secret. To
me, who was the victim and her real nephew, Aunt Waht still refused to reveal anything,
although I kept pestering her about it.
Well, by now, you must be starting to wonder what were the indications I had that
pointed to the certainty that he was not my father. Because he hated, despised and beat me
up so savagely? Not at all. My reasons were much more solid than that: indeed, they had to
do with evil. They revolved around the proof I had that if he hated me so madly, it was not
over the unbearable loss of his wife. He hated me for reasons of his own, that had to do
with his own inner disposition, because if he was my real father and did what he did in
good faith, out of grief over the loss of my mother, he would not have behaved in so
demented a way to me and Aunt Waht.
His odd behaviour towards me, which kept flooding back time and time again through
the gash that the severe shock I suffered on the day of the greenhouse incident had created,
goes back to the time when I was four years old.
How many among you are aware of how old you were when the first event you
remember happened? I believe very few people know for certain how far back their first
remembrance took place, and I am one of those selected few. My first memory goes back to
age four. Oh, if I dare to be so confident, its because I have proof: Miss Kaeos age is the
decisive almanac in this case. Miss Kaeo was about five years younger than Master Jan, so
we can take this as evidence that my first memory goes back to when I was about four
years old. If I can only remember one scene, its because that scene was truly unforgettable,
and even if my memory is vague, like the dream of a man with a fever, I have never been
able to dispel it altogether.

The most noticeable thing in the world of a child of that age is the regular succession of
days and nights. There is day and then there is night. When the world gets dark, the child
soon goes to sleep; when he wakes up, the world is bright as usual. Darkness and then
light, following each other ceaselessly... But then it happens that another, unnatural kind of
light comes and interferes with the normal cycle of darkness and light. That light is yellow
and sort of dirty, and it has a sound like gusts of wind blowing nearby. I am on my back
looking at the dim light and listening, perplexed, to the sound that is like gusts of wind
blowing now fast now slow, and then I realise that in the silence there is an accompanying
sound, so familiar to the ear that I did not perceive it at first, although it might well have
been the first sound I heard. That sound is the hiss of the winding lamp next to the
mosquito net. Then it means the lamp is still lit! Then its not really daytime! Having thus
observed, I further realise that the wind blowing inside the mosquito net is the sound of
breathing... and not just a single sound either, because these breathing sounds are
competing. Who is it? Under the net besides me is only Aunt Waht. I turn towards her and
then I sit up at once.
What on earth is going on?
Two grownups, in the state of children taking a bath, are lying in such a naughty way
that theyd deserve a good thrashing. I have never seen such a scene and never thought Id
ever see it. This obnoxious sight makes me feel feverish and unwell. My real feeling is like
the revulsion at having to witness two grownups playing at urinating on each other and
these two grownups are none other than Aunt Waht and my own father.
Aunt Waht was shocked when she saw me sit up and stare, and she made to stop being
naughty there and then, but my father was unwilling to do the same. Although Aunt Waht
whispered something in a scolding tone, his voice was harsh, the harshest of the two. The
words bandied back and forth I could not understand, only that they were quarrelling, and
eventually Aunt Waht was the loser. She stopped talking and was unable to make him stop
being naughty, even though her body looked stronger than the thin and tall body of my
father. During all this time, he never interrupted his naughty game and never took his eyes
off me. I could see clearly the whites of his eyes in the drab light inside the net. He went on
with it, and stared at me on and on, and even though Aunt Waht raised her hand to cover
her own eyes and face, he did not pay the slightest attention to her. By now I was feeling
sleepy again so I lay down, and after that I could only see the whites of his eyes. It was then
that Aunt Waht stretched her hand and closed my eyes while she whispered with a strange
voice: Sleep now, child. Theres a good boy. Go to sleep.

Aunt Waht becomes pregnant and moves to live with His Lordship in the main compound, leaving
Jan to live with a maid in the servants quarters. Aunt Waht gives birth to a baby girl, Wilaireik,
whom everyone addresses as Miss Kaeo. Spoiled by her father, the girl behaves as rudely and
maliciously to Jan as her father does.
His Lordship has a former wife named Mrs Bunlueang. Several years after the cremation of his late
wifes body, he decides to build a new house in the compound and let Mrs Bunlueang and their son,
Master Khajorn, move in. Mrs Bunlueang is about thirty-five years old, has a fair complexion, a
voluptuous body and plenty of sex appeal. Jan is aroused whenever he sees or thinks of her.
As a motherless child, Jan was brought up on Glaxo milk. Deprived of the warmth of a mothers
bosom, he craves the warmth of female breasts, as his aunt Waht readily understands.
At 15, important events happen in his life. When he goes to study English in the evening, he comes
to know Hyacinth, the beautiful flower of a destitute family in the neighbourhood. They become
friends and soon share true, pure, platonic love.
Meanwhile, Kein Krathingthong, son of a cook at his house, introduces Jan to more tangible
pleasures. Kein and Jan share the same house, which Kein uses for his mating marathons, and with
his help, Jan has his first sexual experience with Saisoi, Miss Kaeos nanny and Keins regular
sexual partner. This trial run leaves him unsatisfied, however, because he is really hankering after
Mrs Bunlueang. He is always looking for ways of entering her house and making her acquaintance.
As both of them like reading, especially English paperbacks, they finally meet in the library room, and
soon strike up a sexual relationship which Jan finds increasingly fulfilling.
Miss Kaeo is well aware of, and strongly resents, her nannys secret relationship with Kein. Before
she can plan her revenge on Kein, Saisoi becomes pregnant. Miss Kaeo gets her father to dismiss her.
Some two years later, she is plotting again: this time, she wants Kein to rape her. Unfortunately, Jan
misunderstands the situation and breaks in to rescue the damsel in distress, whereupon she accuses
him of attempted rape. His Lordship is so furious that he orders Jan out of the house, finally letting
out that Jan is not his son, and adding that he forbids him to use his surname thereafter.
This prompts Aunt Waht to disclose to Jan the circumstances of his birth. She says that, before
getting married with His Lordship, Jans mother had gone to visit her father in Phijit, in Northern
Thailand. Her beauty attracted many men, including Jorm, Aunt Wahts lover. Jorm seized Jans
mother by force, and she became pregnant. Therefore, it was an urgent matter to find someone to save
her reputation: His Lordship agreed to marry her in exchange for ownership of the land and related
Upon learning this, Jan feels relieved not to have anything more to do with His Lordship. Aunt
Waht suggests that he take refuge in Phijit and change his surname to Darra, which derives from his
mothers name. Jan complies.
In Phijit, he lives in seclusion with his maternal grandfather. He works hard in the fields and shuns
all but solitary pleasures. He also tries to identify his real father, but to no avail. Finally, his
grandfather reveals to him that what Aunt Waht told him about his birth is only partly true. The
whole truth is that his mother was abducted by Jorm and two friends of his. Along the way, aroused
by her beauty, the two friends demanded their share of the bride: Jorm refused, they killed him and
raped her. So the question of who Jans real father is remains an enigma.
Jan has been living in Phijit for three years when Aunt Waht arrives with the news that Miss Kaeo is
pregnant. To save her daughters reputation, she asks Jan to marry the girl. Jan says he will do so if
His Lordship agrees to transfer to him the ownership of what was originally his mothers house and
land. History repeats itself. His Lordship has no choice but to comply.
As soon as Jan is back in Bangkok, he hurries to look for Hyacinth, his beloved, but her house is gone
and he learns from neighbours that Hyacinth is dead.
Mrs Bunlueang, who had sworn to him she too would leave His Lordship, is still around, however.
Three years of abstinence on Jans part leads to much passion on their next encounter, and they soon
resume their pleasurable pursuits.
Jan gets Miss Kaeo to confess what he has been suspecting all along: that her child was fathered by
Khajorn, His Lordships son with Mrs Bunlueang. The incestuous relationship, which scares Jan,
explains why His Lordship had no choice in getting even someone like Jan to marry his daughter for
the sake of appearances.
Finally, the wedding day between Jan and Kaeo arrives. While waiting in the library for the
ceremony to proceed, Jan is greatly disturbed by the fact that his mothers photograph in the room is
facing the sofa on which His Lordship usually has his flings with the female staff. Furious at his fake
fathers behaviour, he grabs the first servant who comes in to serve him food and services her,
forgetting all the while that he, too, is performing in front of his mothers picture.
The bridal chamber is at Mrs Bunlueangs house. After the wedding ceremony, even though Jan is
loathe to perform his marital duty, the now-Mrs Kaeo requests to move into Mrs Bunlueangs
bedroom. In time, she delivers a son, whom she forsakes completely. As the child is accursed by her,
Jan names him Pree, short for appree, a synonym for janrai.
His Lordship is getting old and he needs someone to take care of him, so he decides to move to Mrs
Bunlueangs house. Jan, who has to leave his bedroom to him, moves into the main compound. He
puts his mothers photograph in his bedroom and uses the library as his favourite setting for sexual
capers, as His Lordship used to do. Again, history repeats itself.
Pree, the unwelcome by-product of an incestuous affair, is mentally retarded. A court places him in
the custody of Jan Darra. Jans grandfather dies, leaving him a great deal of property. Aunt Waht
goes back home upcountry and becomes a nun.
The Second World War breaks out, and the Allies begin bombing Bangkok. During an air raid, Jan
discovers that his wife, Mrs Kaeo, is having an affair with Mrs Bunlueang, his lover, who is uneasy
about the whole thing. After being found out, Mrs Kaeo asks Jan to keep sleeping with Mrs
Bunlueang. She also asks him not to tell Mrs Bunlueang of her request. Jan will comply, but he
demands that she bears him an heir, whereupon he rapes her. She swears that Jans wish will never
be fulfilled. She will have her way, somehow: the girl she delivers is stillborn.
His Lordship faces his final retribution when he discovers that Jan is having sex with his wife.

In his old age, at a time when his body was degenerating fast, His Lordship was to see with
his own eyes the exact reflection of what he had done to me when I was four years old.
Secure in our tower of lust, Mrs Bunlueang and I had long ceased worrying about his
presence only a few steps away in the next room, as his daily routine at this late time in his
life was circumscribed to a small perimeter. We thus had a safe area to seek pleasure in
each other whenever the fancy took us, in the daytime and at night. That day, we chose the
hour when he was having his midday nap and should have stayed confined in his room.
Instead, he failed to remain within his secure area and, worse than that, lost his way, with
fatal consequences. He opened the door, which we no longer bothered to lock, and entered
Mrs Bunlueangs bedroom, which was then the blissful setting of our deportment as we
were right in the middle of the act.
The spacious bed, which did not have a mosquito net, had its head against the wall
opposite the door His Lordship had opened. The top of the bed was indeed against the
wall, but its soft and bouncy mattress, about one cubit thick, had no longer head or foot, so
fierce was the storm in the initial stage of our wonderful performance that had us thrashing
and twisting and twirling in a hundred and one ways throughout the whole first half, as I
lustily rowed her boat. Right then, I lay in a direction which allowed me to see past the foot
of the bed, so that I was the only one to see him. He opened the door and came in quietly
and after only two steps past the threshold saw clearly what was going on on the rooms
central feature. He stopped abruptly, took another unsteady half step under his previous
momentum, then stood there transfixed. At the very moment I saw someone coming
through the door, I was startled with sudden fright, but not enough to stop what I was
doing because in the same instant I knew who had entered.
My wave- and wind-churning machine went on functioning normally, but from the
moment I caught a glimpse of him its rhythm automatically went on automatic, as my
heart was no longer in what I was doing: it had gone along with my sight of His Lordship
and had taken some of the taste of carnal communion along with it, only to turn into
delight as I became aware of another taste whose novelty was increasingly pleasing with
each pulse beat while our eyes met and held firmly as if caught in a lock.
Honestly, I had never intended, not even in idle thinking, to take my revenge on him in
such a way for whatever grudge I bore. Indeed, I had had many occasions to nurse anger
against him in my heart after I knew for certain that he was not my father, and even more
so as he was in my debt for the various misdeeds he had committed against me. Therefore,
once I knew with absolute certainty from his own words that he was not my real father, I
had firmly resolved that one day I would take my revenge for everything that had
occurred. But much later, when we came to be part of the same family, I stopped thinking
about it, and I even went as far as prostrating myself in front of him to show my
forgiveness, as you may remember. What happened did so by itself and in a way that I
could not have conceived. Therefore, since it had already happened, I took it to mean that it
was our common misfortune and that our fates would keep on being intertwined and
would revive some of the old resentment that I had pushed back as deeply as I could
within myself without been able to eliminate it completely. He had hardly stumbled onto
the gap before it all came out on its own, as I have already said: like a time bomb a time
bomb that some unknown person had set up! Me? No, it wasnt me, because it was only
then that I had become aware of what I was doing, but not quickly enough to think of
stopping it, because I was foolishly busy staring at those white, pulsating eyes, the same
pair of eyes I had watched in the drab light when I was four years old. On that occasion,
there had been the hiss of the winding lamp as accompaniment; this time, there was also an
accompanying sound, but it was the whir of the fan near the bed.
While my whole mood was dissipating, I couldnt help but feel sorry for him for a while
sorry that in the occasion he himself had created there was no one to close his eyes and
shut out the wicked scene he had to watch. He thus had to put up with it all by himself,
and I do not know if he was thinking that his old misdeeds in his present life were catching
up with him. After the very long time, an eon of time in my own perception, that our eyes
craved for each other like that, he finally turned round and awkwardly went through the
door in the same quiet manner as he had come in. When he had disappeared, it was as if
only a mirage remained where I had seen him an instant ago and, without the evidence of
the door left ajar, I probably would have sworn that my eyes had deceived me, because
how many people in this world would have their revenge in such a complete and suitable

Completely flabbergasted, His Lordship falls and becomes totally paralysed. Jan goes on romping
away with Mrs Bunlueang until she feels too old to keep up. Mrs Kaeo goes on upholding the family
tradition with sundry female servants in the house. Finally, Jan faces his own retribution: he becomes
impotent at the age of 38. There is a Buddhist moral somewhere in this tale.

Indeed there is, as the very first page evokes in rambling fashion death, spontaneous
rebirths and the world of ghosts the story does take some getting into to harness this
rousing tribute to sex on the back of Buddhist religion. The immoral capers of this spicy
tale offer a triple moral message: that all things are transient, that good begets good
whereas evil begets evil, and that excesses are pernicious. Even though at least one critic

considers The story of Jan Darra as a religious book, the merits of this novel to a non-
Buddhist reader are definitely elsewhere: in its language, in its construction and in the
treatment of sex scenes, which are as spicy and diverse as a fertile imagination could come
up with in the 1960s. With the exception of the lesbian affairs, the sexual prowesses
recorded here, though amoral, are not against nature, as our grandparents used to say,
and neither are they assisted by any of the contraptions a more materialistic civilisation has
brought to the mass market since then. Sex in those days was healthy, clean fun, though it
had to be kept out of sight and out of hearing (actually, an impossible task in the crowded
wooden houses making up an aristocratic palace).
The author is never crass in his description of sexual acts. He wraps up the hottest
scenes in cool words and borrows freely from the imagery of elemental forces, as did the
erotically inclined poets of Thai classical literature.
This old-fashioned saucy modesty is enhanced by the phrasing, which is sensuous and
convoluted and offers a rare combination of ancient words and mannered expressions with
a slangy discursive tone. Utsanas sentences twist and turn into unexpected directions.
Most chapters also progress in loops: after early hints are dropped, seemingly interminable
digressions keep you turning the pages until the author finally comes to the point, which is
usually a sexual performance. These digressions proceed from constant soul-searching,
which gives the narrator depth as a very sensitive and wary person used to decipher the
real intentions of himself and of the others, the double-entendre, the discourse behind the
discourse and in this, the author proves to be thoroughly modern.
The story as a whole is structured as a mirror in which the two main male protagonists,
Jan Darra and His Lordship, appear as each others shadow and nemesis, a generation
apart. His Lordship is hired to marry Jan Darras mother as Jan Darra is hired to marry
His Lordships daughter in both cases to keep up appearances. The second marriage can-
cels the first: Jan Darra recovers the ownership of his mothers house and takes complete
revenge on His Lordship, down to having him witness his lovemaking with one of his
wives as he was made to witness His Lordships performance with Aunt Waht at the age of
four. But Jan Darra is very much a creation of His Lordship, whose sexual pursuits set the
tone for the behaviour of all in the compound, including Jan Darras, and whose hatred for
him nurtures in the young man a thirst for revenge which can only express itself through
sexual competition. Sex is thus the theatre for domination and revenge, in the microcosm of
the palace compound, not just for His Lordship and Jan Darra but also for Miss Kaeo, who
becomes pregnant to spite her father through his son Khajorn. To Aunt Waht and Mrs
Bunlueang, sex is a way to safeguard their social standing as well as a demanding physical
need in the case of Mrs Bunlueang. The emphasis put on sexual activities also proceeds
from the fact that neither His Lordship nor Jan Darra have to work for a living (when Jan

Khomnai Tunlajitti, Ruen Jarung Klin Tham Nai Huen Khao Haeng Karma, The enticing scent of virtue
within the fishy smell of sexual craving, in Thanon Nangsue, March 1987
does work for a living upcountry, his sex life becomes a discreet one-man show). One could
even venture that the aristocratic microcosm presented here is an allegory of Thailand, with
the commoner Jan Darra triumphing over the degenerate aristocrat, but the gist of the story
and the final punishment of both male protagonists does not back up such a view.
His Lordships sexual powers start declining in his forties and by his sixties he is a spent
force. Jan Darra becomes impotent at 38 an improbable happening which can be explain-
ed away in various ways: it reinforces the mirror effect by making Jan Darras condition
similar to that of His Lordship; it hammers home the point that excesses lead to evil results
and that one has to pay for ones bad deeds; or, perhaps more satisfactorily, it is merely a
dramatic outcome of the end of love. Indeed, one important theme of the story is the
relationship between love and sex. Jan Darra starts as an adolescent separating pure,
sexless love (with Hyacinth) from loveless sex (with any other females); later on, however,
he has a wholesome, mature relationship with Mrs Bunlueang (his mothers substitute) in
which love and sex reinforce each other to the utmost satisfaction of both partners. When
Mrs Bunlueang becomes too old to service him and leaves, Jans desire dies in the absence
of love and he is left to seek intellectual pleasure in remembering his past.
Bunluea Theipphayasuwan

As a novelist, Bunluea, a lifelong teacher, was a late bloomer. She was reaching the half-
century mark when her first novel was being serialised in a magazine in 1961, and her best-
known novel, Thutiyawiseit, came out when she was 57.
Bunluea is the pen name of Morm Luang Bunluea [ML Bunlua] Theipphayasuwan,
born Bunluea Kunchorn. Like her older half-sister Dorkmai Sot, the pioneer woman nov-
elist of Thailand, she was a daughter of Duke Theiweit Wongwiwat (Prince Larn
Kunchorn), a wealthy aristocrat, administrator, businessman and bon vivant who was
more notorious for his forty wives, dramatic-art sponsoring and business successes than for
his official work.
When I was born, my father was 59 and had nine resident wives, Bunluea writes in
her 1973 autobiography, Successes and failures (Khwarmsamreit Lae Khwarmlomleo). For all
that, she adds, my life as a child was influenced by men more than by women, as she lost
her mother, Morm Nuan, when she was only 4 and her father took particular interest in her
She was born on 13 December 1911 at Barn Khlongtoei, her parents second residence,
on Luang Sunthorn Road in what is now a slum area. Like her more notorious half-sister,
she received her primary education at St-Joseph Convent School on Seelom Road. She then
went to a Catholic secondary school in Penang in what was then Malaya. Back in Siam, she
entered the Faculty of Letters of Jularlongkorn University. She received her BA in 1936 and
her teachers training certificate the following year, then went for further studies in the US,
where she earned a masters in education at the University of Minnesota. During her
teachers training studies, this young woman of plain looks but sharp wit caught the
attention of a medicine student, Chom Theipphayasuwan, who became her husband after
the war. Dr Chom survived his wife when she died on 7 June 1982.
Bunluea was a teacher all her life. She started at St-Mary School, then entered the civil
service to teach English at Triam Udom Sueksa, where she ended as deputy director before
becoming deputy principal of the Teachers Training College in Bangsaen, a fashionable
seaside resort in those days. By the time she retired in 1971, she was dean of
Jularlongkorns Faculty of Letters. Even after her retirement, she went on teaching literary
criticism at Julas Faculty of Education and wrote manuals for secondary-school students
under a programme to develop the Thai language. She also represented Thailand in

s English language development programme.

From an early age, Bunluea had been in contact with artistic and literary circles. Her
father, in cooperation with Prince Narisara (Krom Phraya Narisararnuwattiwong), created
the troupe of ancient theatre (lakhorn duekdamban) of the Barn Mor palace, which proved to
be a cornucopia of spouses and mistresses for him.

SEAMEO or South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisationis the coordinating body of the
education ministries of eight countries of Southeast Asia.
Bunluea started by writing mainly for the theatre. After 1957, she tried her hand at
writing short stories and novels as well as translations from the English. She first published
a collection of short stories, Chark Nueng Nai Cheewit, and a translation of Walter Scotts
Talisman. Between 1961 and 1971 followed four novels: The white daughter-in-law (Saphai
Maem), first serialised in Satreesarn magazine; Thutiyawiseit, her best novel; Falling on hard
times is nothing [compared to falling in love] (Tok Lum Tok Rong Laeo Dai Dai Kor Dee), and
A fast, compulsive reader with a sharp memory, Bunluea read Thai and foreign authors
extensively and indiscriminately. Her literary essays reflect her eclectic culture and con-
servative tastes. She had few kind words for the early novels of her sister Dorkmai Sot,
found Khuekrit Prarmoats Four reigns not so good as a novel and had no time for such
major progressive novelists as Seeboorapha and Seinee Saowaphong (He knows
nothing, he doesnt know what real aristocrats and their children are like.

). As a writer,
Bunluea liked to experiment with styles. The common denominator of her writing is its
pedagogical leaning. Fastidious to a fault, the teacher turned novelist makes sure that her
readers understand precisely what she means, and if her prose is as limpid and at times
gently satirical as that of her sister can be convoluted, old-fashioned and churchy, modern
readers may grow impatient with the dross of details that too often slows down the pace of
her novels.
As a princess and a civil servant, Bunluea straddled two worlds: the old aristocratic
order into which she was born, and the modern world that we know. The background of
each of her novels is a period of changes in Thai society, and the conflicts these changes
generate are seen from the point of view of a woman who is faced with difficult choices.
That woman, by birth or by chance, belongs to both worlds none more truly so than Lady
Cha-orn, the heroine of Thutiyawiseit. (Thutiyawiseit is part of the name of the royal distinc-
tion granted a Khunying or Dame when she is elevated to Tharn Phooying or Lady rank.)
The novel centres on the conflicts arising after the 1932 revolution between the old
aristocracy and the new power holders, and Bunlueas pen is sharp and cuts close to the
bone: indeed, many read the novel as a fictional version of the life (minus the years in
power) of Field Marshal Plaek Phiboonsongkhrarm, who held supreme executive power in
Thailand before and after the Second World War. Some of the traits of his successor, Field
Marshal Sarit Thanarat, are also noticeable. Bunluea revealed the main point of the novel
during an interview with Loak Nangsue one year before she died: the 1932 revolution, she
said, only changed the people who administer the country ... the values did not change at
all; they are still pandering to the people in power.

Referring to Seinee Saowaphongs Ghosts, in an interview published in Loak Nangsue, IV, 9, June 1981
Thuthiyawiseit (Thuthiyawiseit) 1968

Cha-orn Sinlapacharn Waruttamapharp or, as of three hours ago, Lady Cha-orn
Withoontheipphasart, took the necklace out of the crimson velvet box with her right hand
and spread it across her left palm...

