The Agony of the Libertines: Thailand's The Story of Jan Darra

by Kenneth Champeon, Jan 24, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

"I have shown myself as I was; contemptible and vile when I was so....I have unveiled my interior such as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Father!" So begins Rousseau's Confessions, an opus as dreary and self-obsessed as its predecessor, the Confessions of St. Augustine. But for better or for worse, these two tormented authors spawned the genre "confession literature", tending more toward dreary self-obsession with each new contribution.

Belonging to this genre is The Story of Jan Darra regarded to be the best Thai erotic novel and among the best Thai novels. Jan is first person in worldview as well as in point of view; and has all the dark, dusty ambience of the confessional.

First published in Thai in 1966, the book drew as much opprobrium as acclaim to its author, for its candid treatment of sexual practices in a culture tending to favor social cohesion over candor. By the book's close, few of its characters have not seduced the others. Indeed, the plot mainly arises out of sex or its consequences: stillbirth, ostracism, sterilization, hustled marriage, voyeurism, and even the eventual impotence of Jan.

From all this sleeping around is born a truly Byzantine network of kinship. At the book's outset, Jan believes himself the offspring of a cranky lecher known as "His Lordship", and an aristocratic woman perishing from her birth to Jan. Jan's biological father turns out to have been a kidnapper, and Jan the child of rape. His mother's subsequent marriage to His Lordship was merely a cover-up.

But His Lordship was already married to Mrs. Bunlueang, a classy, coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking, book-loving sensualist (and later bisexual), carrying on a long-term affair with Jan himself. Meanwhile, His Lordship impregnates Waht, Jan's legitimate aunt, resulting in the child Kaeo. Jan's archenemy -- she falsely accuses Jan of rape, leading to his banishment from the compound -- Kaeo later becomes his wife, to disguise her seduction by Mrs. Bunlueang's son, not to mention her steamy homosexual affair with Mrs. Bunlueang herself.

If this all sounds rather cinematic - not to say soap-operatic -- it should: the first film of Jan is slated for an October 2001 release. Directed by the acclaimed Nonzee Nimibutr, the film is reported to retain the book's sexual openness, though much may be snipped by Thailand's prudish censorial board: to this day, sex scenes in the Kingdom's home videos are scrambled.

Western audiences reading Jan may wonder at the pother. Centuries after the Marquis de Sade all but invented the erotic genre, Jan comes off as shy Bollywood fare (rubbing ice cubes over your lover's body) or mere brutish misogyny (assault and rape). Indeed, Jan is less an erotic novel than a kind of morality tale and sexual bildungsroman: Jan is more obsessed by his obsession with sex, than by sex itself - much as Rousseau and Augustine were. In fact, the book's moral may be simply that power corrupts. Young Jan despises the man known as "His Lordship" because he scatters his seed throughout the compound's female (often newly pubescent) residents. But when, later in life, Jan assumes control, he assumes His Lordship's despicable traits.

But he does so not without guilt. Indeed, he is more or less convinced of his eventual punishment in hell for his adultery and sexual excesses. His moral universe -- haunted by carnal sin and self-loathing -- is Christian, but described using the Buddhist nomenclature of rebirth and a kind of Buddhist purgatory. He is much more Augustine than Siddharta, much more writhing than serenity, much more self-hatred than no-self.

It is rather hard to empathize. While Jan's early life is rocky to say the least, he becomes a powerful, wealthy man, and a rapist to boot. His sufferings are those of the rich the world round - what writer William T. Vollmann scornfully calls "melancholies of overabundance." ("We have all had to suffer the consequences" of Thailand's 1932 democratic coup, Jan confesses.) His chief complaint is against his premature impotence. Perhaps a reader would have to be impotent (particularly amidst biddable women) to understand Jan's "terrible torment." Or, barring that, be a Thai man: health warnings on packs of cigarettes in Thailand include a statement of the link between smoking and the loss of potency.

Then again, nobody really empathizes with any of de Sade's creatures, or with Rousseau or St. Augustine. They wrote, and are appreciated, not so much for empathy as for veracity (or audacity). Utsana likewise. He wanted to end Thailand's conspiracy of silence about sex: the characters of the book are supposedly based on the writer's neighbors. Utsana's departure from his countrymen's tendency to speak kindly, even at the risk of speaking untruthfully, is firm. The one-sentence foreword of Jan contains a refreshing (and very contemporary) twist on the parental advisory sticker: "unsuitable for kids and most offensive to sanctimonious pricks."

An end to the silence would have some very clear benefits for Thailand. For though it is a world-renowned locus of harlotry and HIV, neither is discussed openly. If the movie enjoys a success commensurate with the book's, perhaps it will inspire frank talk of not only the lure of sex within the aristocracy, but its sordidness within the demimonde. Unwanted pregnancies and cover-ups are one thing; HIV-positive prostitutes abandoned by their families for reasons of propriety, are quite another.

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Review of The Story of Jan Darra, Phleungthang, Utsana. [Thai Modern Classics, Bangkok, 1995].

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