Cha-orn has just been granted the royal distinction that entitles her to the rank of Lady (Tharn
Phooying) in recognition of the influence of her husband, General Withoon, a military and political
leader whose power is second only to that of his otherwise unnamed Big Boss. To celebrate the
auspicious occasion, Gen Withoon gives his wife a priceless ruby necklace which once belonged to a
member of the royal family. During these exalted hours, as she prepares for and breezes through a
party in her honour, and everybody, including her husband, praises her beauty, Cha-orn recalls the
days of long ago when she first met Withoon, then a young, dashing first lieutenant.
Born in Phetburee, Cha-orn is the eldest daughter of a royal musician and master of a Thai musical
ensemble well-known throughout the province. She has a younger brother, Cheur, and a younger
sister, Cha-eim. Unlike most girls at the time, Cha-orn has the opportunity to study at a missionary
school and receives a comparatively high education. After five years of secondary school, she becomes
a teacher at the same school. Apart from her father and mother, she also receives love and kindness
from a grand old lady who has a house nearby. This lady, whom Cha-orn calls Her Highness, has
three granddaughters living with her: Paeo, Taeo and Jaeo. Of the three, Jaeo, who is good-tempered,
optimistic and self-confident, is Cha-orns close friend. During the school vacation, Cha-orn likes
nothing better than to visit Her Highness and chat with her friend Jaeo.
One night, at home, she dreams of a snake crawling past her bed, an omen the Thai interpret to mean
she will soon find a lover. The very next day, two young military officers, Kreurn and Withoon, come
to visit her father on some errand and see her swimming in the river. For the young Withoon, it is
love at first sight. He writes her a love letter entrusted to Cheur, Cha-orns brother. Although Cheur
does not particularly like Withoon, he accepts to be the couples go-between. Afraid that her mother
may find out her secret, Cha-orn writes a reply from school, telling Withoon that she accepts his love.
Finally, Withoon visits her parents and asks for Cha-orns hand. They decide to ask for Her
Highnesss advice.
At first, Her Highness is hostile to the idea; she argues that Cha-orn is too young and should devote
her time to further her education. But when she realises that Cha-orn is in love with Withoon, she
The wedding takes place six months later. A few days before the ceremony, Cha-orn goes to Bangkok,
accompanied by Kreurn and Withoon, to buy fabric for the wedding dress and other accessories. In
Bangkok, she stays at Jaeos fathers house and Jaeo helps her shop around and gives her an idea for
the design of her wedding dress. At this house, Withoon and Cha-orn meet Jaeos cousin, named On,
a government official at the Ministry of the Interior who will play an unexpected role in Withoon
and Cha-orns life.
After the marriage, Cha-orn lives with Withoon at the military quarters in Phetburee. While she is
expecting her first child, the 1932 change from absolute to constitutional monarchy takes place in
Bangkok, fortunately without any violence. Cha-orn gives birth to a daughter, nicknamed Chorloh
(blandish) at Jaeos suggestion. Then, she moves to Nakhorn Rarchaseema (better known as Kho-
rart) with her husband. She is pregnant again the following year when the Borworndeit rebellion a
failed attempt to reinstate the monarchs full powers happens. All soldiers in the corps are put on
active duty. Withoon is the only officer in the Kho-rart military corps to side with the government, a
clever move which will ensure his swift promotion. He is assigned to Ayutthaya, and it is there that
Cha-orn gives birth to a son, Chairit (mighty victory), nicknamed Klong. Shortly after, Her
Highness dies.
Cha-orns brother, Cheur, who has gone through the full eight years of secondary education, changes
his mind and drops out of military school to study medicine in Bangkok.
One day, as Cha-orn returns home after a visit to her friend Jaeo, she overhears her husband
whispering with some friends. It seems they are planning some big move. Shortly afterward comes
the news that a plot against the life of an important figure in the government has been uncovered and
the mastermind arrested. The alleged mastermind is one of Withoons friends in the group that she
overheard that day.
Coincidentally or not, Withoon chooses to go and further his military education abroad. During his
two-year study in Germany, Cha-orn returns to live with her parents in Phetburee, and she spends
her spare time improving her English.
On his return, Withoon is assigned to Ubon Rarchatharnee, in the Northeast. Thailand is then at
loggerheads with France over boundaries with Cambodia and Laos. Joining a fighting unit, Withoon
behaves bravely and when the conflict is over is promoted to lieutenant colonel. Cha-orn gives birth
to her third child, a son, named Chaipheiree (drum of victory) at Kreurns suggestion.
After the promotion, Cha-orn notices that her husband has begun to change, and that almost
everyone in the military corps is wont to flatter her. She has lost track of Jaeo, who is said to be
teaching in Nakhorn Sawan: it will be many years before the two friends meet again.
Withoon moves to Lampang in the North to a higher position. Major Thara, his assistant and deputy
since the conflict with France over the Cambodian and Lao boundaries, soon joins him in Lampang,
at his request. Withoon offers Cha-orn an expensive piece of jewellery, but is unwilling to tell her
how he came by it. He makes it clear that he is not happy to be asked about such petty details.
Withoon is in Lampang when Thailand, siding with Japan, Germany and Italy, declares war on the
Allies. He tells Cha-orn that he has some special task to attend to in Bangkok and before he goes, asks
her to take a certain amount of money to a Mr Ko (Ko-wit), a shady businessman, so that Mr Ko can
make an investment for him. Despite her misgivings, Cha-orn does so without asking any question.
She is still in Lampang when she gives birth to a daughter, Cheurnsawat, nicknamed Little Poh.
After the war, Withoon is sent to Lopburee, then transferred to Bangkok, where he takes part in a
coup dtat which puts his Big Boss into power. Colonel Withoon is the talk of the town. After one
year, he becomes the official number two, addressed as His Excellency, and wields increasing
This social rise makes Cha-orn increasingly busy, as most of her life is devoted to social functions.
Her daughter Chorloh acts as her personal secretary and handles her appointments. Cha-orn hankers
for more free time and constant flattery bores her and makes her uneasy. She feels the need for some
reliable friends and thus begins to think of Jaeo and Kreurn, whom she has not met for a long time.
Jaeo is no longer a teacher. She has come back to take care of her ailing father, who dies leaving her
two buildings. She decides to open a restaurant. Out of shyness, although she caters for the party
celebrating Cha-orns ladyship, she does not meet her old friend but does meet Kreurn, who is both a
distant relative and her former fianc: Kreurn broke the engagement because he disapproved of
marriage between relatives. He later married Urai, who gave him two sons. As they havent met in
years, Kreurn and Jaeo spend hours catching up on their respective life histories.
Among other titbits, Jaeo tells Kreurn the story of her cousin On. On was accused of embezzlement
an embezzlement actually carried out for Withoon, as the rumour has it. Though the legal case is
dropped thanks to Withoons influence, On has had to leave the civil service. Jaeo also tells Kreurn
that Chairit (Cha-orn and Withoons third son) is rumoured to be having an affair with Chertchan,
who is married to a man named Worrachart. Worracharts father is another civil servant who has
lost his job because of Withoon: Gen Withoon has no love lost for aristocrats in general, and
through what turns out to be misguided personal reasons for Worracharts father in particular.
One night, Kreurn comes to Jaeos restaurant and tells her that he wants to take refuge there because
too many people On among them are asking him to kill Withoon!
A few evenings later, Kreurn pays a visit to Cha-orn at her request, because his son, Krai, who has
won a scholarship to study abroad, is Chorlohs friend (and lover, as will be learned later). After
dinner, at nine oclock, he leaves and Cha-orn goes to bed. Within hours, in the dead of night, Kreurn
is at Jaeos restaurant again to ask her to help him find a telephone to call Withoon.

On the same evening as Kreurn paid a visit to his relative and former fiance, who had
received him as an old friend, Lady Cha-orn woke up late at night. Her thoughts went back
to the reception of her guest in the early evening. She thought of her sons and daughters,
and first of all of Klong, whom she longed to see back and close to her. Rit had not shown
in any way if he was happy to meet Uncle Kreurn, but he had made the commendable
effort to receive him with the appropriate courtesy. As for Chorloh, she had been really
glad to see him and had displayed the same closeness as when she was a child. Kreurn
himself, however, had spoken in a way which, without being bashful, sounded oddly
distant as he used the excessively polite words phom (I) and tharn (Your Ladyship) when
talking to her, so much so that Cha-orn could not bear it and waited for an opportunity to
have a private word with him. As they moved to the dinner table, they were briefly alone
and she remonstrated in an earnest whisper: If you keep talking to me like this, Ill have to
think that you are no longer the real friend you used to be but some stranger playing a
role. Kreurn chuckled and looked at her with an expression which was hard to describe.
The amusement and tenderness that showed in his eyes were mixed with a touch of
sadness, the same as she had noticed that one time, long ago. From then on, he dropped
Your Ladyship but went on using phom when he had to refer to himself, yet he
expressed himself in a witty and lively manner, especially every time he spoke of his wife,
telling with glee how she did not understand what social formalities were all about and
how she was afraid of no one in disregarding standards established by society at large. On
the whole, he could be considered as an old friend. Even though he was no longer the same
as in the old days, he still made her feel reassured, as she felt like she had a real friend who,
she had no doubt about it, would not turn his back on her if her husbands good fortune
ran out or some crisis occurred. And when only the three of them, Cha-orn, Cheur and
Kreurn, remained, the conversation was almost like when he was still a captain, she was
still Mrs Cha-orn in the military corps in Phetburee and Cheur was still Young Cheur.
Cha-orn went on thinking a little more about the past. She thought about her husband,
when he was beginning to have power and everybody began to keep a respectful distance
from him, as proper manners dictated, and from her as well, heaping praises on her as his
wife. Cha-orn tried to recall whether he had shown any satisfaction at such a development.
It looked as though he had responded well to it. His proud demeanour and matching good
looks made him worthy of other peoples respectful dread instead of making him look bad.
His friends of the same rank had long been in awe of him, and as soon as he was in a
position of command, they no longer had to hide that feeling and could display it openly,
and both her husband and his friends felt better when he had reached such an exalted
position. Lieutenant General Thara, who had been his assistant and deputy since the
litigation about Indochina and had seconded him in the military coup, had told Cha-orn:
His Excellency is a man to whom power comes naturally. Hes a born leader who doesnt
even have to try, as people want him to lead them. The higher he is, the more secure we
feel. Her husband trusted Lt Gen Thara almost as much as he trusted himself. On one
occasion, he had told her: Thara is one of the few clever men left. Hes seldom wrong in
his assessment of people and hes fully aware of who should lead and who should follow.
Cha-orn had invited Kreurn to dinner today because she wanted to see how these two
erstwhile friends, her husband and her dear Kreurn, would behave towards each other, but
she was to be disappointed. Around five oclock, her husband had called and said: Little
sister, (that was how he called her when he wanted to please her, but she had stopped
calling him elder brother several years ago) youll have to excuse me: I cant be back
home on time. I really must go out of town right now on some important business. Tell
Kreurn Im sorry and I miss him also. He had hung up as soon as he had finished
speaking, as he did every time he called to say he would not be back, thus depriving her of
the opportunity to ask anything else. Cha-orn understood his purpose, so she refrained
from asking trifling questions, as Chorloh had observed and praised her for the other day.
From the moment he had started to be influential, he had been in the habit of not coming
back home as early as he used to. She had never shown him any lack of trust. Long before
he became powerful, Cha-orn had heard that all men in high positions were unfaithful to
their wives. They proved their own success in life to themselves by having minor wives, as
had powerful aristocrats in the old days, but with some practical differences, such as not
taking them to live in the same house as the main wife. From what she had been able to see,
Cha-orn knew that a wifes jealousy was a boon to no one. A perfect example of this even
now was Dame Suraphon. When her husbands friends spoke of this unfortunate lady,
they did so with a mixture of amusement and compassion, and every time His Excellency
Withoons male friends spoke together or the wives of His Excellency Withoons
lieutenants joined in the conversation, as soon as someone would mention Dame
Suraphon, all eyes would turn to watch Cha-orns reactions. Cha-orn did her utmost not to
betray her feelings to anyone, and she shut herself off not just to the question of whether
her husband was unfaithful but to other stories as well. For example, when her husband
offered her an expensive piece of jewellery, she would not ask him where he had found the
funds for it. Sometimes he volunteered that it was the accrued yearly interests paid by Mr
Ko or by whoever he said he had jointly invested with. Sometimes he asked her to take a
certain amount of money to some businessman or other for investment purposes, which
she did, and there were also the banks that informed her that His Excellency had bought
shares in this or that company in her name and had instructed that the interest or dividend
be sent to her. Cha-orn did not question anything because she knew it would be pointless.
In the first years of her married life, before he became as powerful as he now was,
whenever she had asked about such matters, he had always stopped her by saying, Dont
ask silly questions, youll only complicate things for nothing, or Does it mean you dont
want it then? His tone and the look in his eyes intimidated her and she did not dare ask
silly questions again.
Cha-orn came to feel sharply tonight that, by rebuking her like this, he had intentionally
distanced his personal life from hers. This deliberate estrangement had progressively
filtered into her own heart to the point that the watchful eyes of the wives of military
officers and high civil servants she socialised with and the questions that escaped from
some peoples mouths on matters relating to her married life no longer disturbed her very
much, like someone caring for a sick, long-beloved person gets used to the notion that that
person is about to die despite all treatments. It was not a painful feeling, merely the absence
of the deep, refreshing elation she had felt when she first married, when she was First
Lieutenant Withoons lovely young spouse, who had Kreurn as close friend and Her
Highness as protector.
When Kreurn talked about his wife as if she were an innocent child, it sounded like he
felt kindness for her but no respect. Did men really like wives like this? He liked her not to
argue in any way, just like he liked the men under his command not to argue, except those
whom he acknowledged as truly wise. She had heard Lt Gen Thara arguing with her
husband often, but their discussions soon stopped because her husband had better
arguments every time. Men cant be bothered to argue with their wives as they tend to win
hand over fist and feel it is a waste of time to argue, at least men with wives like Cha-orn or
Kreurns Dear Urai, or was it all men? Kreurn wouldnt marry Miss Jaeo because he
could not do with her as he was doing with his wife; he would not be in a position to pity
her. Miss Jaeo had made wry faces at him, Cha-orn had seen it with her own eyes. Why
had she let so many years go by without seeing her? What was she so busy with? Why
hadnt she asked about Cheur before? She had no time: what did she use it for, then?
Thinking about Kreurn again, it looked as though he was more dignified than when he
was a young man. His looks had not been striking. But then, Krai, Chorlohs friend, was
like his father, yet he had something more arresting than his father at the same age, or was
it just that Cha-orn was expecting him to be like that? It looked like Chorloh liked Krai.
Could it be that she liked him more than Nonthee, Lord Wichainarwins handsome heir?
And what about Kreurn? Was he really very poor? The other day, Chorloh had eagerly
asked what her father would say if she married a man who was dirt poor? And what
would Kreun say? Would he be happy because his son would marry His Excellency Wi-
thoons daughter or because he would get the daughter of Cha-orn and Withoon, his old
friends? Was Krai already in love with Chorloh? They had known each other for only a few
days before he had to leave and, ah! why had Kreurn not stayed longer than he had?
Around 9 pm, he had remarked it was late and had taken his leave. As for Cha-orn, she
had felt more sleepy than usual, as if her pleasure in meeting Kreurn had made her tired, or
maybe she was already tired from the string of receptions she had attended but not enjoyed
in the past few days.
And how come her eyes were now wide open and she felt like getting out of bed? Oh!
The moonlight flooded in through the windows. We are not really at the top yet, she
thought: if we were, there would be a switch within reach to close the curtains
automatically and shut off the moonlight. Instead, she would have to get out of bed. If she
didnt she would probably not sleep and anyway she wanted to get up, because the sky
looked so inviting.
Cha-orn got out of bed, went to the window and peered out and looked at the rays of
the waning moon bathing the whole garden area and the yard where Chorlohs friends had
played a few weeks ago. She felt like having a good look at the garden under the
moonlight, so she walked to the central room, that is the room in front of the staircase. It
had a small balcony which jutted out and faced the orchard. Cha-orn unlocked its glass
door, stepped out onto the balcony and looked up at the sky, which offered a breathtaking
sight. Shepherded by the wind, fluffy white and silvery clouds floated in formation, now
hiding the moon, now drifting past it and letting it light up again the far recesses of the
garden. She saw the foamy spray of the fountain, which the servants had forgotten to turn
off, raising high into the clear air and smelled the rich scents of the flowers carried by a soft
breeze. Hard as she tried, she could not remember which day of the waning moon this was
and so could not guess the time. She had changed so much: when she used to stay with her
mother in Phetburee, she had always known which day of the waxing or waning period it
She had seen beautiful things in her life, Cha-orn mused as she looked at the moon and
the sky and the fountain and the well-groomed groves, but all of this could not compete
with the water pond under the Indian-ink tree, especially on the day Second Lieutenant
Withoon and First Lieutenant Kreurn had come visiting. That day had entered her memory
never to leave it again, but then, when beauty is there to be admired, who would want to
admire it alone? Her husband seldom had any time to share with her to admire things of
beauty, tonight as any other night and for so long that she had gotten used to it.
Was that the sound of a car? Could it be really coming to the house? From the balcony
where she stood, she was unable to see the cars headlights or the car itself, but there was
the sound of the back door being opened. Oh! He was back! He was back at the very
moment Cha-orn was thinking about him. She wished he would stand here with his arms
around her staring at the late-night moon, just the two of them, all power forgotten, all
urgent official business dismissed, all meetings left behind. He was coming back right
when she was calling for him to come and share her happiness.
She heard the door of the reception room under the balcony where she stood being
opened. It must be him coming back, as there had been no reaction from the guards at the
door: who else would the guards allow to enter at such a late hour? But why had he
opened the door giving onto the garden? Maybe he, too, wanted to admire the moon? With
growing excitement, Cha-orn peered out and was about to call out to let him know that she
was waiting for him when she noticed the shadows of two people. She moved as close as
she could to the door frame. Who was with him? Just then, she heard the resounding laugh
of a woman. From it, Cha-orn drew the mental picture of a tall woman with fair teeth and a
knowing face. Then she heard her husband speak.
What dyou say? Now that you see it, what dyou think?
The woman answered in English, but her accent was Asian, not Caucasian. Its so
beautiful. Incredibly beautiful.
Cha-orns husband said in a mixture of Thai and English: Whats incredible?
I never thought there would be such a beautiful garden in the house of the most
powerful general in Bangkok.
Meaning that that general has no taste, right? Cha-orns husband parried, but his tone
was playful.
Dont interpret things in a negative way, she said in English, with a few Thai words.
Ive invited you home often and youve refused every time. I wonder what you are
afraid of.
For Heavens sake, how could I come? How could I look your wife in the eye? Shes
done nothing wrong at all.
You still havent changed, have you, princess? Thats the old way of thinking, or rather,
half old, half new. The princes have always had so many wives: it didnt follow that their
first one was to blame.
You cant make this kind of comparison, Mr Withoon, the woman said. She spoke is a
very low voice, but from where she stood Cha-orn heard every word clearly, either because
each had the kind of voice that carries or because they pronounced each word distinctly.
Each sounded self-assured. The woman that General Withoon had called a princess went
on saying: You like to win, so you ordered me to leave my own land and come to you. I
like men like you, so here I am.
The two fell in step and walked out into the moonlight. Cha-orn did not dare move to
the edge of the balcony to have a look at them, so she could not see them clearly, but she
heard the woman ask: Are you sure your wife is asleep?
Theres no lights on. She must be. Its as you said: shes done nothing wrong, so shes
sleeping the sleep of the just.
They started to walk back and forth near the building, arm in arm. So what dyou say?
Have you seen enough of the house of the man you love?
You dont have a house: this is your wifes house, she said.
This only shows how little you know. My wife doesnt feel this is her house at all. She
keeps calling it the official house, and so does her brother. Its their way of reminding
General Withoon that one day he might go the way of all those politicians, but people like
me are hard to get rid of, dont you think?
I love you just as you are, she answered. But anyway, I feel we are risking too much.
Risking what? Withoon asked.
We are gambling with your wifes happiness. Thai women these days have that half-
old, half-new way of thinking you mentioned. They feel terribly hurt when their husband
is unfaithful. They arent like in my mothers days and they arent like people like us, they
arent like me. I know you have many other lovers, but I love you and I dont care for
anything else.
If only all wives were women like you, we men sure would be much better off,
Withoon said.
Withoons lover pulled him under the balcony where Cha-orn stood. Cha-orn could no
longer see them but she still heard them clearly. If men had wives like me, theyd have no
fun, especially men who like to win over the odds, men like you.
Withoon answered but Cha-orn did not hear what he said. Her husband and the woman
who loved-him-just-as-he-was went out of sight and out of earshot and after a while she
heard the cars engine being started and saw the car speeding away. It seemed that this
time the guards presented arms, but she wasnt sure. She stood for several seconds on the
balcony with her legs trembling, unable to move, but finally forced herself to return to bed,
where she lay shaking for several minutes. She went through all the exercises of self-
discipline she had been taught or had learned by herself until she felt some relief and, like
someone who had seen a ghost and realised it was not dangerous, she finally dozed off.
There was a very light knock on the door, but Lady Cha-orn heard it, and she woke up
with her heart beating wildly as if she were about to faint. She forced herself to ask: Who
is it? What do you want?
Your Ladyship, its me, Phongphan, came the whispered answer from outside, the
man speaking close to the door. Commander Thara wants to see Your Ladyship.
Cha-orn got out of bed, took the bolt off the door, opened the door and went out to meet
that military guard on duty at the house, only to see Lt Gen Thara, who was Gen Withoons
second in almost all military duties, standing not far from the door.
Whats the matter, Mr Thara? she asked, trying to keep her voice firm, but she was
shivering with cold, although she usually liked cold more than anybody else.
I must see His Excellency immediately. Does Your Ladyship know where I can find
him? Lt Gen Thara asked.
Do you know the house of that woman who is a princess? Not a Thai princess, but
from some other land, Lao or Shan.
Thara scratched his head and looked at Cha-orn in a puzzled way.
Why? Dont you men know this sort of thing? The woman likes to speak English, Cha-
orn said, forcing herself to talk normally, though her legs were shaking so much that she
was afraid of collapsing there and then.
Does Your Ladyship know where that house is? Lt Gen Thara asked.
I dont, and if you dont either, then ask some friends of yours: theres bound to be
someone who does know.
Theres no time for that. Ill take my chances. But how do you know His Excellency will
be there? If I dont find him there, where should I go looking for him? Thara asked again.
I am fairly certain that my husband is over there tonight, Cha-orn answered with
confidence. Go now. I wont ask what is happening.
Theres no need to worry just now: if I can reach him, I guess everything will be all
right, Lt Gen Thara told Cha-orn, then he turned his back and hurriedly walked down the
Cha-orn went back to bed. She wondered whether her children knew anything and
were worried. Eh? What time did Rit come home last night? Was he asleep? Cha-orn
recited prayers and asked the Triple Gem and all of the sacred deities to protect and guide
her children and her husband. O sacred beings, I have done nothing wrong in this life, but
my husband, ah, he must have done some bad things. Please, sacred beings, may our merit
be taken into account. Or is it some misdeeds from a former life? Eh? How come I cant put
my thoughts together tonight?
Because of the bright moonlight, Cha-orn could not guess whether it was still the middle
of the night or close to dawn. After a while, she saw the headlights of two cars coming on
the small road at the back of the garden. All cars coming to the residence of His Excellency
Withoon had to stop for the guards to check who was entering the house, even in the
daytime. Cha-orn heard the cars slowing down, and in the same second saw the headlights
of a third car coming up and in that same split second heard several gun shots, which were
not very noisy considering the quiet of the night. Cha-orn jumped out of bed and ran out of
the room and down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, she saw two military guards
struggling with a man. There were streaks of blood on the marbled expanse in front of the
building and Captain Phongphan and another guard were helping each other carry the
inanimate body of a man into the reception room, where they laid it down on a bench.
When had Chorloh come down to stand beside her, Cha-orn did not know, but she heard
Phongphan tell her daughter: I think its not serious. Mr Chians already called a doctor.
Chorloh rushed to the body so that Cha-orn knew intuitively or maybe someone said so
that it was Rit who had been shot. During the commotion, the man the guards were
struggling with escaped and ran to Rits body in the reception room, and he shouted: You
aint dead yet? Thats good. Then listen to this: it wasnt enough for your fucking father to
persecute my father, you had to kick me in the teeth as well. Well, if I let you live, I am not
a man. This said, he collapsed and lay outstretched on the carpet that covered most of the
floor of the reception room.
Cha-orn and Chorloh ran to the bodies of the two men, now both unconscious.
Recognising the man who had just collapsed, Chorloh exclaimed: Worrachart!
Someone call a doctor, Her Ladyship ordered absent-mindedly, but before anyone
moved, she came to her senses: You there, get clean towels to mop up their blood first;
there are plenty in the cupboard under the stairs.
Someone went to fetch the towels, Cha-orn handed one to Chorloh and the two of them
hastened to stanch the blood that was pouring out of the two men, Cha-orn ministering to
her son, and Chorloh taking care of Worrachart. Captain Phongphan too came to his senses
and went to get a big container full of ice. Everybody started to help with first aid. Cha-orn
felt that one hundred years had gone by by the time she heard the siren of an ambulance. It
was a military ambulance, which had come to pick up Rit first. Worrachart would have to
wait for the ambulance from the police hospital. Cha-orn had time to see only half of
Worracharts face; she did not know how he was, and at that time felt nothing about him.
Chorloh had some knowledge of first aid from her training as a Red Cross volunteer.
After wiping Worracharts blood for a while, she turned to her mother and said: Looks
like hes no longer breathing, Mother. Cha-orn stood transfixed in front of the bench
where she had stretched the body of her son a moment ago, and it took her a long time to
think what they should do next. Finally, she told her daughter: Lets get dressed and visit
Rit at the hospital.
Chorloh left Worrachart to help her mother up the stairs leading to the dressing room,
followed by a servant, who helped take clothes out of the wardrobe. Cha-orn washed her
face and combed her hair perfunctorily. She was almost finished dressing when she heard
a car reach the house. She did not pay attention to it as she thought it was the ambulance
from the police hospital. But within the same minute her husband entered the room and
went straight to the wall safe hidden behind the picture of a beautiful woman. He opened
the safe in a hurry, without paying any attention to his wife, picked up what he needed,
closed the safe, put the picture back in place and went into the bathroom.
The telephone on the headboard between Cha-orns bed and her husbands bed rang.
Cha-orn started. This was a special line whose number few people had. The servant had
left the room for some reason of her own. Cha-orn hastened to close and bolt the door,
picked up the receiver and said: Who is this?
Cha-orn, Kreurn here. You remember my voice, dont you? Kreurn.
Yes, yes I do, Cha-orn answered. Her heart began to beat wildly as if it would never
relent until it stopped forever.
Is Withoon there? asked the voice.
Hes in the bathroom, Cha-orn answered.
Tell him not to even think of fighting back but to get away first. Do you hear? He must
get out of there fast. The boss has sold us out. Right then, Cha-orns husband came out of
the bathroom, still buttoning his trousers. Cha-orn handed him the receiver.
I believe you, Withoon answered. You are sure of it, then. I suspected as much ...
yeah ... sure ... then I must leave right now. Take care of Cha-orn for me too, will you,
Kreurn. He put the receiver down. His face was red and his eyes emerald green. He
turned round for a while, then went to his wife and took her in his arms. Little sister, I
have to go. Well keep in touch through Kreurn and Cheur. He kissed her on both cheeks
and, pulling himself away, opened the door and went down the stairs. A short while later,
she heard his vehicle, which had a very powerful engine, leaving the house.
She understood nothing about her husband except that the power he had held in the
country had now come to an end. Maybe he would get it back, but how he would go about
regaining it she had no idea, and anyway she had no more time to think about him right
now. She went out of the room and called Chorloh. When she saw her daughter standing
at the bottom of the stairs, she went down to her. The car reserved for their use came to
park in front of the building and mother and daughter got into it to go to the military
hospital, which was not far from the residence. Cha-orn prepared herself to hear the news
that Rit was dead, but when she reached the room which the hospital had reserved for him,
she was told that Rit was alive but still unconscious and that doctors were attending to him
in the surgery room.

Chairit dies at the hospital. Worrachart is dead also.
With Kreurn, Jaeo and Cheur around, Cha-orn feels comforted that she still has friends in times of
need. Some time after the funeral ceremonies of Chairit and Worrachart, Kreurns wife falls sick and
passes away.
Withoon has succeeded in fleeing the country and has taken refuge in Penang, from where he
arranges for contacts with his family and is planning his comeback. Unfortunately, he is shot by a
gunman and seriously wounded. The news shocks everyone. Cha-orn, her children, Kreurn and Jaeo
are allowed to fly out to visit him at the hospital. After an operation, Withoons condition worsens
and he dies. To avoid all kinds of foreseeable problems in Thailand, all agree to hold the funeral
ceremony in Penang. From a newspaper article, Jaeo is shocked to learn that Withoons murderer is
none other than On, her own cousin. She is worried that Cha-orn will be angry if she learns that it
was On who killed Withoon, and she tries to keep the news from her. When she finally decides to tell
her the truth, Cha-orn, though shocked, accepts the fact with equanimity.
After all those years, Kreurn the widower confesses to Cha-orn the widow that he has always loved
her and still does, even though he is fully aware that Cha-orn still loves her dead husband
wholeheartedly. For her part, Cha-orn tries to convince Kreurn that Jaeo loves him and that, despite
their bickering, they would make a perfect match. Upon reflection, Kreurn decides to propose to Jaeo,
Cha-orn will live on reconciled with the bittersweet memories of her life companion, and all is well
that ends on a note of hope.

The central theme of this novel is alienation. The story focuses on Cha-orn and her struggle
to cope with the burdens of a life too grand for her abilities and aspirations. As the wife of a
powerful general, Cha-orn spends years torn between her exacting public duties and the
barrenness of her personal life: she feels estranged from the man she loves but fails to com-
municate with, from her children she has no time to supervise, and from her true friends of
yore, Jaeo and Kreurn; she is suspicious of the crowd of busybodies that surround her and
her husband; and she understands little of the politics of the time. Once her husband is
dead, she tries to come to terms with her resentment over his betrayal and shortcomings
and finally forgives without forgetting: she recovers her equanimity by turning her back on
those glamorous years of pomp and pretence. In the last page, she chooses to frame two
photographs of her and Withoon as newly-weds sharing love and hope in the future, rather
than their portrait in full regalia taken a few days after she was made a lady.
There is much more to this novel, however, than Cha-orns tears and fears. What makes
it outstanding is its wide and realistic background, featuring the rise and fall of a military
strongman in 1950s Thailand, power relations at the top, and the tug-of-war between the
old aristocracy and the new military-merchant elite. Thutiyawiseit offers a thorough endo-
scopy of Thai high society, forever trying to curry favour with the leader of the day and
forever ready to shift allegiance in order to survive and prosper. Welcome to the world of
make believe, sincere opportunism and vapid or wanton gossip! Bunluea makes
abundantly clear that the new, plebeian elites that have replaced the aristocracy of yore
have co-opted many of its old values in order to strengthen their own power. As Gen
Withoon rises, his friends and subordinates automatically take a step back from him: he
becomes great because they act small; they defer less to the man than to the position he
holds. Read this book and you will understand a lot of what Thai politics, Thai society in
general, is all about not the boring detail of who is who, but the springs and cogs that
make the system work.
The novel shows how power alienates and corrupts. Gen Withoon loves power for its
own sake, not for the opportunity it gives him to act on his ideas. Indeed, he has no
ideology other than patriotism and pragmatism. Surrounded by sycophants and self-
serving advisors, he behaves ruthlessly, makes errors of judgment that go uncorrected and
occasionally makes disastrous decisions, for which he eventually pays with his life. He is
not a bad man, much of what he does while in power is praiseworthy, yet his is a world of
corrupt deals, assassination attempts, plots and counterplots, arbitrary decisions and petty
revenge. Revelling in the trappings of power, he is not lonely (only his wife is) but he does
alienate himself from his own family and closest friends only to turn back to them when
it is too late.
No less attractive than Cha-orn and Withoon are their counterparts Jaeo and Kreurn.
High-born, well-educated, smart, practical and generous, Jaeo is all that Cha-orn wished to
be but could not be. Kreurn is a most unlikely military officer humane, humorous,
understanding and devoid of ambition, a middle-of-the-road philosopher whose loyalty to
Withoon does not prevent him from being critical. It is only befitting that he and Jaeo find
happiness in each other on equal terms: theirs is a world without pretence.
The novel is strongly built on a succession of flashbacks that encompass a whole lifetime
and give more than passing glimpses of the old aristocratic order, thus providing ironic
comparisons with the antics of the current fauna. The story is slow to find its pace,
however, as Bunluea takes her time setting up a large number of characters and their back-
grounds. For all its liveliness and humour, the dialogue tends to be too long, something
quite noticeable again towards the end, when the story deals with the aftermath of
Withoons death and narrows down to Cha-orn, Chorloh, Jaeo and Kreurn. Although the
novel has all the ingredients of a traditional romance, it stands way above popular
literature by its vivid depiction of life in high circles and by its insistent search for wisdom.

Chart Korpjitti

If one excepts a handful of (female) suppliers of popular potboilers, Chart Korpjitti
[Kobjitti] is the only Thai writer able to live off the proceeds of his novels and short-story

; his books sell in the tens of thousands and are regularly reprinted. He is also
the only Thai novelist of note who practises experimental writing. His latest novel, Time
(Weila), a nouveau-roman type of work, was ignored by most Thai professional critics until
it received the 1994 SEA Write award. Yet it is a measure of Charts audience that a second
edition of this novel was out six months only after an exceptionally high first print run of 6
000 copies in late 1993.
Charts mug shot, featured in psychedelic colours on the covers of most of his books, has
become his trademark a mop of hair that has evolved with time from hippy mane to
rustic bush, complete with rather scanty moustache and beard, crinkly eyes behind
roundish glasses, and prominent meaty cheeks. Such a face should go with a stout body
or so you would think, until you notice how thin and lean Chart actually is in his perennial
T-shirt and jeans. Easy to befriend, always eager to talk shop over beer or stronger stuff, he
is also unusually reticent when discussing his personal life. Few of his biographies mention
that he married at 23 his wife gave up her job as a national museum employee to help
him out at home; by mutual choice, they have no children.
Altogether, Chart appears to be that rare breed of Thai who know what they want and
are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve it. He wasnt quite 20 when he decided that
creative writing was his life and five years later he turned down a life in business to gamble
on a literary career.
He was born in 1954 in Samut Sarkhorn, then a rural community but now a nondescript,
industrialised satellite town of Bangkok not far from the sea. His parents grocery store was
by the Howling Dog canal, and this may explain his subsequent literary love affair with
dogs (which to the Thai are what pigs are to Westerners) two of his novels are named
after dogs and his recently set-up publishing house calls itself Howling Books.
His parents rented out the salt farm they owned in the neighbourhood and while his
mother ran the grocery store, his father took salt by boat to Bangkok, a seven to ten days
expedition. His maternal grandmother had a big, old house in Maha-chai, southwest of
Bangkok, and a stand at the central market, and young Chart would shuttle between his
and his grandmothers house with a list of goods to buy for the store.
Born the second of nine children, he was the eldest boy. (His three brothers and five
sisters hold a variety of lower middle-class jobs.) He was on his seventh year of primary
education at Barn Bors main temple school when his parents sold the grocery store and
bought a barge to transport sand along the Jao Phraya as far upstream as Ayutthaya. Chart

Chart Korpjitti has written three novels (The judgment, 1981; Mad dogs & Co, 1988; and Weila, Time, 1993),
three novelets (Jon Trork, Dead end, 1980, and Ma Nao Loi Narm, A bloated dog floating by, 1987), a tale
(Rueang Thammada, An ordinary story, 1983) and three volumes of short stories (Thang Chana, The way to
victory, 1979; Meet Prajam Tua, The personal knife, 1984; and Nakhorn Mai Pen Rai, The never-mind town,
and his siblings went to stay with their grandmother at Maha-chai. Chart then became a
temple boy at a monastery on Rarchaprarrop Road, in the Makkasan area of Bangkok
(The abbot was my fathers younger brother.), while studying at Pathumkhongkha
School nearby. His childhood in Samut Sarkhorn and further temple education in Bangkok
provided him with all the background he needed for The judgment, his first masterpiece.
After four years at the Taphrarn monastery, he moved to share a house with five friends.
By then, he had entered the Phoh Chang vocational college in Bangkok, where he took
up fine arts and printing, a five-year course. Throughout his studies there, he supported
himself by doing odd jobs newspaper delivery boy, street vendor, doorman, sidewalk
artist and scribe, before setting up his own business as a designer of leather bags and
Id always wanted to write. After Phoh Chang, at the age of 19-20, I thought that to do
commercial writing wasnt for me. I just couldnt do it. I had to find a job, so I
manufactured leather bags. This left me with time to write.
Loosely linked to the Phrajan Siao (Moon crescent) group of aspiring writers at
Thammasart University, for five years he painstakingly trained himself, writing poems,
plays and short stories. When his first published short story (The loser, Phoo Phae) came
out in 1979, it was hailed as the best of the year by the Thai Writers Association. This was
the clincher.
The leather bag business, with my wife and a couple of helpers, was doing well, but I
thought if we expand, Id be a thaokae [wealthy businessman+ and Id have to give up being
a writer. So instead we sold out and used the money to print my first book. We printed two
thousand copies and sold about seven hundred! More, of course, after the success of The
judgment two years later.
Chart never looked back. Without compromising his literary ideals, he has made a name
for himself and become moderately wealthy enough to travel about in North America for
three years, enjoying himself and learning English. I used to flee the farang [white
foreigners], then I realised that knowing English was a necessity: translators go for what
sells, great works seldom make it into Thai and if we cant read them in the original, we
miss a lot. On his return in 1993, he had a house built in Park Chong, some 170 km
northeast of Bangkok; he now lives there (without electricity!), nursing back pain and
plotting his next novel.
His first short-story was very aptly named: one way or another, his books are about
losers in the social game the underdogs of the first novelette and short stories, the saintly
drunkard of The judgment, the next-door neighbour dying of cancer in An ordinary story, the
social misfits of Mad dogs & Co, the dying women of Time. A scathing observer of the foibles
of society, Chart handles all the shades of irony, from tenderness to cynicism, from
causticity to farce. His subject matter is unmistakably Thai, rural or lower urban middle
class, yet his treatment, themes and message are universal.
When he burst onto the literary scene with The judgment in 1981 after a decade of art-for-
the-people versus art-for-arts-sake, he was breaking new ground, by focusing on relations
between the individual and society.
He has shown himself at times too eager to put his opinions across, as in his heavy-
handed Bloated dog, which denounces a consumerist society in the context of hospital
treatment, or to experiment, as in Time, where his juggling with various forms of literary
expression harms the coherence of his themes on life, senility, death, alienation and the
depressingly funny goings-on of Thai daily life.

His style, which has evolved in time towards even greater simplicity, is fluid, binary,
cinematographic. His vocabulary is relatively limited, though always precise and shorn of
the mannerisms of poetic Thai. If anything, his phrasing belongs to the popular, rather than
the aristocratic, tradition. Significantly, he insists that he is not well read, least of all in Thai
and he acknowledges no main literary model

. His sentences tend to go in pairs, the

second only slightly amplifying the first, at the risk of being repetitive probably an
influence from Buddhist sermons, which cater to a wide audience of mostly
unsophisticated minds. On the other hand, his approach is that of a camera catching scenes
in their balance of shapes, colours and movements, with sounds and scents thrown in as
well. And he has a great ear for dialogue.
His originality is in this mixture of Thai Buddhist populist verve and western
modernity. His vision of the world is consistently sombre, from the verism of his early
writings to the oppressive naturalism of The judgment and the nihilism of his latest novel,
Time, yet redeemed by implicit humanist values, unstated moral principles and his explicit
religion of friendship.

PS, 2003: I withdraw entirely my reservations about Time. Translating it into English (and then French,
under the title Sonne lheure, Le Seuil, 2002) showed that I had at first misread what I now truly believe to
be another masterpiece.

He is adamant, for example, that his Rueang Thammada, An ordinary story, owes nothing to Albert Camuss
La Chute (The fall, translated into Thai as Manut Song Na), despite a striking similarity in writing technique, if
not in plot. In both cases, a narrator addresses the reader in rambling fashion, frequently interrupting the
narrative with parenthetical asides, which Chart says were inspired by the constant asides of the narrator of a
likei, a popular form of Thai theatre.
The judgment (Kham Phipharksa) 1981

The novel is split into two parts of three chapters each, The entanglement and The liberation, with a
prologue which begins as follows.

This is the story of a young man who took for his wife a widow who was a little bit crazy.
(The story would probably have ended there had the widow not been his fathers wife.)
And, just by chance, the affair happened in a small rural community, where it grew into a
major scandal which shook the morals of the entire village and set everybody gossiping
and passing judgment on the basis of whatever opinions each villager had formed about
this unnatural relationship.
The rumour had it that, less than a month after his father died, Fak had taken his
stepmother for his wife. Some went so far as to claim that they had slept together even
before Old Foo had been laid in his coffin. Just look at Somsong, so bucked up these days,
and look at Fak, skinny as a bag of bones...
The rumour started with Young Lamai, the boiled-peanut vendor at the temple fair of
the twelfth month, which, that year, also celebrated the sixtieth birthday of the temples ab-
bot. In the morning the people earned merit by offering food to the monks and in the
evening there were all kinds of entertainment, set up by dedicated temple goers to keep the
whole community in high spirits.
That evening, while the likei was performing, the villagers crowded before the stage,
some standing, some sitting, and latecomers had to watch from beyond the covered area.
Behind the multicoloured lights that shone in front of the stage, the leading actor was
singing his lines and dancing his part. His costume glittered and sparkled and his every
move triggered shimmering flashes of silver and gold. The backdrop was a throne hall
drawn in perspective which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, hypnotizing the
audience and transporting it right into the palace and its wonder.
Young Lamai sat beside the stage selling boiled peanuts from a basket placed on a table
next to a kerosene lamp. Young men kept dropping by to treat themselves to some peanuts
and to the company of the young vendor, who was filling each and everyone of them with
the hope that she might treat them to something else altogether some day.
As Fak was passing by with his stepmother, the widow Somsong, Young Lamai called
to him with the familiarity of those who have known each other all their lives. At the time,
two or three youngsters were munching their peanuts next to the table.
Fak, arent you going to buy some? she asked, flashing him a smile.
Ive already eaten. Fak came to a stop and stood there, smiling back.
Oh, come on, a handful or two wont hurt you. Come and have some. If you wont buy
them, you can have them for free. Here! The young vendor wasnt letting up and she went
on teasing Fak. But Somsong did not take this as a joke at all and showed plain jealousy as
she glared at the young vendor.
You leave my man alone, you hear!
Young Lamai turned red in the face and shot back a volley of abuse. There and then, the
area before the kerosene lamp would have turned into a battlefield, had not Fak dragged
Somsong away, the young vendor screaming in their back: Sure, Fak dont like to eat
peanuts, but his mouth aint big enough to munch yours, you bitch!
It was on that night, then, that the announcement was made by Somsong herself that
stepson and stepmother had become man and wife. The announcement was further re-
layed by Young Lamai, who was seething with anger and let no one ignore that, as
everybody knew, this happened to be the twelfth month, during which nobody got mar-
ried because it was the month when only dogs were in heat.

Fak is the janitor of the temple school, as his father was before him. He has never known his mother
or any other relative except his father, Old Foo. The two of them live in a small hut on temple
grounds. A model novice promised to a bright future in the monkhood, Fak unexpectedly disrobes to
help his father rather than see him working himself to death. He progressively takes over his fathers
duties as janitor. When he returns from military service, he finds his father living with Somsong, a
sensuous-looking woman in her late thirties. Two years elapse. The village community is welcoming
progress: a road now links it to the nearest town and to Bangkok; the school expands, and the rumour
is that electricity is about to reach the village. By the end of the third year, Faks father dies and,
within months, on the night of the temple fair, so does Faks good reputation.
From then on, no matter what he says or does, Fak, whose life is in fact a model of probity, will be
unable to convince anyone that he is not sleeping with Somsong, who often embarrasses him by
being increasingly provocative. The most innocuous events are systematically misinterpreted, to
Faks increasing misery.

One afternoon at the beginning of April... The fiery rays of the blazing sun shone down
with such intensity that it seemed that the sun was less than a couple of meters above head.
The sun-baked foliage was still and quiet, even the birds were silent, and the only sound to
be heard was that of folk songs belched out by the radio in the house of the plantation
owner, Old Paen.
Fak and Somsong were in the plantation busily clearing the grass below jujube bushes.
There was a path at the far end of the plantation, but people seldom walked that way. With
such a head-splitting heat, it was unlikely anyone would venture outside, except on some
really important errand or to go and buy a thermosflaskful of ice at the minibus terminal.
Fak was absorbed in his work of digging the grass and turning the soil, pulling out
clumps of grass, shaking off the earth and throwing the grass on a pile when suddenly he
heard muffled cries of anger and exasperation from Somsong behind him. Turning round,
he saw her fumbling about taking off her sarong. For a moment, he stood there absolutely
dumbfounded. Somsong got up and started running, naked from the waist down, her
crumpled sarong trailing behind her at her feet.
Oh, the heat! The heat! The heat! she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Hey! Mam! Fak shouted, running after her. She turned and stared at him with a wild,
fierce look in her eyes, but he was not deterred and flung himself at her. Her body, white
from the waist down, fell crashing onto the soil. He sat astride her waist, took hold of her
knees and forced them together with her forearms, with which she was trying to pummel
him. She continued to kick and writhe on the ground. The tussle went on for quite a while
before he managed to get the sarong back on her.
Nothing more would probably have happened had Old Paen and Old Sai not decided to
go and see what the ruckus coming from the plantation was all about. What they saw was
this: Fak sitting astride Somsong, in the middle of the plantation, trying to pull off her
Hey! What do you two think you are up to? Old Paen shouted from a distance,
shaking his cane in their direction. Bloody hell! In my own plantation! Dont you have any
shame? Arent you afraid of the spirits? In broad daylight! he kept shouting as he walked
straight at them. Somsong was still panting beneath Fak.
You are crazy! Fak yelled at her.
Old Sai, who was carrying a large knife, was following her husband. They both stopped
and stared disapprovingly. Somsong looked up at them with sudden alarm before she
quietened down. Fak slowly got off her body.
You filthy pigs! Whenever you get the urge, you just go and do it in the house, in any
open place. If you wanted it that bad, why didnt you do it in your own home before you
came out here? How dare you come and do it in my plantation? If youve no respect for
others, at least you should be afraid of offending the spirits.
No, please! Listen to me first. This womans crazy. I dont know whats wrong with
her. I was trying to put her sarong back on her. I wasnt doing what you think I was.
Keep quiet, Fak. You were only putting her sarong back on her after youd finished.
Get outa here, both of you! he shouted, waving his cane, pointing the way out of the
Please, listen to me...
As much as he tried to present the truth to Old Paen and Old Sai, the truth could not
shake their belief in the scene they had just seen with their own eyes. The more Fak tried to
explain, the more it appeared that he was trying to cover up his guilt. Unable to make them
change their mind, he walked crestfallen out of the plantation in the blazing afternoon sun.
Two days later, Old Paen performed a merit-making ceremony and invited monks to
come and chant in his home, as a way to dispel the misfortune that had been brought by
Fak and Somsongs performance in the plantation.
When the monks had finished their lunch, they filed out of the house and went into the
plantation, and their yellow robes could be seen moving about among the jujube bushes.
After they had their own meal, the women gathered up the dishes and took them to the
back of the house to wash them. Upstairs, the drinkers had got together and were having a
great time. Amid the laughter and merriment, the exchange went like this:
It looks like hes really getting into it, eh!
Reckon that womans sex mad. Have you seen how she smiles at men?
He never had it before, but when he tried it, he sure liked it.
Come on. If it were me I couldnt do it. His own fathers wife!
Yeah, but she isnt his mother.
Either way, I still wouldnt do it. At least he ought to be afraid of his fathers spirit. The
body hasnt been cremated yet.
You were really unlucky, Uncle Paen. Did you actually see the action?
What dya mean see the action? I was ready to bash em on the head.
Thatd be a sin: you dont hit lovers when they are down ... and hard at it.
Who wouldve said when he was a novice that hed end up like this?
That sorta thing you never can tell.
I wonder if theyve done it in anybody elses plantation? Nobodys caught em.
Thats right oh, my gosh! I used to hire him to work in my plantation.
Strange, eh? Hes got his own place: why would he want to go and do it in public like
I guess he wanted a change. A change of< er < a change of atmosphere. He mustve
got bored doing it at home everyday, so he decided to do it in the fields for a change.
The group of drinkers laughed and talked, and the drunker they got the more fun it
became. There seemed to be no end to their talk about Fak and Somsong. The young girls
who were cleaning the pots and pans in the kitchen blushed with embarrassment and
made out that they hadnt heard the saucy remarks that came drifting down. The older
women who had children and husbands and knew all the tricks enjoyed what they heard
and smiled knowingly to one another.
From that day onward, nobody was willing to employ Fak again...

Pity for Somsong prevents Fak from throwing her out, but his misery increases as he is treated as an
outcast by all, and disbelieved by those whom he most respects, the abbot, the headmaster and the
village chief. When he decides to replace the thatch on the roof of his hut, contrary to custom nobody
comes to help. The whole village takes time out to enjoy the extravagantly festive cremation of the
subdistrict chiefs father, yet when Fak finally cremates his own father, nobody comes.
Moved by Faks sorrow, Khai the undertaker gives him some rice wine to drink. Alcohol chases his
misery away, so Fak takes to the bottle as single-mindedly as he has been following the harrowing
path of virtue. His entanglement in the net of misery at an end, he can now strive for his liberation.
Perpetually drunk, Fak is at last happy, all the more so that he has found in Uncle Khai a man he,
like everybody else, used to despise for his commerce with corpses the only person willing to believe
that he is not sleeping with Somsong. Khai becomes his friend, but fails in his repeated attempts to
moderate his drinking.
Faks round-the-clock drunkenness adds another reason for people to despise him, and leads to his
rapid demise. Though he tries desperately hard, he is unable to keep his vow to the abbot to stop
drinking. He neglects his duties at school. When he unwittingly injures a student who has been
taunting him, he is made to resign from his job. One night, former friends beat him up. The
headmaster cheats him out of his life savings. When Fak tries to expose him, he is locked up. His
return to the bottle after a day of forced sobriety will be fatal: he finds liberation in death.
After he disappears from the hut, Somsong beats around the bushes trying to find her man.
Captured, she is sent back to the mental asylum in Bangkok she had escaped from.
Death doesnt mean the end of Faks opprobrium. Electricity has come to the village, with all the
wondrous trappings of modern technology; the headmaster agrees to sponsor Faks cremation know-
ing full well that Faks body will be used to try out the temples new crematorium free of charge. In
spite of Uncle Khais best intentions, Fak is deprived of a decent funeral.

The whole of the headmasters round face was smiling. His eyes wrinkled with a smile. His
cheeks smiled, the corners of his mouth were upturned in a smile, which uncovered his
sparkling white teeth. Even his neatly trimmed moustache smiled. It was a really beautiful
Khai stared at the smiling face of the headmaster without saying a word, so the
headmaster walked away.
Id really like to spit in your face, Khai thought. Then he remembered how Somsong
had spat in the headmasters face and felt vindicated.
I wonder if shes recovered by now. Have you been to see her yet? he asked Faks
glass. Fak didnt answer, so he continued: This is your money, so Im going to use it to
make some merit for you. Thats all he gave me, you see, he said to Fak, his voice filled
with sorrow.
Everybody had gone, leaving only silence behind.
Uncle Khai sat drinking and keeping Fak company until evening, gazing at the smoke
that drifted out of the yellow chimney. The white trail floated up into the starkly blue sky,
higher and higher, until it spread out and vanished into thin air.

Published in 1981, The judgment is a landmark. In many ways, it is the first modern Thai
novel. The early 1950s had seen a brief salvo of well-written, socially committed novels
offering messages of collective hope and commitment; after the dark ages, the 1970s saw a
landslide of literature for life, which sided with the underdog but was aesthetically
ruined by its political good intentions. By 1980, the failure of reformist mass movements,
the discredit of communism and the rapid changes brought about by socioeconomic
development all called for a new approach to socially oriented fiction. The judgment offered
precisely that, by shifting the focus from us against them to one against all or rather
all against one. For the first time a well-crafted social satire pitting the individual against
society appeared. The book hacks away at the basic tenets of Thai social behaviour: respect
for authority, face-saving acquiescence and the cult of appearances. In many ways, Thai
society is a society of conformism, of face and form over substance. In such a world,
appearances are reality, the high and mighty can do no wrong, and most of them prefer to
raksa na, save face, rather than raksa nuea, solve problems.
This chronicle of a village in the throes of modernisation shows that material progress
goes hand in hand with moral decay. Fak embodies the age-old ideals of Thai Buddhist
culture. Born a nonentity, he rises up the social ladder almost as fast as he falls down to its
lowest rung (unlike Khai the undertaker, the compassionate cynic, who has always been on
that lower rung and thus has learned how to survive by moderating his expectations). The
model son and model novice ends up as the model drunkard, the victim of the modern-
time hero, that fucking cheat of a headmaster. The unnamed village modelled on
Samut Sarkhorn, without the canal represents Thai society as a whole, graduating from
the backwardness of a humane, tightly knit rural community to the greed and selfishness
of modern society spreading under a veneer of respectability. The authors scathing attacks
spare no one, not even the monks and their abbot, who throw away the food offerings of
the despised undertaker, easily give up on Fak and count their material blessings. The
assault is all the more effective as it is seldom direct: though the author never hesitates to
wield the weapon of irony, he lets the behaviour of his main characters carry his message.
The judgment projects a harsh light on Thai society and offers detailed descriptions of
Thai customs and rural communal life of a type which is increasingly obsolescent. Even
in the time frame of the novel, the likei is superseded by open-air movies, and the latter by
television, watched in the comfort of home.
The novel is also an innovative psychological study, using stream-of-consciousness,
inner dialogue, and the narration of dreams.
In dreams, Fak finds the sporadic solace he will later find more consistently in the
blessed stupor of liquor. Like Somsong, who permanently lives in a sheltered world of
benign madness, he fulfils his wishes in the make-believe world of dreams, just as the
villagers fulfil theirs in the make-believe world of social conformity.
Fak, like Thai society, is schizoid; the inner voices of good and evil pull him this way
and that. He desperately wants to be acknowledged and accepted by society, but society
has condemned him, and will keep punishing him even after his death.
Fak is no rebel, only a victim, of his own creed and of societys cruelty. He upholds
traditional Buddhist values almost to the last, tormenting himself for having broken three
of the five vows under order from the headmaster, he has killed a possibly rabid dog
(and, doing to the dog what society will do to him, has found momentary popularity and
approval); he drinks; and he has broken his promise to the abbot. It is only when he
belatedly realizes to what extent he has been wronged by the villagers in general and the
headmaster in particular that he breaks free from his blind belief in karma and puts the
onus of his suffering on society and determines to seek revenge. Instead of laying the
blame on his karma, he began to think of the faults of others. It was the others who had
made him sink so low and who had made him change. One cannot help but be reminded
of Sartres Lenfer, cest les autres Hell is the others.
Fak may have failed to keep three of his vows, but the rest of society betrays the whole
lot of them, mindlessly drinking, fornicating, lying, cheating and killing, yet all the while
keeping up appearances, and conveniently cleansing itself through periodic religious
In such a society, the righteous have no place. Faks dogged goodness in the face of
general malice condemns him to death. Far from taking some hypothetical middle or high
ground, the author sides with Fak all along, and the reader is left with no choice: as the
final jury, he must reverse the judgment of public opinion, absolve Fak and condemn a
society of fools and crooks.
In this sombre, unrelenting melodrama, which ends in death for Fak, captivity for
Somsong and disgust and guilt for Khai, there are no redeeming features. Even the deep
friendship between the two outcasts, Fak and Khai, is a bane: it is Khai, who, out of
compassion, has introduced Fak to the booze that will destroy him. Charts no-stone-
unthrown style enhances the stifling atmosphere of the novel. The work would probably
have an even greater impact, however, had it been written more tightly. Yet, as it is, its
indictment of social hypocrisy goes much beyond the particular case of Thai society.

Mad dogs & Co (Phan Ma Ba) 1988

This is how the novel ends.

Past the Sarrasin bridge already.
Chuanchua turned to look back once again.
Its been so damn fast, he thought of the time just gone by.
What about your publisher? Isnt he going to give you hell? Otto asked as if he knew
what his friend was thinking about.
Chuanchua turned back to look at him. So what? I just dont know what to write, he
answered truthfully, but he wasnt sorry that he was going back with no work to show. He
figured that he was working all the time. What he saw, what he did instantly turned into so
many words in his brain. He was just waiting for the right moment to pick up those words
and put them down on paper. Until then, they flowed continuously like a wild stream
running down a mountain slope.
Why dont you do like what we talked about, Chuan? Thai said, his eyes on the road,
his hands on the steering wheel.
Whats that? Chuanchua asked.
Write the story of Otto, thats what. The story I told you. Thai had a smile on his face.
Oh, you mean about us mothers and all that? Chuanchua thought about all that Thai
had told him at Iats shop. It all came back to him at once. So he thought, why not? All the
anecdotes about Otto they had bandied about all the time they were together amounted to
an interesting story, a story that was worth writing. Itd make a new type of novel, he
Do you agree? he asked his friend, who sat pressed against him. Im really going to
write it, you know.
You sonofagun. Otto laughed. Who the hells going to read that?
No joke, Im serious, Chuanchua insisted. Or else, I dont know what kind of excuse
Id give him. Well at least itll give me a plot I can tell him about. Ill really write it. Is it
okay with you?
Sure, Otto muttered his approval; he had never stood in his friends way. But you
must not make me die, okay? In all your books, Ive noticed, the fucking hero always dies
in the end, he said with a laugh.
I swear, in this story you wont die, Chuanchua promised. He thought about Else and
turned to his friends: Youll go to Germany instead.
Otto, Thai, Ta and Chuanchua all burst out laughing.
Ach so! My koot vriend eez leaffing for Chermany, Thai teased.
Chuanchua lost himself in his future novel. He thought hed set the opening scene at
Dornmueang Airport, as Otto was leaving for Germany, and then play it backward, from
the time Otto had shot that young fellow, and then onward again, scene by scene,
Chumphorn, Phatphong, Phatthaya, the Scala, all the way to this very moment, as they sat
now in this car. When Otto reached home, hed find a letter and a plane ticket sent by Else.
Ill begin the story at the airport, Chuanchua told his friends. You are about to leave
for Germany. Theres your dad, your mom-in-law, your brother and then us crowd to send
you off, Thai, Ta, me, the Old Man, Shane, Met Khanun, Litl Hip, Italy Tui, Larn...
But his wife mustnt send me off, okay? Otto objected then laughed loudly.
The whole car laughed again. It was a laughter which wiped away sorrows and worries,
and left only delight waiting ahead.
The car sped out of sight along the road, leaving Phooket behind.

Postscript: Otto has opened a Thai restaurant in Germany.

Otto may or may not have opened a restaurant in Germany, but the novel does not quite start the
way Chuanchua planned it as he sat with his friends leaving Phooket behind. Perhaps because
Chuanchua is not quite Chart? This is how it starts.

The sea at that time had turned pitch-black and glossy. Bulging monsoon clouds blurred
the sky above. Vicious blasts of wind pounced and pounded, relentlessly pushing rain and
waves to the shore. An army of huge waves sent endless reinforcements. Upon reaching
the shore, these gloomy walls of water coiled up and crashed thunderously on the seafloor.
Wave after wave came crashing and crashing in a ceaseless, caroming cannonade, rushing
to the assault one after another to force the beach to recede, but the beach stayed put and
refused to yield, and they retreated in a sizzling slush of seawater. Wave after wave had to
regress with the lame look of a loser, leaving behind white foam that smeared the sand
with telltale signs of defeat, but still more waves came rolling in impetuously, doomed yet
The sun had gone into hiding, as if it didnt want to know what was raging on.
There wasnt a human soul in sight on the wide open stretch of the beach, whose ground
was shaking. Deadwood, torn nets, plastic bags, rotten fish and lots more garbage were
swept up and thrown onto the sand, as if the sea meant to tell the beach it didnt want any
of this rubbish.
Three or four local dogs were foraging for food on the beach, undaunted by the raging
downpour. The smallest of them stood gnawing a dead fish and snarling at the other dogs,
which came sniffing around, looking for an opening, and soon a war started under the
pelting rain.
Way beyond the beach, luxuriant rows of green coconut trees bowed low in sheer terror
of the wind, as if they were putting their last resources in a fight to survive the monsoon
and make it to the next dry season, when they would stand still and strong as ever, merely
flicking the tips of their fronds as they played with the breeze. But now all of the trees were
being bullied by the wind from crown to roots, and they bowed and bent and shook
Amid the coconut trees a little hut nestled in a recess of the hill. It seemed to be trying to
keep out of sight, but the wind and rain were unrelenting. At times, violent gusts made its
nipa-thatched roof flap.
A small laterite track ran from the main road to the beach, parting neatly the long rows
of coconut trees into two sections. In the hot season, this track was full of people of all
nationalities, but now the rain was its only custom.
From the junction, down the better part of the track to the beach, was a restaurant built
as a large lean-to. The only part that had walls was the kitchen at the back. The nipa thatch
of the roof had been covered with nets as protection against the wind. The restaurant floor
had been built at a slightly higher level than the road. On the side exposed to the rain, a
thick, dark-green canvas was stretched across the whole length, and the wind shook and
slapped it deafeningly.
A short distance from the restaurant was a small shop which appeared to be selling
souvenirs to tourists, but it had been set up so simply it looked more like an ordinary hut.
On the laterite landing in front of it, an antediluvian motorcycle stood basking in the rain,
leaning on one side. Its colour was so flaky it was hard to see any trace of the original red.
The showcase was made of a wooden frame around a chessboard with a glass lid.
Raindrops had found their way under the glass. Inside, a few shells were gathering dust. It
looked like the shop was abandoned. Above the showcase, a small brown plank with gold
lettering in Roman script read OTTO.
The rain kept thrashing down and gave no sign of letting up.
A vehicle engine made itself heard over the roar of the rain and wind. A passenger
vehicle came hobbling along the laterite track. As it drew closer, one could see that it was a
pickup van whose double row of passenger seats at the back had been replaced with
wooden benches to transport more goods and more people, and by the same token its body
had been dolled up with stripes of garish colours, which said something of the crude tastes
of the locals.
The vehicle stopped right in front of the souvenir shop. A man with a backpack jumped
out and ran straight to the door of the shop, which was tightly closed.
The pickup sped up its engine and moved away, leaving behind a cloud of reeking grey
Otto! Otto! the man shouted as he shook the bamboo-stripped door.
He was drenched from head to foot. His beautiful long hair looked like it had just been
soused. He was dressed casually in a pair of discoloured jeans and an off-white T-shirt,
both dripping as if he had just fallen into a river. He pressed himself against the door to
escape from the searing rain.
Otto! Otto! The hand that wore a surfeit of bracelets and rings banged on the door
frame. He called out as if he was certain there was someone inside because the key wasnt
in the door.
Otto! Otto! he yelled into the keyhole.
Yeah, yeah, I heard you, came out the drowsy groan of someone just woken up. The
man stopped banging on the door.
Hurry up, Im cold, he shouted to speed things up.
Just a sec. Whos this anyway? asked the voice inside.
The man outside knew from the shaking of the boards under his feet that the person
inside was walking to the door. He didnt answer the question but stood there with a smile
on his face.
The door opened. The man who had opened it stood in his black underwear.
Well, if it aint that sonofagun Chuan! Otto sounded astonished. All signs of
drowsiness cleared up from his face.
When did you arrive?
This morning, the man said while stepping inside. Otto moved aside to let him
You came alone? Otto asked, looking at his friends face.
With lots of others, the friend said casually.
Otto went to have a look outside. The rain struck his face but he wiped his eyes and
went on looking left and right.
Where did them mothers go? he asked his visitor and screwed his face. He was
thinking that those guys coming to see him were playing a joke on him. His friends were
always playing all kinds of weird pranks.
How would I know? When we got off the coach, everyone went their own way,
Chuan answered with a smile.
Were did they go?
Oh, come off it. The people you came with. Who are they? Otto looked at his friend in
a way that meant What the hell are you up to?
How could I ask for names? There was a full busload of them. When we arrived,
everyone split. Chuan laughed heartily. Otto laughed a little too. He closed the door and
bolted it.
You bastard, he swore deliberately.

Chuanchua (a nickname meaning evil inducer), Otto and a couple of friends go on a three-day
booze-and-babble binge, during which they talk about themselves and their many friends, all
dropouts who live inoffensive, friendly, lazy lives of odd jobs and no jobs, alcohol, sundry drugs and
lots of adventures and mishaps evoked in the foul and vulgar language Thai of either sex and of
almost all social strata use among themselves to express friendship. There is Samlee, who has a knack
for getting himself into trouble through no fault of his own; Larn and his possessive wife; the Old
Man, scion of an aristocratic family turned genuine hippie; Tui, a rag dealer doing business with
Italy; Dam, who falls off a train and is rescued by his friends from almost certain death in a quack
provincial hospital; Litl Hip, a model of dedication to his friends; Met Khanun (jackfruit stone), Ja,
Rang, Nit, Tue, and many others. But basically the novel tells the parallel life stories of Otto and
Thai, in a constant shuffle of flashbacks and shifts between Bangkok, Phattaya and Phooket brought
about by the vagaries of the marathon conversation.
Both Thai and Otto have had serious misunderstandings with their respective fathers.
Thai is the son of a very strict Chinese gold-shop owner who wants all of his children to learn how
to trade. All comply, but Thai is too soft-hearted for business. Expelled from school, he saves enough
money to buy himself a guitar. His father, thinking that it was bought with money he gave him to do
business with, smashes it. Thai overpowers him, throws his fathers money at him and leaves the
house. He soon proves his business acumen by turning around a partners plastic-ware operation,
only to be thoroughly cheated by the man. He reconciles with his father shortly before the old man
dies. He inherits the gold shop, but leaves it to a sister to run and decides to sing and play the guitar
in nightclubs instead. By the by, he befriends a group of happy-go-lucky loafers in Phatthaya and
later builds himself a restaurant in Phooket. He falls in love with Ta; they marry and run the
restaurant, which prospers, thanks to the wife; Thai only wants to take life easy in the company of his
friends. During her pregnancy, he has an affair with a helper. When his wife finds out, she leaves
him. Thai convinces her to come back, but she packs up again after a couple of years when he becomes
hopelessly addicted to marijuana. After taking stock of himself, Thai stops taking grass and goes back
to her. She is awaiting their second child.
As for Otto, his real name is Ort. Soon after Orts mother dies, his father remarries and has a
daughter: Ort feels left out. When he shoots a local bully he only meant to threaten to protect a
friend, he flees from home and lies low in the South. Unknown to him, his father sells their house and
condemns himself to a life of poverty in order to settle with the parents of the victim, who has merely
been injured, so that Ort is not prosecuted. Ort drifts into the underworld and becomes one of the
trusted lieutenants of a Phatphong godfather. He also gets hooked on heroin, which will eventually
send him to jail for six months. When he realises that the godfather, far from trusting him, is using
his lieutenants to spy on one another in order to keep himself on top of the heap, Ort feels betrayed
and, at the first opportunity, joins the group of Phatthaya dropouts he has befriended. With their
help, he gets over his heroin addiction; he earns a living by making leather bags. A drunken German
girl gives him his new name, Otto. By then, he has made his peace with his father. (Years later, he
will help out Thai, whose wife has left him, run the Phooket restaurant, and then will get his own
shop in the neighbourhood.)

And whats that got to do with your falling off some window? Thai finally thought of
Plenty, as I was about to tell you.
How many floors? Thai asked.
Three floors, man, three floors. Otto looked like he was boasting about something he
was proud of, having faced danger in a way his friend never had.
Three floors! Thai wouldnt believe it. Then what happened to you? Did you break
an arm or leg or something? He still couldnt believe it.
Nope. Otto shook his arms, then lifted his glass of brandy. See, Im still strong.
How did it happen? Thai couldnt picture it. He just couldnt imagine how one
managed to fall off three floors just like that.
I fell all by myself. Otto laughed. The fucking cops wouldnt believe I did it myself.
They thought someone had pushed me. He laughed even louder as he thought about that

No, I wont go! Otto was cornered, his back against the wall.
Yes youll go, you will. Chuanchua half entreated, half ordered. He was closing in on
Otto, and so was Samlee.
Litl Hip sat in another corner of the room, looking on and laughing at the antics of his
friends. The two of them grabbed Otto under his arms and lifted him off the floor. With
both of his arms pinioned by Chuanchua and Samlee, Otto couldnt resist anymore, so he
let them walk him out of the room.
This was the first time he was scared of spirits.
They had been at it since the previous evening, when his friends had gathered to send
off Rat, who was returning to Surart, and then after they had put him on the train, they had
gone on and on until the four of them had returned to the apartment. Litl Hip didnt drink
so he had let his friends get on with the booze, which they had swigged and swilled as
starving ghouls freshly out of hell until they had passed out from stupor and sheer
exhaustion as the sky was beginning to blanch.
In late morning when Litl Hip had gotten ready to go and open the shop, he had seen
his friends still sprawled about in the middle of the room.
When they had emerged one after the other in the afternoon, showers had put them
back in shape and they had been ready to hit the stuff again. They had helped one another
lumber liquor diligently up the stairs and then had gone on guzzling with gusto. When
Litl Hip had closed the shop and come back in the evening, the circle was still going
assiduously strong. Nobody was counting the bottles, nobody was keeping tabs on the
money sunk, nobody was interested in anything but sitting and sousing on. Even Litl Hip,
who was one of them, felt fed up with the sight they offered.
Otto by then was hurting all over his chest, as if it was all parched and cracked.
Wherever he pressed, it hurt. But he still forced himself to drink up to get rid of the
remaining stuff in order to rest and sleep or, if they were to go back home, to let them
leave. He thus did his best to urge them on by pouring round after round.
But the situation turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected.
The last glass downed, Chuanchua opened his mouth to suggest that they go get some
rice gruel.
Otto knew well what going out to eat gruel meant so he conceded defeat and said no to
his friends. He was fully aware that his body couldnt take any more alcohol and that no
matter how much hed eat his drunkenness wouldnt get any higher, because it was so
mixed with weariness it made him feel drowsy and unamused, and he was loathe to add to
But Chuanchua and Samlee wouldnt see it his way.
Let go of me. Come on. I can walk by myself. Show some respect, bloody hell, people
are looking, Otto said when he had been taken all the way down to the ground floor. The
two of them unlocked their hold to give their friend his freedom.
As soon as he was released, Otto turned around and rushed back up the stairs. He had
no strength left and yet he ran up and up the flight of stairs, because he knew that he must
flee, that he had to escape from booze. Tired out as he was, he had to clench his teeth and
bear it, because the footsteps of booze were right behind him.
He came to a stop on the third-floor landing. He was panting, his throat dry, his mouth
sticky. He felt exhausted as if he had been running thousands of miles, but the footsteps
were still dogging him, coming closer and closer. He knew that if he went back to hide in
the room, theyd drag him right back down again.
He frantically looked for a place to hide. He saw that behind the outer wall of the
staircase, there was an awning jutting out just wide enough for him to hide on. He didnt
think twice and in no time hoisted himself over the wall, then eased himself down to stand
on the awning. His friends footsteps came thumping up. He saw their heads bobbing up
so he released his grip on the ledge and dropped out of sight.
Where the hell < did he go < so < fuckin fast? Chuanchua panted.
Must be back < in the room, Samlee panted just as heavily.
The two of them walked wearily back up to the room once again. Litl Hip answered the
door. He was obviously in the process of tidying up the room, clearing the mess his friends
had left behind.
How come youre still here?
Wheres Otto? Chuanchua stepped inside.
He just left with you.
Hes come back up already, Samlee said while looking under the bed and then into
the wardrobe.
He isnt here. He didnt come back in here at all. Why should I lie to you? Litl Hip
told the two of them.
But they wouldnt believe him. They went looking around in the bathroom, on the
balcony at the back of the room where clothes hung to dry, and in every possible corner
they suspected Otto might be hiding. Theirs was a model search which would have
inspired detectives in a movie.
I think hes hiding somewhere outside, Samlee conjectured.
I think he really doesnt want to go. If he did, you wouldnt have to urge him on, Litl
Hip observed.
I know he doesnt, thats why I pressed him. Chuanchua laughed.
Forget the sonofabitch. Lets go, just the two of us, Samlee urged. Chuanchua
conceded defeat in view of Ottos efforts and followed Samlee out.
If he comes tell him Ill be back late tonight, he told Litl Hip over his shoulder.
They walked down grumbling about being so damn tired, what with having to run up
and down all these stairs, and that set them talking about physical exercise, something they
had stopped practicing after the last lesson of PE on the third year of secondary school,
since they never had any activity that required physical workout other than elbow-
When they reached the ground floor, they saw a circle of people on the lawn in front of
the building, right next to the flight of stairs. Out of curiosity, without having to consult
each other, they went to have a look. They cut through the crowd and saw Otto sleeping in
the middle of the circle, sprawled out nicely on the grass.
Shit! The sonofabitchs managed to sneak out to come and sleep here. The bastard, he
tricked us into running like hell, Chuanchua whispered to Samlee.
But Samlee didnt think so. He looked up to the apartment and then didnt dare think
any further.
So you had the guts to go this far, hey? he mumbled to himself.
Look, these are the two who grabbed him and brought him down! Someone in the
group pointed at Chuanchua and Samlee.

When Otto came to, he felt greatly refreshed after such a jolly good nap, but when he
opened his eyes and looked around Thats a fucking hospital! he shouted to himself.
Thats when he realised he was feeling sore all over his body.
He looked at his legs. They were wrapped up like the legs of a mummy and strapped so
that they couldnt move. His bewilderment increased. How did he come to be lying here?
What for? He tried to recall what had happened the night before, but beyond the moment
his hands had slipped off the wall, he couldnt remember a thing.
I fell off the awning!
His heart missed a beat as he worried about his bones. They were probably crushed to
bits, thats why they had trussed him up like this. His torso was also held in a tight cuirass.
He wasnt sure what kind of armour it was that made him feel so uncomfortable, but
common sense told him it was probably meant to hold his bones together.
Will I be able to walk again? he asked himself and a sharp pain shot up all the way to
his nape and he prayed it wouldnt get that bad. He tried to wriggle his toes and when they
moved he felt better but he still hadnt fully recovered from his scare.
Otto became aware the conversations in the room had died down so he looked around
and saw two policemen coming in accompanied by a nurse who led them to his bed, under
the gaze of the other patients in the room who were watching intently. He knew
immediately what was up.
Ive come to ask you how you came to fall off that building, one of the policemen said
by way of introduction.
He asked Otto for his name, surname, age, address as well as employment, and once this
was over, questioned him on what had happened, all along using the evidence the two of
them had gathered.
Some people saw you being forced down the stairs, then they saw you fleeing back up,
with two people after you, and then after a short while you fell down.
Otto could guess what the policeman was getting at.
These were my friends, sir, he said truthfully.
You have nothing to fear. Just tell us the truth. You mustnt be afraid theyll come after
you again, the policeman who was taking down his story said soothingly.
They are really my friends, sir. They dragged me down to go out for a drink. When we
reached the ground floor, I tricked them into releasing me and then I fled and went to hide
on top of the awning, but I slipped and fell. He did not mention that he was drunk at the
Eh, whats so scary about having a drink? the first policeman asked again as if he
found it hard to believe him.
It is! When they start drinking they never stop, Otto confessed with a smile.
So you are sure theres nothing?
Positive. We are all friends, sir, he insisted firmly.
Next time they come to take you out for a drink, let me know: Ill stand in for you, the
one who took notes said in jest.
When they saw they had no case for attempted murder or bodily assault, the two
policemen decided they had no more business with him.
Nurse, please, Otto called out.
Yes? She turned around.
Am I seriously injured?
I dont know, youll have to ask the doctor. She turned her back and left, leaving Otto
to his agitated frame of mind.
Then he thought of his father. He did not want his father to come to know about this
trouble as well.
If I had gone along with them, I wouldnt have to be here. Otto blamed himself for not
giving in to his friends, instead of blaming them. If they had not tried to force his hand and
let him sleep, this wouldnt have happened. He never thought of it this way. He never
thought its truly the fault of these two sonzabitches.
And then the faces of these two sonzabitches popped up in his field of vision, together
with a whole flock of friends who swarmed in as soon as the door opened to visitors. They
all smiled gleefully as if the whole thing was damn funny.
That was a really long shot, man, Samlee told Otto.
You bastard, Otto swore. If thats how you see it, I shouldve told the cops to arrest
you. They just left a minute ago.
Arrest me for what?
For trying to kill me, you bastard, Otto swore again.
What dya mean I tried to kill you? You jumped all by yourself. You were sleepy, you
just wanted to go and crash down there, Samlee said, trying to cover up by making the
story sound flippant.
People saw you forcing me to come down and then saw me rushing upstairs to escape
I bet these were the folk that fingered us, Chuanchua told Samlee.
Stop making it sound like a movie. This isnt the Mafia stabbing you in the back and
then throwing you off the landing, Samlee said, laughing.
I dont give a toss about movies, but if I told the cops you pushed me, well, youd ve
had it, mates. Otto wasnt through threatening. He wanted his friends to sympathise and
treat him real special.
And do you know who it was who took you to the hospital? You were sleeping like a
log, leaving it to your good friends to carry you, Samlee said, exchanging nods with
Chuanchua and Litl Hip.
Truth is you shouldnt have gone to the apartment with Hip, you know, Chuanchua
told Otto.
Whats this now? Whats that got to do with me again? Litl Hip asked heatedly.
Its like this, see: if he hadnt gone with you, he wouldnt have fallen off the awning,
You sonofagun. Otto guffawed. Dont you come and jest and make me laugh. It
You dont have to laugh: it isnt on the doctors prescription. Chuanchua laughed.
Hey, Otto, I brought you some stuff. Bueak, who worked at Thai International, took a
bottle of whisky out of a paper bag and flashed the silver square box around.
Otto smiled at the taunt this time. Right, put it in this drawer, he said, pointing to the
cabinet at the head of his bed. Ill have a swig at it tonight.
Bueak did as he was asked.
How about some grass? Ill bring you some tomorrow, Litl Hip teased.
I think youd better bring a girlie show along. This way, everybody can see it, Otto
said with a smile.
The gang of friends standing around were having a great time chatting and joking as
usual, and not one among them asked, What did the doctor say? They knew it wasnt
their duty. To know how he was wouldnt help. Their duty was to jest to make their friend
forget his pain and worries.
Otto was entertained until the end of visiting time, which came unexpectedly soon. Fun
time passed so fast it was stunning. Like his friends always said: Time likes to harass those
who are having fun.
Before leaving, Bueak didnt forget to retrieve the bottle from the drawer.
Ill drink it just in case, he said amid his friends laughs.
Go easy, okay, Otto instructed, then smiled at him. He felt like getting up and walking
the hell out with his friends. He knew without having to be told that during the evening
visiting hour not one of them would show up.
Er, Hip, if my father comes to see me at the shop, dont tell him anything about what
happened. Tell him I went upcountry okay? His eyes pleaded with Litl Hip.
The same eyes followed his friends as they disappeared behind the door then went back
to looking at his own legs and he felt agitated again. He couldnt go anywhere he pleased.
He had no idea how long he would have to lie on this bed of sorrow.
Turning his head this way and that, he didnt know who he could talk to, so he closed
his eyes, dozed off, woke up, dozed off again, woke up again, bored to tears with having to
lie still. He thought about their lie-in competition in Chumphorn. He had never thought
hed ever have to lie like this again, and then he recalled Thongthiu, he thought how good
a friend Thongthiu had been to him, but hed died even before he could repay his kindness.
All kinds of stories from the Chumphorn era came back to him, making him smile and then
making him sad at the days gone by. It had been a long time since he had thought about
the past, since he had looked back in such vivid detail.
He lay there eyes blinking, thinking idly, until the door opened for the evening visiting
Even though he was convinced nobody would come, his eyes couldnt help checking.
He thought in his own defence that maybe his friends would realise how bored and lonely
he felt lying on his own in here. But nobody came.
He saw that the patients on the other beds had relatives and friends visiting, some even
had young women pealing and handing out fruits to them, and this made him all the more
By now, that bottle of Chivas must have turned into piss, and other bottles must have
followed in close order. The thought made his mouth turn acrid. Better not think about it.
He fancied himself eating a few mouthfuls of rice but just gave up the idea. The
bitterness in his mouth made everything taste foul. He took some pills and some water,
and then looked up at the ceiling, and when he had enough of that, turned to the window,
which offered the uninspiring sight of some building top and a tree top.
His heart winged out to his friends, and he wondered where theyd be by now, how it
would all end and who would be unable to go back home. Maybe the story of falling off
the third floor would no longer create any excitement. At least, he was a living proof that it
wasnt such a great idea.
Ort? The familiar call forced Otto to shift his attention.
Hip, you bastard, he swore in his heart.

The real meaning of friendship and the torments brought about by the lack of
communication between generations are the main themes of Mad dogs & Co, whose
overwhelming message is the need for individual self-discipline, never more evident than
amid a group of seemingly lawless social misfits. Time and again, the main characters go
back to basics until they get their priorities right, find a balance between friendship and
love, leisure and work, selflessness and selfishness.
The dreadful misunderstandings between fathers and sons are given strikingly equal
treatment from both sides, through the parallel stories of Otto and Thai (with shorter
anecdotes about a few secondary characters facing the same quandary). Fathers, as heads
of families, make the decisions that alienate their children; mothers, for all their love, play
second fiddle to their husbands. We are left in no doubt that fatherly love is a strong and
generous force at least as strong and generous as friendship but that the way it is
expressed or left unexpressed is misconstrued as indifference or hostility.
When fatherly love is lost or imagined lost, the love of friends is a wonderful surrogate.
Otto and all the other characters to varying degrees bend over backward to help out friends
in need. All of his trouble stems from protecting a friend. Friendship triumphs over Ottos
(and Nits) heroin addiction and saves Dams life two very powerful and moving
episodes. Thai finds among his friends the solace his wife cannot provide, as she, like his
father, goes by the values (hard work, profit, security) of mainstream society he has rejected
since an early age.
But friendship is costly. In Phatthaya, in Bangkok, in Phooket, the sundry easy-going yet
profitable business ventures that are the mainstays of the core group of outcasts collapse
one after the other as friends drop by like locusts to drink up all the profits. For Thai as well
as for Larn, friendship threatens married life.
All told, the mad dogs are a lovable flock of gentle freaks who live by their own meek
rules and are pathetically, even ridiculously, submissive to their parents whenever the
tides of life wash them back home between or after bouts of boozy freedom. They may be
rogues to the rest of society but they neither cheat nor steal nor exploit; instead, they are
regularly taken advantage of, by so-called upright citizens and, with their blessings, by
their own circles of friends. They neither envy nor bully nor judge and, despite occasional
frictions, try to live in harmony. Their alternative way of life is freely chosen. Otto finds in
his friends the warmth he missed in his father and the trust he thought he enjoyed from his
underworld boss underworld and mainstream society are two sides of the same coin and
Otto and his friends drop out of both to live on the coins rim. Thai is wealthy, yet his
ambition is merely to sing, drink and have a smoke and a good time with like-minded
souls. The author often makes the point that, had they cared to, his characters would have
been outstanding citizens: Thai, Italy Tui, Ja could have been successful businessmen, had
they wanted to get rich by any means. But life isnt about making money: this underlying
point is one of the messages of this saga about misfits who know how to laugh and enjoy
themselves at the price of a hangover or ten.
The novel is subversive at two other levels: by presenting funny, likable antiheroes
whose antics mock the predominant materialist values of the times; and by using
language which constantly veers between refined prose and coarse talk cocking a snook
at accepted writing standards.
The performance is all the more remarkable as it proceeded from a challenge: the
novel was written for serialisation in a womens magazine, Lalana, and it showed the
queens of pulp that strut in its pages what real writing is all about. Alas, Chart Korpjitti
got carried away, and even though the final book version was substantially pared down
to 687 pages of Thai text, it still includes some overly lengthy chapters. Nevertheless,
although the novel seems to be as rambling as a drunkard, its structure is a model of
rigor and sophistication.

Nikhom Raiyawa

Nikhom Korp-wong, better known by his pen name Nikhom Raiyawa *Nikom Rayawa+,
is a loner, a prize-winning writer who prefers the cackle of geckos and burr of cicadas in his
rubber-tree plantation in the South to the razzle-dazzle of Bangkoks literary circuits.
Physically, he is like his prose: handsome, lean and trim, not an ounce of fat. He dresses
casually and, like all men of labour, sits erect and moves little with arms crossed on his
chest or his hands flat on the table, attitudes which suggest self-control and reserve and
diffidence, perhaps. Life in the open has toasted his skin and deepened the webs of
wrinkles around his eyes. A shock of now greying, thinning hair sweeps his large, much
furrowed forehead. When he is not chuckling, often at himself, he looks sad or absent,
churlish even.
He is like I imagine the Kham-ngai of his masterpiece, High banks heavy logs (Taling Soong
Sung Nak), would look like had he survived the fall down that precipitous riverbank. Like
Kham-ngai, Nikhom is a craftsman obsessed with perfection and, like him, he has spent
years polishing his elephant of rosewood words. High banks heavy logs was first published
in 1984. Since then, the novel has known four different editions. Nikhom swears that the
1990 version is the final one. I doubt it: it still has little flaws he keeps discovering and
will want to correct in the next edition.
Nikhoms writing is crisp. He writes little, and with much effort: he throws away a lot.
The slim High banks was whittled down from a one-thousand-page draft. For years he has
been polishing the draft of a third novel (to be entitled Thalei Khee Phueng, The sea of wax)
and there is no telling when he will consent to make it public. Perhaps his fussiness with
words comes from his modest background. For a provincial lad who is not well read, the
struggle for recognition is first a fight with language.
He was born in 1944 in a hamlet by the Yom river (one of the four main tributary
streams of the Jao Phraya River) in the district of See Satchanarlai of Sukho-thai province
a transition area between the paddy fields of the Central Plain and the mountains of the
North. See Satchanarlai was, with Sukho-thai and Khamphaeng Phet, one of the early
capitals of the Thai, in the 13th and 14th centuries.
His parents held a village store selling basics, from dry noodles to needles and thread.
His father died in the early 1980s, too early to witness this sons rise to literary fame, which
has long amazed his illiterate mother. His four brothers went on to anonymous careers in
government service and the private sector.
After attending primary and secondary school at See Satchanarlai, Nikhom was 18 when
he left for Bangkok for further studies. Two years later he entered Thammasart University
to study economics.
There, he was among the founders of Phrajan Siao or Moon Crescent, one of the two
main groupings of budding writers who came to maturity and notoriety in the 1970s and
1980s, around the literary magazine Loak Nangsue.
In his last two years at Thammasart and for another three years, Nikhom published a
dozen short stories in a variety of magazines. But he also had to earn a living. Now a
graduate in economics, he found employment in the marketing division of Caltex in
Bangkok. The job entailed much travelling upcountry, but to an aspiring writer who had
dried up yet whose friends, one after another, were proving their literary mettle, marketing
oil products must have been thoroughly trying and frustrating.
One day, in early 1979, after eleven years of dragging logs, he simply walked out of
the office, without, he says, a goodbye to anybody they wouldnt have understood.
At last free to write, he spent nine awful months writing for the waste basket and finally
had to go back to dragging logs. Paradoxically, this son of the northern hills made the
curious decision to seek the peace of mind that he thought he needed to create by taking up
a job in the embattled jungles and mountains of the extreme South. It was a dangerous
gamble, as the region was and still is seething with sundry communist guerrillas,
Muslim insurgents, and bandits of all ilk, not to mention disgraced officials on the take.
His first job there was to contact owners of small rubber plantations and talk them into
selling out to his boss. An honest but risky job: a fellow agent was killed, and when he was
tipped off that he was about to be kidnapped and probably killed, he left, only to reappear
four months later in another corner of the South. He went from plantation to plantation,
and ended up on a desert island, where he ran a cacao plantation until a fire destroyed it.
(Nikhom swears that one day hell write a novel about it, to be entitled Kho-kho Ha Muen
Ton, Fifty thousand cacao trees.)
In 1982, he married Kaniarrat Kheeree, the official publisher of Loak Nangsue and a niece
of the owner of Duangkamon, a major publishing house in Thailand, which financed the
magazine. Besides bearing him a son and a daughter, she became his literary agent and,
more recently, his publisher.
His marriage marked the start of an intensely creative period. Nikhoms first novel, The
iguana and the rotten branch (Takuat Kap Khop Phu), was published the next year, to great
acclaim and a national literary prize. Set in the deep South, it depicts the endemic violence
of the region well. Though its construction is somewhat loose and its scope narrow, it
showed promise as a first novel. Comforted by its success, Nikhom regrouped his early
short stories in a book entitled The man in the tree (Khon Bon Tonmai), which also received a
national literary prize.
In 1984, after years of soul-searching and rewriting, came his second novel. High banks
heavy logs was immediately awarded the top national literary prize, but it was adjudged too
short to be a novel and dismissed out of hand by the selection committee of the 1985 SEA
Write Award, which went to a well-padded pot-boiler of popular appeal

. Three years
later, the jury finally saw the light and crowned a slightly plumper version of the same
novel, which had been nominated apparently without Nikhoms knowledge.
Since then, the planter-novelist has been listening to his rubber trees grow and thus has
had little to show the world apart from five exquisite tales for children, one of which also
received a literary award.

Phoon Pit Thong(Gold under clay), by woman novelist Kritsana Asoaksin

High banks heavy logs (Taling Soong Sung Nak) 1984

Kham-ngai is a jack of all trades and master of most successively or simultaneously a mahout,
blacksmith, truck driver, forest hand, wood carver and taxidermist. As the story starts, he and his
forty-year-old elephant, Phlai Sut, are about to drag logs across a meadow to the edge of the Yom
River a tributary of the Jao Phraya River flowing across the Phrae and Sukho-thai provinces of
Northern Thailand. The logs will be floated downstream when the river overflows its bank in the
fast-approaching rainy season. Though it is obvious that they wont finish on time, man and elephant
wear themselves out dragging the logs.
The two of them were born in the same year and raised together. As Kham-ngai went away to do
his military service, his father, a blacksmith who had become the elephants mahout, fell sick and had
to sell Phlai Sut to pay for medicine, but he died shortly before Kham-ngais return. Phlai Suts new
mahout was a drunkard, who mistreated the elephant. When, many years later, thieves cut off Phlai
Suts tusks to the root, Kham-ngai nursed him with tender care and was finally allowed by its owner,
the local tycoon everybody calls the Boss, to ride Phlai Sut again. After one month working in the
forest, they have come to drag the logs to the rivers edge.
Whenever he takes a break, Kham-ngai thinks about various events in his past. After he lost Phlai
Sut, he went to work in the forest, doing everything from attaching chains to logs to [floating logs]
down to the sawmill. One day, a log smashed his foot. Afterward, he refused to work in the forest
and started carving wood and stuffing the carcasses of animals, under the supervision of his
childhood friend, Bun Harm.
Kham-ngai married Majan, who worked as a salesgirl at the tycoons shop in town, and the couple
went to live in Kham-ngais house by the river. They have a son, AE. As he grows up, AE raises
chicks and then ducks.

One day AE walked up over the top of the bank carrying some mud carp strung on rattan
cord. He hung the string of fish on the bottom post of the stairs and then leaned his fishing
pole against the chicken coop. As he glanced into the coop he saw one chick trembling
badly, so he went in and picked it up. The chick just sat in his hands and did not try to run.
Whats wrong with it? Majan asked.
I dont know.
She came to look at the chick as soon as AE set it down. It was shivering so violently that
it could not walk straight.
Its feathers are all wet. It must be cold, Majan said. Take it and set it by the fire.
AE carefully placed the chick in front of the cooking stove. The warmth gradually dried
out the feathers and the chicks legs stopped shaking. It started to cheep and then twisted
its head back to preen its feathers.
Its better already, Mom. AE was excited as he cupped the chick in his palms and
moved it away from the stove. [...]
AE had twelve ducklings. He had put duck eggs under a hen to brood. Once the eggs
had hatched, AE had taken very good care of the ducklings and they had grown up very
quickly. [...]
One day as AE watched the swimming ducklings scoop up water and toss it onto their
backs, he had a suspicion that something was wrong. There seemed to be fewer of the
yellow ducklings than there should be. He counted again. There was one duckling missing.
He counted quickly one last time and then jumped up and ran wildly back to the worm
patch behind the kitchen. He searched everywhere under the bushes, between the holes
in the fence, along the sides of the logs but he could not find the missing duckling. He
turned and looked in every direction, a bewildered expression on his face. After a moment
he went to the patch where the soil was all loose and crumbly from his digging. Somebody
wearing shoes had trampled all over the place, leaving deep footprints in the soft earth. AE
stuck the shovel in and started to gently lever up dirt, turning it completely. He worked
anxiously until he was breathing hard.
And then he found it buried in the earth, its soft and fluffy yellow down soiled with red
dirt. He lifted the duckling and held it close to his breast, looking all around, his face very
pale. The duckling was soft and its neck hung limply. An earthworm inched out of its beak.
AE pulled it out and then lowered his head to blow air into the ducklings beak. But it
didnt move at all. He blew again and again. Its eyes were closed but its body was still
warm. He rushed home and put the duckling in front of the stove to let it be warmed by
the fire, and then sat watching over it. His face was sad, his mouth puckered and his eyes
red, ready to cry. After sitting quietly for a while, he picked up the duckling in the palm of
his hand and repeatedly flexed its wings, stretched its legs and blew into its beak. He made
a little blanket for it, and then put it by the stove again.
What are you doing? Kham-ngai had come upstairs and walked over to the stove.
Majan set down the clothes she had been mending and came to stand next to AE.
Cant you see its dead? Kham-ngai said when he saw the duckling. Why did you
bring it in here?
He walked into the other room to look for a clean shirt. When he came back, AE was still
pathetically watching the duckling just as before.
Come on, get rid of it, he told AE as soon as he saw that the boy had not moved. Its
not going to come back to life. It will start to go rotten soon.
AE lifted the duckling in his hands, not turning to look at anyone. With his head
lowered, he went downstairs as fast as he could. His hands and his legs trembled and he
struggled to hold back his sobs.
Majan stared coolly at Kham-ngai. Dont you feel anything? she asked levelly as she
watched her sons back disappearing downstairs. He knows.

Still bereaved over the loss of Phlai Sut, Kham-ngai decides to carve a real-size elephant out of a block
of rosewood left by his father. He makes a deal with the Boss to exchange the wooden elephant for
Phlai Sut in due time. Confident in his abilities, he tells a reluctant Majan that carving the statue
will take him a couple of years. But years turn into decades. It takes him a long time to get down to
the task, and when he does, he realises that, although he has spent years close to his beloved elephant,
he doesnt know such basic features as the number of nails on an elephants foot.
Life goes on. AE is growing up. Majan tells Kham-ngai that he is no longer the man she married. He
is so absorbed in his sculpture that he neglects his work at the taxidermy workshop.

Beams of afternoon light struck into the shed. Kham-ngai struck the chisel with all his
strength to plane off a hard, protruding knot from the rosewood. He had come a long way
with the elephant. Its shape and proportions were beautiful. All that was left to do was to
smooth it up and attend to a few details. The bottom of the feet and the base had not yet
been carved and were still roughly webbed.
He did the finishing work carefully and as he went along, found imperfections all the
time. Why didnt I see that yesterday? he asked himself. I wonder if Ill find something
else wrong tomorrow.
Some days he would soothe himself by saying, Today it will be as good as it can ever
be, but the next morning he would find something else that needed correcting. He found
little flaws so often that he became discouraged. When will all of the corrections be done?
he grumbled to himself. Will I have to keep refining it until the day I die?
He buried himself in the shed more and more until his soul entered into the wooden
elephant. He didnt care whether it was day or night. Many evenings he would light an oil
lantern and work through the middle of the night. Sometimes he worked with complete
understanding, the hammer and chisel moving as if of their own volition, as if it wasnt
him who was carving.
Its taking shape all by itself, he would say, looking at the parts that had already been
carved. Its emerging by itself, little by little.
He was so wrapped up in his work that he didnt want to stop. Time went by very fast.
If I had more time it would be good, he thought. I could work more smoothly. It would
also be good if I didnt have to stop to eat or to sleep.
He worked on the ears, which had to be very thin, with great caution.
Its almost done, he thought, as he stood scrutinising the wooden elephant. If I didnt
have to stuff animals, I could carve all the time. My time would be my own. How would
the work go then? I wonder what Bun Harm would say if he saw the elephant. Ive no idea,
and it wouldnt matter anyway. Its taken such a long time to reach this day that Im not
excited about anything anymore.
Was it finished or not? he would think, backing up to look at it from a distance. Its still
missing something. What would people say if I told them what Ive put into the elephant?
Ive put in many, many years, Ive put in willpower and endurance. Theres joy and
suffering and fear and courage and many other things all mixed up together in there.
The elephant was posed striding forward. The dangling trunk was slightly curved and
looked soft and pliable. The delicate ears were poised to flap. The long tail looked as if it
was swinging quickly, lashing out at swarming insects. Strong legs supported a massive
body. It was as big as a fully grown elephant.
How many years already? he thought. Ive been in here for a long time. He could
remember when he had first prepared his hammer and chisel and brought them to the
shed. AE was still playing with a toy elephant. But now he has grown a lot hes running
up and down the river bank and going fishing almost every day.
From that first day until now, the carving had brought him a great sense of relief, as if he
had expunged something from his heart. As for the rosewood elephant in the shed, it
didnt matter whether people liked it or not. It was there. It had its own meaning. He had
never thought about this before. He had only felt that it was something he had to do. He
had never felt that it was a burden or a duty or that some sort of obligation had compelled
him to pick up the chisel.
There were some feelings hidden quietly in his heart. He thought of Phlai Sut, but it was
the mood of the moment. The carving had nothing to do with anybody not the Boss, not
Majan, not AE. Until today the elephant was only itself. He saw it only as a symbol of the
path he had taken to create it, a path which he had been following for so long that his black
hair had become sprinkled with grey.
Kham-ngai stood for a long time staring at the wooden elephant. He had not heard
Majan calling him to dinner, so she came downstairs to fetch him.
Are you going to stare at it until you are full, instead of eating? Her voice showed her
concern. As soon as its done, somebody else will come and take it away, you know. It
wont be ours any more.
Kham-ngai turned and smiled at her. He didnt say a word, but a new feeling came to
him. Whatever happened to the elephant, he thought, no matter how many times it was
bought or sold, nobody could truly take it away. Every minute of being in the shed, from
the first strike of the chisel to the last, was something apart; that time was the real elephant.
The totality of the experience came back to him with great clarity.
Everybody has his own elephant. To each his own. Everybody must do his own carving.
Theres no switching.
AE walked around the elephant, stroking the legs and trunk. He turned to look at
Kham-ngai shyly. Can I ride it?
Kham-ngai held AE up as far as his arms could reach. AE stuck his arms out and
grabbed the elephants neck and then clambered up to sit astride it. His face was beaming
as he sat on the hard, rounded body. After a while, he looked all around as he stroked the
ears and the prominent bumps on the elephants head. Gradually he lost his feeling of awe
and began to relax, swaying back and forth and laughing. He shouted and prodded with
his feet. *<+
When they got back to the house, Majan asked AE, Did you like it?
It was fun.
Just like a real elephant, right?
AE stopped to think. Just the same, he said, with a catch in his throat. He was silent
for a moment and then shook his head.
What? Kham-ngai and Majan asked simultaneously.
Its not the same.
Why did you say it was the same at first?
Because its the same.
The three of them burst out laughing.

The next day Kham-ngai stood looking at the elephant.
Its true what AE said, he thought. Its still missing something. *<+ He climbed up
onto the elephant and sat on the neck.
The elephant was hard and unyielding. It did not feel like an elephant. It was just a dry
piece of wood heavy, passive and numb.
He came down to take another look. Its the same, though, he thought. The ears are
about to flap. The trunk looks as if its swinging. The legs are ready to step. And the shape
is beautiful.
But its still missing something. He was still brooding about it when he went to bathe in
the river and that night he could not get to sleep.
Youve got to look at a real elephant, Bun Harm advised him the next day after Kham-
ngai had told him how he felt. *<+
Kham-ngai calmed himself. As soon as his seat was firm, he felt something emanating
from the elephants neck. He was so excited that he lost his fear instantly. It was this feeling
that was missing from the wooden elephant. *<+ Thats what I wanted to know the
inherent warmth and gentleness of the elephant running uncontrolled under him. It has its
moods. It has flesh and blood. It has life and spirit. He sensed the peak of the elephants
vitality as it charged forth.
He had not entered the shed for a long time. After he climbed down from Phlai Suts
neck the day the elephant had run wild, Kham-ngai had felt just the opposite of what he
had felt on the day when he had left the wooden elephant. He had felt relieved and happy
to have been able to complete the statue, but after he had encountered the life force of Phlai
Sut, he reverted to trembling and felt he had achieved nothing. He still remembered clearly
the animal he had ridden Phlai Sut was alive and possessed everything that his wooden
elephant lacked. Whenever he thought back to the days and nights he had spent in the
shed with the block of rosewood, he felt only desolation and melancholy.
It was nothing but a hard piece of wood. It was the carcass of a dead tree. He brooded
about the statue, his thoughts circling over and over again.
What is it you want? Bun Harm asked. You want it to run? To trumpet? To drag
Its not like that, Kham-ngai said. Anyway, I didnt say anything like that.
The way it is nows good enough. Dont think too much. Some people only want
carcasses. They are not interested in life the way you like to talk about it.
When Majan noticed that he no longer mentioned the wooden elephant, she asked,
Arent you going to work on it anymore?
He didnt answer but just sat quietly. *<+
Come on! Finish it up, Majan said, and then go sell it to the Boss.
The Boss had always liked wooden elephants. They give you a sense of power and
strength, he would say to customers who came to admire the goods at the workshop.
The bigger the log, the more fitting it is that it should be turned into an elephant.
Why do men take blocks of wood and make them into elephants? Kham-ngai
wondered. We human beings are strange. Wood always has a bigness of its own, and even
when it is turned into an elephant, the bigness still comes from the tree, not from the man
who carves it. A big piece of wood, all it is really is just a tree. But people cant see the
beauty of a tree when it is standing and giving shade, so they chop it down, cut the
branches and strip the leaves, turning it into a wooden corpse. And then they carve it into
the corpse of an elephant, praising and admiring it more than a real elephant or a living
tree. Finally, none of it is real, neither the tree nor the elephant.

Unable to bring life to his almost completed sculpture, Kham-ngai just ignores it.
When AE drowns, a shattered Kham-ngai reflects on the meaning of life, and finds stuffing dead
animals to make them look alive unbearable. He quits his job and stays home, where Majan copes
with her own sorrow by immersing herself in constant work.

Before, when he had been carving the elephant, he had always felt there was too little time
to get the work done, but now there was too much time. Time had no significance, and
every place seemed filled with emptiness. A void awaited him in the sunlight and in the
dark. The days followed one another so much alike that he began to cower.
I want to stuff them, these damned days and nights, he told Majan. Then they
wouldnt be so bloody empty. He turned to go downstairs, leaving Majan to stare at his
back in bewilderment. But who, he thought, could stop the emptiness? Oh, itll pass. Its
like life you cant bring it to a standstill. He thought of AE. He thought of AEs vitality
and high spirits. That was all gone. He thought of AEs corpse, a carcass with no meaning.
Anything that can be preserved indefinitely is just a carcass.
Why is it impossible to preserve life? he thought. Perhaps it is possible, but we just
dont know how to go about it. Id really like to know if you are going to preserve life,
how do you do it? Where do you start?
Well, to begin with, you dont kill it, he said out loud, only to be startled by his own
voice. He looked all around him to see if anybody was near enough to have overheard, but
when he saw that he was alone he continued to walk along the river bank.
Its easy enough, he thought. If you want to preserve life, then you have to watch over
it, love it, cherish it. And doing all of that is a lot easier than stuffing life back into a carcass.

Kham-ngai comes to realise that for years he has been ignoring the life around him, in particular a
dirty little boy he has seen in the background so often but has never really paid attention to, and
when he finds out that the child has no family, he and Majan adopt him.
His friend Bun Harm asks Kham-ngai to stop dragging logs for a while and help bring a huge block
of teak sitting by the river bank to his workshop. Bun Harm wants to carve the block into a larger-
than-life elephant. Both Phlai Sut and Kham-ngai know this is an impossible task. Yet, they try and
try. The block moves a few feet then gets stuck.

Kham-ngai felt that he was part of the elephant and that the elephant was part of him.
Nobody is separable from anybody else, he told himself. When AE died, he had felt
unbearably morose and disturbed. He had thought so much about AEs death that he had
become totally confused, his thoughts a jumble. AE is part of me, he thought, as I am part
of AE. Majan, too. The three of us, theres no way to separate us. None of us enjoys alone or
suffers alone.
Everybody affects everybody else. Every human being has invisible threads that bind
him to others. I am not me, and he is not him. I live in him, and he lives in me.
All of us are born only once and die only once. What lies in between is life and we
have to go and search that out for ourselves.
Truly, life is receiving shares. If I work for the boss I get a portion as wages, and
dragging logs is my portion of the work that goes with the wages. All the shares should
balance out, whether sad or happy, hungry or full, heavy or light. But most people want
their share of obligations to be lighter than it should be. They are unwilling to accept their
share of responsibilities.

To speed things up, Bun Harm and his workers prod the elephant from behind with spears. The block
inches forward, then tumbles over the bank, pulling Phlai Sut and Kham-ngai with it to their deaths.
The day after the cremation, some of the Bosss underlings come and take the wooden elephant away,
congratulating themselves that the Boss made the deal before Kham-ngai died.
Kham-ngai is dead, yet life goes on:
In the morning there was fog. Majan carried a basket in one hand and with the other
helped the little boy down the stairs. His scrawny body was full of life. The two of them
walked through the wet grass to the top of the knoll and slipped into the fog. A rainbow
appeared in front of them, as the gentle morning light began to warm the air.

High banks heavy logs is a moving love story between a man and an elephant, who are
accomplices in the games of youth, then in labour and in death. It is also a philosophical
novel, where simple words point out basic values that most of us have forgotten. This tale,
told in a realistic setting through a rich array of metaphors and symbols and a shrewd
imbrication of flashbacks, is a death-paced hymn to life. Decidedly Thai and Buddhist, this
fiction has universal appeal, as it offers a tragic and poetic vision of the universal flux and a
haunting reflection on the meaning and value of life and art.
The story begins only days ahead of its ending, but in between, the whole richness of a
lifetime of events and thoughts comes through in carefully arranged recollections of the
past. The various sequences are narrated at leisure, yet the transition from one to the next is
swift and natural. The flashbacks light up different moments in life, in a thematic, not
chronologic progression. This way, time contracts and expands in turn, giving the novel the
fluid, breathy pace of life itself.
Hardly anything that happens is gratuitous. The appearance of a dirty little boy on
page 2 and at irregular intervals throughout the novel seems anecdotal until, near the end,
he turns out to be an important figure, when Kham-ngai adopts him less as a surrogate to
his dead son, perhaps, than as a way to act on his understanding of the need to foster and
protect life. Many other apparently unconnected scenes or details find their meaning in
subsequent developments.
The setting of the novel is definitely Thai, rural northern Thai the quiet of the river
banks, the relative bustle of the district town, the slow pulse of provincial life, with its
chores and festive interludes. The whole novel is peppered with incidental, unobtrusive
social criticism, about the rape of the surrounding forest, the seasonal suppression of
illegal logging by officials who will allow themselves to be bribed to release the elephants
they have put under arrest, the mindless killing of animals in the name of fun and sports,
the greed that has thieves maim an elephant to make the most of his tusks, old
superstitions, and technical progress, which swiftly destroys life and customs.
Very Thai also, and perhaps shocking to Western readers, is that the characters have
almost no physical appearance; if they are described at all, it is in one word or phrase
which is repeated throughout the novel and soon turns into a stereotype. What matters is
not what they look like only what they do, say or think. Yet, they are believable familiar
types, from the sales girls who cant understand how Majan can bear the solitude of the
Yom river bank to the local tycoon, a benevolent father figure with a finger in every local
pie, who takes care of his own, regally orders everybody about, bribes officials and always
gets his way.
The two main male characters, Kham-ngai and Bun Harm, offset each other. Bun Harm,
Kham-ngais friend, is typical of the multitude of ordinary people who live life as it comes,
unquestioningly. He is a small cog in the social system, who grinds away, knows his job,
knows his place, lives and dies none the wiser.
Kham-ngai is somewhat like Bun Harm at first, a drifter in life, doing what he is told,
although already as an adolescent he is asking himself questions about his environment, if
not yet about life itself. It is his work on animal carcasses and above all the death of his son
that make him query the purpose and value of life.
His quest for meaning is that of a simple man who uses his brain by training it on the
simple things near at hand: the banks of the river, the stream, the schools of fish, the flight
of birds across the sky, the fog, logs, dogs, cats. This very simplicity enhances the poetic
charm of the novel.
Kham-ngais conclusions are seemingly simple, yet fundamental. Life is what we make
of it. We all have chains and logs to drag (the burden of work and of social relationships),
and we must do our share. The counterpart of being alive is to accept duties and
obligations. Plainly outlined here is a moral of responsibility and personal engagement. It is
an important message in a society where selfish interests tend to pre-dominate under
protective smiles and the never mind common gloss.
(At first sight, there is bitter irony in the fact that Kham-ngais death is provoked
unwittingly by his best friend, when he prods the elephant to force it to move forward. On
second thoughts, however, what really kills Kham-ngai is Bun Harm and his fellow
workers lackadaisical attitude to life. When the dust settles on the fallen block, elephant
and man, the workers watching from above are dumbfounded they could never have
imagined what their irresponsible, fun-packed behaviour would lead to, and now that they
know it is too late.)
Life is what we make of it, but our choices are not unlimited: we have our own
limitations; the invisible banks of our personality, of the society we live in, of the challenges
we face, channel our course. We cannot act as though there were no limits as
irresponsible beings dreaming their lives away. Dreaming is easy, but unrealised dreams
are a delusion. Everybody has a big wooden elephant in ones heart, to think of as being
beautiful however one likes. If you dont actually pick up a hammer and chisel and take
them to that block of wood, then the elephant in your heart will stay forever beautiful,
beautiful without limits. You wont know your limits until you put your dreams to the
When he does so, Kham-ngai realises not only his own limitations but also those of his
own creation. His lifelong work, the wooden replica of his beloved elephant, lacks one
essential element: life, as do the carcasses he stuffs for a living. Such is the limit of art. It
might be objected that Kham-ngais undertaking is not a gratuitous exercise: he wants it to
be a toy for his son, until such time when he will exchange it for the real animal. But arent
these mere justifications? After all, he will recover Phlai Sut even though the wooden
elephant is still unfinished.
The statue is the result of years of toil and tears of pride and frustration a testimony to
its creators ability and a symbol of its creators alienation: while he was busy with it, time,
life were passing by, and Kham-ngai missed them. It takes him many, many years, and his
own sons death, to come to the conclusion that life must be protected and cherished the
humble yet central truth that AE instinctively knew, as he knew that his duckling was
Kham-ngais wife, Majan, represents common decency and authentic values. A light-
headed, dreamy young woman, she turns into a caring mother then an aggrieved one. She
disapproves of Kham-ngais lifelong enterprise (shed rather have the block of rosewood
turned into parquet boards), which she rightly perceives as alienating, and of his occasional
callousness (the episode of the dead duckling). As a mother, she knows how to take care of
life, and needs no theorising about it.
Throughout the novel, cats are chasing birds and dogs stalking cats: the peaceful
outback is a cruel, dangerous world in which people and animals hunt and hurt or avoid
one another in an unending cycle of violence. It is a world of impermanence and cycles of
renewal and decay, challenges and defeats, hope and desolation: AE is dead, Kham-ngai is
dead, Majan and the scrawny boy live on, to the next rainbow, which will soon dissipate.
The vision expounded here is eminently Buddhist. No religious jargon, though: we are
treated to a succession of scenes and symbols. The only time when an obvious key is given
to the religious door is at the end when, in a moment of truth, Kham-ngai, as he falls to
his death, has a revelation comparable to the Buddhas illumination. Everything melted
together, blending harmoniously in expanding yellow petals blooming continually.
Yellow the colour of the beautiful flowers of the ugly tree at the back of his house, but
also the colour of Buddhism. Yellow blossoms filled Kham-ngais eyes and he instantly
knew that the time of the flowering [of that tree] was not too short. It was just right.
Amen, to a resigned tolerance of the ways of the world, and of the futility and nobility of

Wimon Sainimnuan

Wimon Sainimnuan is the angry young man of Thai letters and he has every right to be.
A child of Bangkok slums, he has suffered since the age of 12-13 from severe bouts of
migraine and a stomach ulcer. Until he became a teacher at 20, his was a hand-to-mouth
existence, sharing bed-sized shacks with his forever quarrelling parents and permanently
pregnant elder half-sister, yet somehow managing to get an education in neighbouring
schools. Now, in his late thirties, he is a successful novelist, owns a publishing house,
Tharntawan, which has published over a hundred titles, and in June 1994 he scuttled his
ailing literary magazine, Phuean Nak Arn, only to start a new one in cooperation with the
Duangkamon publishing group. To humour his migraine and ulcer, he has kept an
impressive list of creditors since the early days and is a couple of million baht in debt with
the banks.
Nowadays, the skinny street cat is well on his way to stockiness. His chubby face, aged
by a moustache and goatee and topped by a mop of hair parted in the middle that looks as
real as a wig, sports a deeply etched frown, which even his fleeting toothy smile wont
erase. Yet Wimon talks at length with great ease, displaying an uncommon power of
analysis of society at large, of todays Thai literary world and of his own fictional
endeavours. A man of strong yet often sound opinions, he is a wily crusader bent on
convincing others of the rightness of his views, and his pent-up anger and violence find
intermittent relief in spurts of aggressive writing. He wrote Snakes (Ngoo), the novel that
made him famous at 26, in sixteen days but he had been brooding over it for years. Since
then, half a dozen more novels have exposed more social frauds and human failings, but
the downside of his brashness is a lack of nuance and psychological depth and he shares
with many senior social crusaders of the Thai novel a tendency to present characters in
black-and-white terms. His fictional world is full of murders, abductions, rapes and other
sexual derelictions, and many of his characters, even among the goodies, are violent, ill-
tempered and foul-mouthed just like the slum and rural folk tourists are never meant to
meet. Yet, he is a novelist with a fertile imagination who keeps recycling his life material in
a variety of plots, and he has a racy style.
He was born in 1958 near the foot of Pinklao Bridge on the Thonburee side of the Jao
Phraya River, but two years later his parents moved to the Bang Lein district of Nakhorn
Pathom province, west of Bangkok, to grow rice. Wimon grew up in a traditional rural
environment which, with its prevalent Buddhist and animistic beliefs, has provided the
background of most of his novels.
His father and mother had separate marriages (his mother at least two) before they
married and had him, their only common child, and even now, he says, he is unable to
figure out how many half-brothers and half-sisters he has five, six, perhaps more.
He was eleven when, no longer able to cope, his parents gave up their land and
migrated back to the capital, renting a tiny room in a wooden shack in the Huay Khwang
slum, in the northern part of the city. His father delivered coal on a pushcart and gambled;
his foul-mouthed yet devout mother made desserts of steamed glutinous rice Wimon
delivered at dawn every day to a seller near the Victory Monument. The four of them,
including his ever pregnant sister kept moving from shack to shack within the Huay
Khwang slum. Wimon claims he used to forage in rubbish heaps for edible or sellable
items, even fighting with dogs over food. He described the hell of his adolescence in
excessive terms in his third novel, The poor (Khon Jon), 1987, in which everybody but the
crippled narrator dies in the end.
Having gone through secondary education, he was too poor to afford the tuition fees of
the police academy. Borrowing from a friend, he did sit for the teachers training college
entrance examination, and passed. His three-year training at Bangkoks Jantharakaseim
and Ayutthayas Phetburee teachers colleges over, he married Arunee (also a teacher; they
now have two sons) and went to teach in Nakhorn Pathom, relieved at having finally left
the slum behind, but he was soon at loggerheads with the headmaster over budgetary
allocations and the philosophy of teaching. Transferred after three years to Ayutthaya, he
taught for a year there, then entered Prasarnmits Faculty of Humanities in Bangkok in
1982. Among future writers of renown, he befriended another student, Sanei Sangsuk (see
last chapter) He taught me a lot; he was my first teacher of literature.
He published his first short story at 17, and it was during this period that Wimon not
only started to write in earnest (his first collection of short stories came out in 1983) but set
up his printing press, borrowing left and right and commissioning translations of foreign
novels from friends and teachers. Once he obtained his BA, he went back to teaching for an-
other three years, then turned to full-time writing and publishing.
Wimons early literary culture came less from books than from radio drama series,
which helps explain his flair for dialogue and swift changes of scenes, as well as his
apparent debt to Mai Mueang Derm (18981943), the pioneer of well-written novels with
a rural setting, black-and-white characters and stormy plots, who set the style for rural
drama inspiring both radio plays and the popular novels serialised in the Bangkork
magazine Wimon liked to read as a teenager. Another influence on him was some of
Khuekrit Prarmoats fictional works, but basically he learned novel-writing from a
handbook in Thai.
Even though he is a publisher, Wimon claims he reads little and is easily influenced by
what he reads. Steinbecks Grapes of wrath, which he published in Thai, inspired him to
write a similar tale, Snakes (Ngoo), set in the Thai countryside.
Each of his novels

has a main theme, developed at length though not didactically, and

one or more minor themes that keep recurring from one book to the next. Snakes, The
medium, Khoak Phranang and Lord of the land (The medium Part II) share the same rural
setting and can be viewed as a series, which Wimon says he will complete with a sequel to

Wimon Sainimnuans novels consist of: The fat spider (Maeng Mom Ooan), 1982, a novel for children;
Snakes (Ngoo), 1984; The poor (Khon Jon), 1987; The medium (Khon Song Jao), 1988; Khoak Phranang, 1989;
Moon over water (Duang Duean Nai Huang Narm), 1991; The grabbers (Phoo Khwai Khwa), 1991; Lord of the
land (Jao Phaendin) was being serialised in Sayarm Rats weekly supplement in 1994. Add to these two
collections of short stories, Krasae Lom Thee Phat Klap, 1983, and Wan Fa Mon, 1990.
Snakes denounces the evil doings of power seekers hiding in monks robes and the
connivance between monks and politicians. The medium, while exposing politicians self-
serving manipulations, puzzles over the question of the frontiers of the mind, arguing with
Nietzsche and Gandhi that men are what they think they are. Khoak Phranang focuses on
the exploitation of farmers credulity.
Moon over water explores the Buddhist notion that we create our own troubles sorrow
derives from thinking, which itself is conditioned by our education and experience. The
grabbers denounces dictatorship of all kinds, in society as well as in the family unit. The
novel also touches on womens efforts at liberation and on the distortions of the education
system. Wisdom according to Wimon consists in denying acquisitive instincts and refusing
to be slaves to ambition or anxiety.
Through his novels, Wimon pursues a double reflection on the nature of the individual
and the social forces that mould and maim it. A truly Buddhism-inspired writer, he can
hardly leave religious themes alone and bogus and genuine monks fill nearly all his works.
His output is so controversial that, even though The medium was turned into an
unsuccessful movie, no film director has dared to handle Snakes, fearing the ire of the
Buddhist clergy.

Snakes (Ngoo) 1984

Khoak Phranang is a small community of rice farmers in Central Thailand. The livelihood of these
simple folk depends entirely on nature, and their Buddhist faith mixed with superstition conditions
their understanding of life. Rats, crabs and snakes infest their paddy fields. As in other rural
communities, village life centres around the monastery. The village abbot has died and a young monk
named Nian (Smoothy) is about to take up the position. Nian has a smooth, fair skin and
distinguished manners. He has lived in the Buddhas fold since childhood, has completed the relevant
religious studies and is, at 30, the youngest man ever to become an abbot.
The kamnan (communal leader) and the villagers of Khoak Phranang hold a grand welcoming
ceremony for him, and Abbot Nian wins the peoples hearts by greeting everyone with sweet,
eloquent words and by telling fortunes. Informed that the old resident monk is confined in his
quarters as he suffers from an ulcer, the abbot humbly pays him a visit.
As he walks around the monastery grounds, the new abbot is depressed to see how derelict
everything is and he decides there and then that he is going to do everything in his power to renovate
the place and make it worthy of worship. As he walks, the sight of a snake in front of the old monks
cell sends him scurrying back to his quarters.
The next day, Abbot Nian discusses with the kamnan the dilapidated condition of the monastery and
tells him of his plan to organise a large temple fair to raise funds for the construction of dormitories
for the monks. The kamnan approves wholeheartedly. When asked by the abbot about the snake, he
explains that the old monk keeps two of them in his cell. The old monk is rumoured to be protected by
sacred objects shaped as phalluses he carves himself and rents out

to people, who thus acquire

merit. The old monk, who never spends money on anything, is thought to be very rich which starts
Abbot Nian wondering about how much he can wheedle out of the old codger.
Meanwhile, Yeesun, a local villager who has spent ten years in jail for murder, has been released. In
self-defence, he killed a hoodlum who had provoked him at the instigation of the kamnan, who wanted
to get rid of Yeesun in order to marry his common-law wife, Taeng. Yeesun hurries back home only
to learn that his father has died from a snake bite a couple of years ago and that his wife and ten-year-
old son are now living with the kamnan. Deeply hurt, he wants to rush to the kamnans house to take
his wife back, but is bitten by a dog and forced to stay home in the company of his mother and
Krathin, his sister. The bite probably saved his life as the kamnan was waiting for him determined to
shoot him dead in self-defence.
Taeng is dumbfounded when she learns that Yeesun is back. The kamnan had told her that Yeesun
had been stabbed to death in jail, and, with the complicity of her own mother, had raped her before
marrying her.
When Yeesun finally goes to the kamnans house, the kamnan refuses to let Taeng leave, arguing
that she is his legally wedded wife. Taeng tells Yeesun that she is determined to go and live with him
but that she must first convince the kamnan to grant her a divorce. Yeesun understands her plight
and agrees to wait.

Buddhist monks are not allowed to sell or buy, so they carry out their commercial activities under the
guise of rentals or leases, respecting the letter if not the spirit of canon law.
As the temple fair approaches, Uncle Jorn the father of Yeesuns sisters husband, Janthorn
persuades Yeesun, once a famed local boxer, to participate in a boxing match to help raise funds for
the temple.
One day, one of the Buddha statues at the temple is found beheaded. Cleverly oriented by the abbot,
peoples suspicions fall on Yeesun, who has just returned to the village and is without a job. The
devout Buddhists donate money to have a new statue made.
Janthorn, Krathins husband, who left his father, wife and two children months ago to try his luck in
Bangkok, returns home empty handed. Yeesun wants him to be ordained, but the young, handsome
man asks for time to think things over.
In the boxing match, Yeesun has to fight a well-trained boxer especially hired by the kamnan to
maim or kill him. The two boxers are evenly matched, however. Yet Yeesun deliberately loses in order
to teach the villagers a lesson by making them lose face.
After the fair is over, Uncle Jorns health deteriorates. His son, Janthorn, finally agrees to be
ordained, as being a monk brings much merit to ones parents as well as ones wife.
Shortly thereafter, Uncle Jorn dies. During the cremation, the abbot tells Yeesun he would like the
temple to have its own crematorium, and asks him to donate his earnings from the boxing match as a
contribution to the project. Yeesun answers that his mother has already donated half of it to the
temple. Undeterred, the abbot still asks for more.
The abbot and the kamnan are on the best of terms, as each benefits from the other. The kamnan
donates much money to the temple and asks the abbot to help him campaign for a seat in parliament.
Money keeps flooding into the temple. The monks quarters are demolished so that new ones can be
built. As the old monks quarters are being pulled down, the abbot tries to find the place where the old
codger hides his money, but the only thing he finds is a bottle containing dried flakes of snake poison.
The kamnan decides to open a restaurant and asks his mother-in-law and Teui, Taengs sister, to run
it. He has fallen in love with Teui and wants her as his wife. He tells himself that, if he succeeds, hell
let Taeng return to Yeesun.

The news of the kamnan opening a jungle-food restaurant in the district town for his wifes
mother and younger sister spread rapidly. Yeesun wasnt much interested in it but he was
interested in the fact that the kamnans restaurant wanted lots of live cobras.
He looked out at the dry fields. His sister had told him that for many years the paddy
fields had been ruined because they had been taken over by hordes of rats, to the point that
district and province officials had to announce they would buy rat tails for a half-baht
apiece. This had much reduced the number of rats. It was a good thing that everybody
would be able to grow rice again, but there was something else that was multiplying by the
day and taking over from the rats: snakes. They reproduced very rapidly and helped get
rid of the rats but they didnt stop there; they entered the village at night to feed on
domestic animals.
Yeesun began to see the possibility of making enough money to redeem the title deed on
his land held by the kamnan. It would be so much faster than growing rice. The only
difference was that he would have to risk his life, but it was worth it, given that he had no
other means of livelihood.
Go get yourself a talisman from Old Monk Tei; it will really protect you from snakes,
his mother suggested when she was unable to change his mind.
When you go hunting for them, take a lemon with you; they say cobras hate lemons.
His sister was worried. He listened but did nothing, except try to figure out ways of catching
snakes without exposing himself to too much danger. If he could kill them, he wouldnt have
to think hard like this. He could go looking for them with his forked stick and whenever he
found one just knock it on the head. But the restaurant wanted live, unmutilated snakes
because they had to be kept until such time as customers ordered them. If they were dead,
their meat would lose its flavour and spoil rapidly and they would not have the fresh
blood customers craved.

The scorching sun of the early afternoon baked the field, which gave out a shimmering
haze. There wasnt a puff of wind. A single banyan tree stood on top of a knoll in the
middle of the field as if to challenge the heat. Yeesun was plodding along, with his stick on
his shoulder, bending and looking around for snake holes. His right hand held the handle
of the stick, and a fertilizer bag to put snakes in was tied at his waist.
A flock of mynah birds skirting the field swooped down onto the banyan tree to get
away from the heat. Yeesun squinted, put his left hand over his eyebrows and strained his
eyes. Through the haze he saw the birds jumping about playfully, some circling around the
tree, cackling away at one another. He listened to their chatter intently. It wasnt the sound
of birds quarrelling but of warnings exchanged in alarm. He felt a pang of joy and started
to run at full speed. His body glistened in the heat as he headed for the banyan tree, and
the flock of birds took flight and scattered as he came to it.
Yeesun had a swift look round. I almost missed it, he said excitedly when he saw the
creamy white body almost two metres long slithering slowly and majestically towards the
trunk of the banyan tree. The snake stopped at Yeesuns approach, raised its head and
darted out its tongue repeatedly to assess the strange new smell. Yeesun stood stock still.
He had never hoped to find a white cobra that big. It looked so experienced that he felt
intimidated. The cobra knew there was something untrustworthy around so it started to
slide towards a hole hidden under a root of the banyan tree. Yeesun made up his mind,
rushed and grabbed the snakes tail, pulled on it violently, smashed the body to the ground
and let go of it. The cobra, now aware of danger, raised its head and spread its hood,
hissing loudly. Yeesun seized the stick, mortified that its fork was narrower than the neck
of the snake, but there was no way he was going to let it escape. Such a big body would be
difficult to catch but it was hampered by its own slowness. Yeesun tried to assess how
strong it was until it lowered its head, looking as if it was about to flee. He swayed the stick
above its head to make it angry and succeeded. The cobra raised its head and spread its
hood again. Yeesun used his stick to press its body against the ground and hold it there. He
did so until the body of the snake coiled up on itself. He would have liked to press its neck
but didnt dare to make the shift lest the snake slip out, and he didnt know what to do
next. If he tried to grab its neck, he might miss. He told himself to fight with it a little
longer, because it could hardly escape now and it would be a useful experience for his next
The white cobra swiftly raised its head, ready to strike at anything within reach. Yeesun
knew he had to approach it from straight ahead or from behind as it could see best on both
sides. He pressed the stick with his left hand while his right hand waved in front of the
snake to make it strike so that he could grab its head but after three attempts he still
couldnt do it, so he decided to let it go. The snake slithered away immediately. He
prodded it gently with the stick and it raised its head and spread its hood once again.
Yeesun dangled his left hand in front of it while his right hand went to grab at the
snakes head from behind. He swiftly shook his hand right in front of it. The snake struck
and missed by a fraction of an inch and in the same instant his right hand grabbed the head
and pressed it down to the ground, his thumb and index squeezing it until it forced its
mouth open. The cobra struggled, flinging its tail against his arm. His left hand took the tail
off before the snake wrapped itself around his arm and wriggled out of his grip. He pulled
on the tail to force the body into a straight line. The snake tried to contract but couldnt
resist the strength of Yeesuns hands and arms. Yeesun grabbed it and slipped it into the
fertiliser bag, which he promptly tied up. The snake kept writhing furiously but there was
nothing it could do anymore.
Yeesun hurried back home, feeling jubilant. As soon as the neighbours learned that he
had caught a white cobra, they trouped around to have a look. Yeesun put it in a large
creel. Everybody said it was a sacred snake and protested that Yeesun should never have
caught it because it would bring calamity in the future, but Yeesun looked unconcerned,
and let everybody talk their heads off.

Despite the villagers and his mothers entreaties, Yeesun sells the cobra to Teui for the restaurant.
That same night, the kamnan rapes Teui. She falls sick and the villagers blame it on the fact that she
bought the snake from Yeesun. Outraged by such primitive thinking, Yeesun kills the snake and eats

After the meal, Yeesun went out to sit on the veranda. He thought of Teui. People were
gossiping nonstop. He wished she would recover promptly, so that at least the villagers
would stop going on about her. He didnt want to see her sink into this depressed state. It
made him feel dejected. He thought about the so-called sacred cobra. It had been three days
since he had eaten it and he had yet to see it show any kind of supernatural power. He
thought of the ploughing season that would be here in less than a month, and he still had
no cow or buffalo. While he was still in jail, his mother had sold the two animals they used
to have. He thought of Uncle Jorns buffalo, but Krathin had to use it, because she had
children and Janthorn was back. Once Janthorn disrobed, hed have no right to interfere.
He had made less than two thousand baht from selling snakes, but a young buffalo fetched
six to seven thousand these days.
His mother came to sit beside him and said humbly: May I disturb you for a while?
Why do you have to talk to me like this, mom?
The New Year is only two days away, she said, sounding him out, but his face was
expressionless. The abbot has asked for contributions to build a crematorium. Id like to
help him and make merit at the same time.
I dont see why not. We can afford ten or twenty baht, mom.
I was thinking of five hundred. You see, the reverend would like us to be the sponsors
of the construction. Those who donate five hundred will get their names on it.
Do you want to make merit or do you want to get a nameplate on the crummy
crematorium? Yeesun asked angrily.
Its not like that. I really want to make merit and when I do, its the same as if its you
doing it, because you are the one earning the money. Lets do it, son. We have nothing to
lose. If we are so much in trouble in this life, its because we didnt make enough merit in
our previous lives. Thats why its like this. Besides, you do a lot of wrong killing all those
animals. Id like you to gain much merit.
Im fed up with this merit-making of yours, mom. Whenever we have anything, you
take it all to the temple and let your grandchildren starve. You give away whatever food
we have to the monks in the morning and let the kids eat rice and fish sauce. I dont want
to say anything much because I can see it makes you happy, but it bothers me to see the
children eating rice with fish sauce when the monks are having our fried eggs.
Come on, we aren't starving. Nobody ever died of eating rice with fish sauce or shrimp
paste. Besides, I do it for our own good. What we donate isnt lost, son. If we dont get the
merit in this life, well get it in the next.
She was trying to assuage his feelings, but to Yeesun it was like being rubbed up the
wrong way. Merit, merit: youve only got this word in your mouth. For all the donations
youve made, I have yet to see anything improving for us at all.
Thats because we havent donated enough, son. The others are donating much more
and they are doing all right.
Who is doing all right, Id like to know?
Well, the kamnan for one, and Old Klam too. They have done very well for
The kamnans parents were already rich.
His parents made a lot of donations, thats why hes enjoying the merit of it. Its the
same with us: whatever I give away isnt lost; it all comes back to you in the end.
I dont want to be rich through your blasted merit. I want to be able to survive through
my own labour.
Yeesuns obstinacy made his mother angry. See how you are: you just dont want to
listen to what I say.
But its true isnt it, mom? Have I ever tried to pull your leg? Youre always talking
about the next life, but what about this one? Is it improving in any way? As things stand
now, were as down and out as we can stand, and yet you still have to take away whatever
you can for the next life. The lease on the field is running out in a day or two have you
ever given this a thought? Were about to starve to death and you just wont see it, yet you
can see the next life and the life after that. Im not against making donations, mom, but
when we have only so much we can only give a little. Why should we have to give
everything away?
His mother wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and said in a shaky voice:
Alright, I wont. You dont have to lecture me.
Oh sure, he said, lowering his voice, every time I say something its wrong.
Well, its your money. What can I do?
Yeesun thought about himself catching snakes. Before he could find one and catch it, it
was so damn difficult and dangerous but as soon as he had sold it, it was so damn easy for
a donation to whisk the money away.
Alright, mom, have it your way, he forced himself to say, thinking that finding two or
three more snakes would probably compensate for the money lost. It wasnt too much to
achieve in exchange for her mothers happiness. You go ahead.
Having said this, he suddenly felt utterly helpless.

Janthorn wants to disrobe, but the abbot does not allow him to do so. He gives him a large sum of
money and asks him to be his secretary, and they become lovers.
One day, yet another strange event occurs at the monastery, making it famous nationwide. The
mouth of the main Buddha statue is stained with blood. The general consensus is that the statue
must have bitten the man who was trying to cut its head off. The abbot performs a ceremony, driving
nails into the statues mouth and hands to prevent it from biting anybody else. The villagers faith in
the abbot grows and people flood in from far and wide to pay respect to the image and make
The old monk, who does not believe in any of this, decides to seek an explanation from the abbot. As
he walks into his room one evening, the scene he witnesses sends him back to his own cell shaking in
disgust. At dawn the next day, as the old monk goes for his alms round, the abbot enters his cell and
puts flakes of snake poison into his pot of tea. After his daily meal, the old monk drinks the tea and
dies. After his death, the abbot secretly injects the body with Formalin. Lying in state for days, the
body does not decay: people flock to the temple to witness the miracle. When the abbot announces that
he will make amulets out of the old monks relics, people are most willing to pay five hundred baht to
own one. This swells the abbots bank account.
Spurned by Teui, the kamnan is irritated by his wifes pleas for divorce and becomes violent. Losing
all hope in life, Taeng commits suicide by throwing herself into the river.
Despite his wifes entreaties, Janthorn shows no willingness to disrobe. Finally, she tells him she will
find herself a new husband. Janthorn is unfazed.
Yeesun bears Taengs loss in silence and gradually becomes close to Teui. Despite her mothers
remonstrations, they agree to live together next year.
While Yeesun is trying hard to save money so that he can buy a buffalo, his mother often takes his
earnings to the temple to make merit, and he feels increasingly resentful. When his mother tells him
the villagers suspect him of being the one who cut off the head of the Buddha statue, he goes to the
temple and does just that, to prove that the rumour of a man-eating Buddha is absurd. His act proves
nothing: the statue didnt bite back because it had been nailed! Since defacing a Buddha image is
illegal, he is taken to jail, serene however in the knowledge that both Teui and his son will wait for
The story ends on a nicely evil touch:

After the Kathin

festival, Khoak Phranangs monastery emptied and was quiet and forlorn
for a while. Pieces of paper, plastic bags and wooden skewers were strewn all over the
grounds. Swarms of flies buzzed around over heaps of stinking, rotten food. Dogs sniffed
here, sniffed there and peed as they went along; some fought one another; others lay

Kathin is the distribution of new robes to monks at the end of Lent.

sloppily by the sermon hall or on the paths. After putting up with several days and nights
of work, monks, novices and temple boys were too exhausted to get up and clean the place.
The coloured paper flags that dangled on a line by the river were torn in shreds that
swayed in the breeze. The sign welcoming all Kathin parties remained exposed to the sun.
All of the monks quarters were silent as if they had been deserted, though they were
full of bodies clad in yellow that were sleeping away. All doors and windows of the main
sanctuary were closed but candles lit up the inside. The young abbot sat with his legs
neatly folded to one side in front of the beheaded Buddha statue.
O Lord, the abbot began uneasily, I am not happy at all... I mean... Im afraid you will
not understand me. I swear in all honesty that everything Ive done, Ive done... for our
temple... I want our temple to prosper and be on a par with those in the city. You yourself,
my Lord, will be placed in a splendid recitation hall. If I didnt do what I did... the temple
of Khoak Phranang wouldnt have developed as it has. I think you understand me, Lord...

Snakes is a courageous, scorching attack on greedy opportunists who betray religion in the
name of religion. The novel is brash and punchy. Since it was published in 1984, it has
remained timely, as scandal after scandal involving corrupt or otherwise wayward monks
have cast long shadows on an institution which numbers hundreds of thousands of upright
souls but is increasingly challenged and pervaded by the materialist values of modern
There are two ways of reading the moral message of this novel: one will focus on the
more despicable acts of the abbot, who, for the greater glory of his temple and himself,
does not hesitate to deface Buddha statues to foster and exploit superstitions, bed a monk
and kill another. There have been many documented instances of such misdeeds, although
to attribute them all to one character deprived of any redeeming feature is erring on the
side of verisimilitude. Even if Abbot Nian is deceiving himself as he tries to deceive his
Lord and convert Him to his mercantile views, the reader cannot but see through his game
and condemn this greedy and perverted murderer in the name of the moral values true
religion is based on. One will also enjoy the irony of the death of the old miserly monk,
who is killed by snake poison which his stock-in-trade, the phallic talisman, was supposed
to protect him and others from.
Another way of looking at the novel is to ponder over the various methods used by the
abbot to fleece his flock from confection and rental of amulets to use of marketing
techniques (the nameplates), from collusion with the political elite (embodied by the other
evil male character, the kamnan) to use and misuse of the doctrine for financial gains. Not
all of these methods are fraudulent, but all are widely used, even by some of the most
revered monks. This is where the author comes dangerously close to a wholesale attack on
religion itself, because what he explains and exposes has become so much part and parcel
of the way the church enriches itself. Like less crooked priests, Abbot Nian exercises a deep
and constant moral blackmail on his credulous brethren, thanks to the institutional (though
hardly Buddhist) notions of reincarnation and karmic merit and demerit which are to
Buddhism what hell, paradise, purgatory, sin and good deed are to Christianity. Similarly,
the collective power of superstition has overtones of the Inquisition in old Catholic times.
Yeesuns mother is the typical victim of the traditional creed; she not only readily
accepts her fate but unwittingly worsens it in the hope of buying herself and her son a
better next life. Yeesun, on the other hand, represents the modern, enlightened view. He is
suspicious of the reincarnation mumbo jumbo and more preoccupied with tangible results
and social equity in this life. What is Yeesun saying? That it is no crime for the temple to
rake in the surplus value of the village, but that it is a crime to deprive the village of its bare
essentials and keep the people in misery to make the temple prosper. Yeesun wants to
reverse the equation and make the people prosper so that they can in turn see to the
temples wealth. This is more than a generation gap: it is a different conception of the
legitimacy of religion altogether.
You do not have to be a social scientist to note the glaring gap there is between the
munificence of many of the kingdoms temples and the level of poverty of the people that
patronise them. This novel presents an interpretation of why this has come to be so and
how it is that so many monks enjoy colour TV in their quarters and go about town and
country in chauffeur-driven BMWs. Snakes provides plenty of food for thought on these
The structure of the novel is intricate and successfully blends the main plot (the abbots
irresistible rise without fall) and the subplots of the double love triangle, pitting the good
Yeesun against the bad kamnan (and his ugly ally, the mother-in-law) for the possession of
first Taeng then her sister Teui.
The book is fast-paced, but some of the characters lack depth. Wimons style is fluid
rather than elaborate. Nearly all chapters are built on the same pattern. They usually begin
with a description of natural settings and give the lions share to dialogue. It becomes
tedious after a while.
The psychology of the hero, Yeesun, is interesting but uneven: on the one hand, he is a
determined fighter, who takes personal risks to defend his convictions and teach people
lessons they fail to learn (eating the sacred snake, losing the boxing match on purpose,
cutting off the statues head); on the other hand, he is strangely passive when it comes to
regaining his wife and later appears less devastated by her death than attracted to her
sister. The way Wimon writes it, the two dont add up.
Neither do Taengs sketchy features. When Yeesun comes to get her back, she doesnt
try to explain to him that she has been forced by trickery and rape into marrying the
kamnan. She never attempts to justify herself and appears too easily resigned to her no-win
situation. Her defiant passivity when beaten up by her husband, however, shows a rebel
streak, which is gone by the next page when she convinces herself life isnt worth living
and commits suicide. Unlike her sister Teui, who has a will of her own, she remains a
shallow, unconvincing puppet disputed by two owners. Perhaps this is a true reflection of
the status of women in traditional, male-dominated Thai society, which treats them as
wives and mothers exclusively.

Praphatsorn Seiwikun

Rotund, owlish and courteous, Praphatsorn Seiwikun is a career diplomat with a
promising future. Currently first secretary at the Thai embassy in Wellington, New
Zealand, he is well on his way to becoming an ambassador. As a novelist, however, his
future is in the past. The past was the real hero of his best, 1985 novel, Time in a bottle (Weila
Nai Khuat Kaeo). Like K Surangkhanang he started as a serious writer only to turn into a
bestselling author who now writes for the mass market. His Through the dragons stripes
(Lort Lai Mangkorn) has known ten reprints in five years, Time in a bottle, twenty-one in ten.
Three of his novels have been turned into television series and he has won a number of
national literary awards. Like the author of Red roses, he insists he has a duty to his readers
and claims to know who they are and what they want.
True, with each novel he tries to renew himself with fresh themes, but his style has
changed little. He has moved from melancholy love stories to historical novels, from
supernatural tales to exotic political sagas, from family chronicles to yet more low-key
romances in foreign lands. He may keep in touch with his market of teenagers and
housewives but he has lost the grace, richness of observation and emotive charge of his
semiautobiographical Time in a bottle and appears to be engaged in a zany race against
time, against himself or, more prosaically, against some magazines deadlines: in recent
years, he has stepped up his writing pace, from one novel every two years to two or three
novels a year, penning sixteen in fifteen years so far

. Currently, he has no fewer than four

novels running in local magazines. Given his official duties and life as a married man and
father of two sons, Praphatsorns productivity is amazing. Unfortunately, he seems to have
lost in quality what he has won in quantity.
Partial to a cinematographic approach to make *his stories+ go fast

, Praphatsorn is glib
rather than racy. Although unmistakably is own, his novels have a usually shallow treat-
ment and a distinct made-in-America plot flavour imagine Harold Robbins minus the sex
and thorough research. Through the dragons stripes packs in a mere 260 pages the material
of a family saga any other author would do justice to in three thick volumes. The plots of
his novels have improbable twists, their documentation is patchy, and the overwhelming
prevalence of dialogue makes each new work more of a film script than its predecessors.
Though his job takes him abroad for prolonged periods, Praphatsorn occasionally writes
novels set in countries he has never visited, relying alas on his imagination. Power is set
in an imaginary Latin American country which must be the only one on that continent in

Besides a dozen collections of short stories, Praphatsorn Seiwikun has written: Power (Amnart), 1983; The red
maples (Meipeun Daeng) and Top secret (Lap Sut Yort), both 1984; Time in a bottle, 1985; Heavenly flowers (Chor
Parrichart), 1987; Sheik (Cheek), 1988; Fire (Fai), 1989; Through the dragons stripes (Lort Lai Mangkorn), 1990; The
butterfly garden (Suan Pheesuea), 1991; Send me the pillow you dream on (Khor Morn Bai Nan Thee Theu Fan Yarm
Nun), 1992; May our love last forever (Khor Hai Rak Rao Nan Nirandorn), 1993; Aquino (Akwino), 1994. Currently
being serialized: Up to the moment (Khuen Yoo Kap Din Fa Arkart) in Dichan womens fortnightly magazine; The
Himalayas (Himarla-yan) in Satreesarns womens weekly; Till the end of time (Chua Nit Nirandorn) in Sakunthai
magazine; and Lord of the sea (Ra-ya Haeng Thalei) in Nadee monthly magazine.

Interview in Writer Magazine, January 1993

which people call public figures by their first name. He wrote Sheik, which is set in the
sandy expanses of North Africa, while stationed in Ankara, Turkey, Middle East. The
Philippines of his Aquino is as peculiar as the Nepal of his Himalayas. The trouble is that the
man, who believes he is so mature and notorious a writer that he has outgrown

trinkets as the SEA Write Award, is convinced he is on the right track: I am getting better
and better and I fully intend to improve with every single story. Ive never had the
arrogance [to think] that I have achieved my best, because my real aim is still very

The third of four children, he was born on 22 April 1948 in the heart of Bangkok, and
spent his early years in a Chinese neighbourhood near the Giant Swing, on the outskirts of
Chinatown. His mother had distant Portuguese blood. His father was in the army, then in
the police, then entered the newspaper business and later was involved in a theatre group. It
was his father who forced him to learn two or three Thai classics by heart at an early age.
As a child, this city dweller used to dream of being a sailor, out of love of adventure and
the sea. After primary and early secondary studies in the neighbourhood, at 15 he entered
Amnuaysin, one of Bangkoks better schools, and then Rarchawithee Commercial College.
For two years, he was a disc jockey at the Air Force radio station at Thung Maha-meik in
Bangkok (which may explain his fondness for songs he never fails to quote in full in his
books, at least two of which bear song titles). He then applied for a job to help mountain
people but finally joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the age of 21. There he met his
future wife, who has become a noted writer of cook books under the pen name Nilubon,
which means blue lotus. They married in 1974. The following year, Praphatsorn had to
give up the legal studies he had undertaken three years earlier at Rarm-khamhaeng
University when he was posted to the Thai embassy in Vientiane, Laos. From then on, his
life as a diplomat followed the usual pattern of postings abroad alternating with stints at
the ministry in Bangkok.
In 1979, after four years in Laos, he was sent straight to Bonn. Soon after his return to
Bangkok in 1981, he set up a publishing house, under his wifes pen name, to produce his
own novels and collections of short stories. (His first short story had been published in
1970, his first collection of short stories in 1974.) Half-way through his five-year stay in
Bangkok, in 1983, he received a grant to study English in Australia for nine months. He
closed down the publishing house when he left for Ankara in 1986, a four-year posting.
He had been working in the China and Chinese-speaking countries division of the
ministry in Bangkok for four years when he was posted to Wellington in mid-1993.


Time in a bottle (Weila Nai Khuat Kaeo) 1985

The sound of Jim Croces Time in a bottle coming out of the jukebox of a small, wayside
coffee-shop stops me in my tracks. I havent heard this song played for a long, long time, as
if it had disappeared from peoples memory or been stashed away in some dark corner.

This late 1960s hit makes the narrator reminisce about his adolescence.
Nat, nicknamed Ooan (Fatso), is 14 when he knows the first pangs of love and jealousy for Jorm,
the bored, 17-year-old daughter of a rich businessman. Time in a bottle is their song, listened to
over and over again as they sip iced coffee at a ramshackle street stall after their violin lessons twice a
When he isnt with Jorm, Nat is with his three friends Chai (Victor), who dreams of becoming a
soldier, but is crippled in a football game and finds solace in hashish and later in alcohol; Eik
(Number one), who helps his Chinese father run a shop; and Porm (Plump), the tomboy of the
gang, who knows all the best poems of the time and is, we guess, quietly in love with Nat. Porm is
due to leave them at the end of term.
Meanwhile, Nats happy, warm middle-class family life is shattered when his parents, after many
violent quarrels, separate. His father goes and lives with Waeo, a plain but understanding woman;
his mother gets involved with Uncle Amorn.

Although I didnt meet Mom while I was staying with Dad, I had news of her from Ning.
We often spoke on the phone or else, whenever she left early, she came to meet me at
school after classes.
Ning had changed a lot. There was no longer any trace in her of the cheerful, talkative
little girl she had been. The smouldering fire of unhappiness was burning up her youth at
incredible speed. She wore a gloomy and tense expression and tears always seemed to
cling to her eyelashes waiting to be released the moment she spoke of Dad and his
girlfriend and Mom and her boyfriend. She was always frowning in a perpetual war of
the eyebrows, as Dad used to tease us when we were kids.
Last night, Uncle Amorn came and stayed overnight, Ning told me one afternoon she
had come to wait for me in front of the school.
Why are you telling me only now? I scolded her, feeling furious.
I dont like to call Dads house. Nings lips shut tight and her eyes were red. Im
afraid shell answer the phone.
Sure, I said after a while. Even though I knew something like this would surely
happen one day, I was deeply moved all the same.
Ning stopped speaking, as if she was waiting for me to say something, but when she
saw I wasnt going to, she forged ahead of me, head bent and all hunched up, hurrying in
the shade of the tabebuia trees lining the way.
Ning, I called out, walking faster to catch up with her. Although I couldnt see her
face, I knew she was crying.
Ning, I called out again. She stopped and stood with her head down for a while before
rushing into my arms. Her tears wetted my chest and her sobs resounded in my heart.
Stop crying, I said, holding her tightly. My voice sounded so shaky and blurred that it
stunned me. Whatevers got to happen will happen.
But why does it have to happen to us, Nat? she asked in a rather subdued voice,
looking up at me. Why us?
I could only shake my head as I kept holding her.
Had I only known what was going to happen to her, I definitely would not have let her
out of my embrace that day.

Uncle Amorn staying at home overnight made me think Id better go back to be with Mom
and Ning. Even though I had never seen the fellow, I didnt like the idea of his barging into
our house, which had only had the three of us. He might be Moms boyfriend, but he had
no right to touch her in front of us in our own home.
I told Dad about Uncle Amorn and my own intention after dinner that day while Waeo
was washing the dishes at the back of the house.
I knew this would happen, Dad mumbled, lowering his blurry eyes and tightening his
grip around the glass of whiskey. He made as if he was going to say something else, but
then remained silent.
Go back to Mom, will you, please, Dad? I looked at him beseechingly. Come and stay
with us. Dont let me and Ning alone with a stranger.
Dad raised his glass and drank up, then refilled it.
Nat... All of us have come a long way from where we started and no one can ever go
back to the past. The only choice weve got is to learn to get used to this kind of situation as
we grow up and carry on with our lives.
But, Dad...
Nat, my dear son. Dad took me in his arm, transmitting to me the warmth of his body
and the rhythm of his heartbeats, as he had many years ago. I love you: always remember
I sat dumbfounded. Dad was holding me quietly, as if there were only the two of us in
the world, a world that was cruel and sad.
Dont go back to Mom right now, Dad said slowly as he raised his hand and stroked
my head with a lonely, forlorn look. Do stay around for a while.
This was the first time in my life I heard a man like my father actually beg.
How long do you want me to stay? I asked softly.
Dad was quiet for a moment, and I had the feeling that moment was going on and on.
He finally sighed deeply and said: Till you get your exam over and done with.
I had no choice but to agree, because I knew this might be the last time Dad would be
close to me. It wasnt a question of responsibility or concern. I never knew what Dad
wanted, but that night I knew he wanted someone to stay close to him. He was trying to
hold on to some things, because he knew he was about to lose everything that had been.

From that day on, Ning came to see me after school every afternoon. I never offered her to
go and see Dad, and she never asked me to go and see Mom. Each of us bridged that
chasm with half-hearted laughs and laborious words.
Although she didnt know what had happened to me and Ning, Porm tried to make us
feel at ease all the same. Ning and Porm got along well over bookish topics that didnt
interest me. Sometimes, they exchanged books and made each other learn passages that
took their fancy.
On some days, Porm invited me, Ning and Chai to go window-shopping in some
trading centre or have a look at the posters in front of a movie house. Whenever we had
some money, we sat in a coffee-shop, ordered one cup of coffee, sometimes two, and took
turns sipping it parsimoniously while we kept a flow of idle talk going.
I didnt meet Jorm much during that period. To tell the truth, I was avoiding her. Before
then, even though Mom and Dad were no longer together, I had always been convinced
that one day theyd kiss and make up, but when each of them got involved with someone
else, this hope of mine was shattered for good. The utter destruction of my family made me
feel uneasy about meeting someone who was lucky enough to have a warm and loving
family life, especially on the days when Jorms father or mother came to fetch her at school
and she ran delighted to the waiting car, laughing gaily. Such scenes disturbed me a lot.

Ning didnt show up for more than ten days before I took the second-term examination
and neither did she call me on the phone. When I called Mums house, nobody answered.
What do you expect of Thai phones? Eik patted me on the shoulder soothingly as I
slammed down the public telephone and retrieved the coin with my finger. Maybe your
mothers phone is out of order.
Or maybe the whole network is, Chai chimed in.
Why dont you go there instead? Porm asked softly. This way, youll know whats
what. Lets all go there.
Never mind. I stepped out of the telephone booth, followed by the three of them.
Some other day.
Whats the matter? Porm prodded.
Nothing, I said, avoiding her stare. I just dont feel like going there today.
She made as if she was going to ask something else, but then she desisted.
It wasnt that I was unaware of my friends concern for me and my sister, but I couldnt
tell them the truth, which was that I didnt want them to go to Moms house because I
wasnt sure whether that man, Amorn, would be there or not. I didnt want my friends to
know my mother was staying with another man.

As evening came, the four of us were walking arms over shoulders along a road made
noisy and crowded by cars and people. The street lights and the neon tubes of advertising
boards on top of buildings began to light up one at a time. A strong wind was blowing dust
and fumes from the exhaust pipes of cars into our faces.
Not a single word came out of anyone of us. We were each lost in our own thoughts,
listening to the beat of our steps on the pavement.
I felt most lonely that day, despite the presence of my friends beside me amid the din
and turmoil of the capital. I didnt know how often I would have to go through times like
these in my life.

All goes well with Jorm, until her father takes another woman, and Jorm is spirited to England.
When she comes back, years later, nothing goes right for her. She is now dating another boy, leaving
Nat hurt and estranged. Meanwhile, Nats mother has settled down with Uncle Amorn; she has
sold the house and opened a restaurant in a Chinese shophouse. Their relationship sours after Amorn
continues to see his first wife, who runs a gold shop in Hart Yai, in the South.
When Nats father becomes ill and is hospitalised, a loving Waeo takes good care of him. The fathers
career is subject to tumultuous ups and downs, emblematic of a struggling segment of the urban
middle class which aspires to immediate wealth and apes old money lifestyles.

Dad would always tell me to take good care of my little sister because there were only the
two of us. He never mentioned Mom, never ordered me to do my duty by her or to take
care of her when I grew up... I never understood his reasons, apart from deciding he was
more concerned about me and Ning than he was about Mom.
Dads career was like a graph full of ups and downs. He often changed jobs and
whatever he undertook he managed well quickly, but it never lasted; something always
made him lose his job and left him struggling to find a new one. Sometimes we lived like
nabobs, eating out in good restaurants, going to the movies and the theatre all the time, and
taking trips upcountry or to the seaside almost every weekend. But at other times we had
to skimp, buying rice by the litre to fill in the pot or Siang Chun wine by the thimble to
sustain Dads life, but however hard up we were Dad would never allow himself to look
shabby. Outside of the house he still wore nice clothes and flashy leather shoes and
laughed heartily as if he never had a care in his life.
Mom had told us this was typical of Leo men, who were conceited, loved beauty and
their creature comforts, were easily infatuated and didnt care about their family.
Mom was a strong believer in astrology, and we became convinced in turn she owed her
obstinacy and intractable obduracy to the fact that she was born under the Taurus sign.

The first reference to the political turmoil of the mid 1970s appears three quarters of the way through
the book.

This was a time when the university students were throwing their energies entirely with
politics, while opposition to the students was starting to grow. The gist of the rumours that
kept circulating was of an impending confrontation between the two sides.
Nobody knew what was going to happen or whether there would be more violence than
two years earlier. Many who had entertained high hopes after the sad events of that time
had begun to wonder how long it would be before such hopes were destroyed.

Unlike Porm and Chai, who participate in the social protests, Nat is only concerned with his little
world his irreconcilable parents, his own fruitless love for Jorm and abortive friendship with Porm.
Nats younger sister Ning, another drifter hankering after the lost warmth of parental care, gets
herself pregnant. She will have an abortion, but finding the money for the doctors fee is a problem
and Nat has to steal from the cash register of his mothers restaurant to pay for it. (Why another one
thousand baht goes missing from the till at the same time is left unexplained.)
On a trip to Nongkhai with Chai, Nat meets his former music teacher, who has fled Bangkok to live
quietly with his girlfriend, and he decides to stay with them for a while. He is still in Nongkhai when
he learns that Porm has been badly mauled and jailed for her role in a protest by textile factory
workers. He goes and visits her. She is unrepentant, and suffers from severe headaches.
Later, Porm will be seriously injured by a bomb which explodes in a demonstration she attends with
Chai and other students. She dies after admitting her love for Nat. As for Chai, also injured, he be-
comes paranoid and flees to the jungle on the Lao side, where he stays even after the return of most
would-be revolutionaries. Eik buries himself in his studies.
Unable to stand her fathers new wife, Jorm shoots her and disappears, only to surface several months
later, pregnant and living with a man who deserts her when the child is born. She raises the baby on
her own, ignoring Nats longing to the last. She leaves for England and is never heard of again.
The novel ends on Nats graduation after years of forcing himself to study law at his mothers behest.
Relinquishing his aspiration to become an artist for the sake of a steady job was the sensible thing to
do, after all. Life goes on.

I dont know when Dad left, but when I looked for him in the confusion of taking pictures
of one another in front of the auditorium, he was gone.
I have taken good care of the sandglass Jorm gave me. Even though its belly is cracked
and blurred and its wooden ends have begun to splinter, the grains of sand still sip through
every time I turn it upside down.
I have often been unable to refrain from asking myself the old question of whether, if I
could really keep time still, I would get everything I wished for the days and nights in the
old house by the river when Mom sat holding the two of us as she waited for Dads return
till the sun disappeared beyond the bend of the river, leaving us in lonesome and
frightening darkness; as well as the times full of the laughs and jokes I, Porm, Chai and Eik
shared... I still remember the day we walked along the road lined with tabebuia trees; the
day we made a human chain for one of us to reach the ridge of the swamp and pick up
lotuses we shared and ate; the day we snatched at one anothers schoolbags to prevent
anyone one of us from getting on the bus first; and all the days Jorm and I walked holding
our violin cases all the way to the shanty shop, where we put coins in the slot and listened
to Time in a bottle over and over again. *<+ That song is still resounding in my mind as
if it would never end, however long the juke box may switch to other records.
I slowly raise my head and take a strong, deep breath before plodding on head first,
alone along the road which stretches as far as the eye can see and which is going to take me
into the throng and the obscurity ahead.

Time in a bottle explores the generation gap between parents and children in an urban
middle-class family, the pains of growing up and tug-of-war between friendship and love
in adolescent hearts. The book has a nostalgic charm. It is a memory quilt patched together
with fragments of the past brought up in flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrator is a
grownup man who remembers the troubled adolescent who remembers the happy child he
once was. The novel covers a thirty-year span, yet most of it unfolds during the narrators
last few years of secondary school and first two years of university.
Every time Fat Nat the adolescent has a problem, he delves back into his past, a loving,
carefree, wholesome childhood which shattered when his gods (Mom and Dad) became
selfish in his eyes and separated, leaving him and his sister alone and seemingly unloved.
Unlike his friends or even his sister, he refuses to grow up and face the responsibilities of
adulthood, and lets his life be shaped by others, even in his choice of career. He longs to be
the carefree child he used to be, not for the sake of being a child, but to feel loved and
whole again. His love for Jorm is unrequited, and he doesnt acknowledge Porms love: this
frustration amplifies the loss of his parents love.
The author deals his pack of time cards deftly and speedily, jotting down just enough
indications to sketch a scene, a dialogue, an anecdote, then moving on. This light touch
makes for pleasant reading, yet manages to draw true-to-life characters, several of whom
are endowed with the hypersensitivity of scalded cats. The characters are true to life in the
sense that, like most adolescents, they have feelings and impulses rather than thoughts.
They share mediocre and uncouth tastes. The notable exception is Porm, the tomboyish,
luckless activist, at once dour and fragile, who quotes the best poets and is truly moving.
Nat the narrator, like his friends, has no time for books, only corny songs and his own
drawings. Indeed, the whole novel is a celebration of the pop culture of the late sixties and
early seventies, exemplified by the semiliterate lyrics of Time in a bottle, which are
repeated over and over again. This, and the subject matter of the fear of turning adult,
probably explains the success of the novel among under-40 Bangkok readers, who find in it
a faithful, even flattering, mirror of their recent past or of their anguished present.
The same verbatim repetition of a paragraph or two is used to good effect whenever Nat
thinks back to comforting scenes from his past, as if to make these scenes forever present.
He grabs them as he would firm anchors in the ever-changing tide of time, not realising that
he is actually clutching at straws.
The political events belatedly introduced in the story are never properly explained,
although they destroy the lives of Porm and Chai and affect all the characters. Nat is too
self-centred to really care about anything beyond the narrow circle of his close friends and
relatives, and his lack of interest and understanding about what is going on rings true. But
was it necessary for the author to actually dismiss the agitation of the students by stating
that no one can say who is right and who is wrong, and to pour scorn on the students
strange language when the novel is saturated with Thaiglish words?
Time in a bottle is perhaps the least Thai of all Thai novels, as it reflects the narrow world
of urbanised youths whose cultural references are overwhelmingly Western, down to
Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood or the Ovaltine they sip to cure their heartaches.
Buddhism is mentioned only to be dismissed. Even though the setting is Bangkok and
Porm provides a few typical Thai references, local colour is minimal and nothing in the
behaviour of the characters, whether young or old, strikes the reader as specifically Thai. A
sign of the times? Or a reflection of the cosmopolitan life of this author-diplomat?

Atsiri Thammachoat

Atsiri Thammachoat [Ussiri Dharmachoti] is one of the leading journalists of his generation
and is currently director of and columnist for Sayarm Rat, one of the better national dailies,
yet chances are he will be best remembered as a poetic writer with a conscience, author of
bittersweet short stories and novels focusing on the plight of the common man.
In a cramped cubicle opened to the clatter of antiquated typewriters and the whine of
modern phones and fax machines sits a tall, dark man who speaks pensively in a low,
almost confidential voice and puffs nervously on cigarettes he stubs out half smoked. The
puffy, injected eyes tell of sadness and booze, and the long hair and cropped moustache
frame features that seem to bear the legacy of preteen attempts at Thai boxing.
Atsiri was born in 1947, the last of five boys, two of whom died young. Fifteen years
earlier, Khueam Ton Khua, a second-generation Chinese from Phetburee and taikong,
master of a fishing junk, had been swept off his feet in Huahin by a 29-year-old beauty,
King Seesawat, who had a daughter from a former union. The couple went fishing for a
while in southern Thai waters then settled down in Hua Hin, where they opened a grocery
store, kept the fishing boat operating and comfortably raised their three sons.
Young Atsiri was a quiet child much fussed over by his mother. He had a problem: they
lived by the sea, yet he was allergic to wind and waves an ironic affliction for the future
bard of the Gulf of Siam. He went to Hua Hins Sarthukarn School, until the status of the
family changed dramatically. His father lost his boat, mortgaged their house and land to
buy a new one, which was soon lost as well. The family, which changed its name from Ton
Khua to Thammachoat, had to move to a shophouse inland. Atsiris eldest brother would
not take over from his father as taikong: he took to sea as a sailor; the other brother left
school and found a job at the pier; as for Atsiri, he went on with his studies, partly because
of his allergies, and partly because Mother insisted on it. He spent two years at Klai Kang-
won Palace

School in Hua Hin, but failed to pass the last year of secondary schooling.
After one year spent idly at home, he entered another school, in Bangsue, a northern
suburb of Bangkok, and finally passed, but failed to enter the Faculty of Political Science at
Jularlongkorn University. By then, he was 20. He was tempted to become a soldier, but
Mother wouldnt hear of it. In spite of her misgivings, he spent nearly two years as a
researcher for the National Bureau of Statistics in the Sakon Nakhorn, Nakhorn Phanom
and Phetchaboon provinces of the Northeast and the North, which were hotbeds of
communist insurgency at the time. This is when he became interested in politics, started
drinking and stored experiences that would nurture many of his writings in years to come.
Finally, in 1970, he made it into Jularlongkorns Faculty of Public Relations and Mass
Communications, a success which pleased his mother before she expired in 1971. By 1973,
he founded with friends a magazine called Fim (Film) and when he finished his studies the
following year invested in another magazine, Maeng Mum (The spider) and then another,
Nang (Movies). They all failed.

A summer residence of the king of Thailand

He then decided it was time to find himself a steady job and worked for a few months in
a magazine before joining Sayarm Rat daily as political reporter and entertainment and
political columnist (under the pen name Chalorm, which is his eldest brothers name).
Apart from a three-year interval (198385) during which he went to work for another daily,
Matuphoom (The motherland), and then as editor of Soo Anarkhot (Towards the future), he
has been with Sayarm Rat ever since. In 1982, he married a North-easterner from Ubon,
who works in the International Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
They have no children. For work and pleasure, Atsiri, a noted sportswriter, went to Peking
for the Asian Games, visited at various times Tibet, Australia, Sweden and Denmark, and
even spent a couple of days in New York.
Atsiri started writing short stories in 1972. His first, Samnuek Khong Phorthao (An old
mans memories) was based on his experience in the Northeast. He remained unknown
until his first collection of short stories, Khunthong, you will return at dawn (Khunthong Jao Ja
Klap Muea Fa Sang), published in 1978, was crowned by the SEA Write Award in 1981 and
was subsequently translated into English. Since then, hardly a year has gone by without the
publication of his collections of short stories As if the sea had an owner (Muean Thalei Mee
Jaokhong), 1981; The house by the sea (Barn Rim Thalei), 1984; The beggar, the cat and the
drunkard (Khortharn Maeo Lae Khon Mao), 1988; Weeping gale raging sea (Thalei Ram Lom Soak),
1991, to mention but a few tales A world of blue (Loak See Narm Ngeurn), 1985 or
novelettes Of time and tide (Thalei Lae Karnweila), 1985; Oftentimes in life (Lai Lai Khrang Nai
Cheewit), 1989, set in the Northeast. Sayarm Rat is running his latest, unfinished novelette
and Atsiri is dreaming of finding time to travel the country extensively and write the novel
whose theme he is sure lurks somewhere out there.
Of time and tide is the most accomplished of his long works and represents a mature
synthesis of various themes and reflections he had developed piecemeal in previous short
stories. Before him, Thai sea novels thrived on piracy; Atsiri chose instead to bring the
reality of the sea alive through the prism of his memory and mature understanding of the
changes he had observed as a youngster. He wrote the novel in weekly instalments for
Matuphoom, where he worked, but left the daily before he had completed it and wrote the
last five or six chapters later at home. This explains, to some extent, the patchwork
construction of what a noted critic calls a columnists novel

, although Atsiri vouches

that he didnt set about to write an ordinary novel. What he did write was a rare poetic
novel with social depth.

Pailin Rung-rat, Atsiri Thammachoat Kreing Rangwan See Rait Jing Rue? Is Atsiri Thammachoat really in
awe of the SEA Write Award? In Sayarm Rat Sappada Wijarn, 8-14 December 1985
Of time and tide (Thalei Lae Karnweila) 1985

Mother, I brought you some flowers. They are the kind of cannas you liked so much and
used to plant behind the house. Ill prop them up by the niche in the wall that bears your
name. It has been exactly ten years since you left us and it is only now that I come and visit
you. Nothing much of you is left, but it is the only memento I have