A Heartbreaking Work of Middling Genius

by Kenneth Champeon, May 19, 2005 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

We are accustomed to think of the breakdown of the traditional family as a Western, and particularly an American phenomenon - liberty being antithetical to duty, equality being antithetical to undeserved respect. Asian families are usually held up in contrast: they, and not individuals, are the basic social units. But as Asia becomes more Westernized, as capitalism and liberalism spread with the speed of an Internet connection, the seemingly infrangible Asian family may have met its match.

Of course the Asian family is not to be confused with the much-vaunted but feeble nuclear family of wife, husband, 2.1 kids, dog. Asian families are vast networks. They are also occasionally host to polygamy, adultery, and other dalliances, with the Japanese geishas representing this permissiveness at its most entrenched and refined.

Different cultures arrive at different solutions to a basic problem of human relations: men and women have different sexual goals. Thus Protestant societies tolerate the one-night stand and multiple divorces -- a kind of serial polygamy. Muslims and Mormons tolerate plain old polygamy, while Asians tolerate brothels, mistresses, minor wives. Of course, not everybody in these societies tolerates such things; but every society has established some way to make sexual promiscuity semi-respectable.

Nowadays marriages stay together primarily out of deference to children, for children raised in broken families tend to be less happy and secure. And the collapse of a family can precipitate a collapse in a child's native faith - in everything. As was said in the culture-bearing film Fight Club: "Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?" It is not that children from broken families are more rebellious: one can scarcely rebel against a void. Instead, the void must at all costs be filled; and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll are often the most convenient stuffing. Cut to Thailand in the 70s. Meet Fatso, a shy and unremarkable teenager. His father lives with a mistress, and his mother loves a married man. Thus, as might be expected, Fatso is a touch on the melancholy and self-destructive side, as is his sister Ning. Fatso takes what comfort he can in his friends: Eik, Chai, the tomboy Porm, the poor-little-rich-girl Jom. And the novel of which he is the anti-hero, Praphatsorn Seiwikun's Time in a Bottle, is named after the poignant Jim Croce song about a lost halcyon past.

Jim Croce may seem an odd choice for a Thai, but Fatso and his gang are part of a generation whose cultural influences are almost entirely foreign. The effects are jarring. The folktales they know are Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. They drink Ovaltine and iced coffee. They ponder Van Gogh, Gibran, Chekhov, Gorky, Tagore. Buddhism, when it is mentioned at all, is usually ridiculed: Chai quotes a Buddhist chant before emptying a bottle of whisky. In his postscript to the novel, co-translator Marcel Barang ventures that the novel is "the least Thai of all Thai novels of note."

This may be true of its cultural references, but not necessarily of its characters. The persiflage of Fatso's gang is what often passes in Thailand for conversation: shallow teasing or sentimental non-sequiturs, whose primary purpose is to define or reinforce relationships rather than to educate or edify the listeners. Fatso's father speaks for Thailand's whisky-swilling males when he says, "A man who doesn't drink isn't a man." And though the characters are not devout Buddhists, their ideas about life are Buddhist in tenor: all things are impermanent; the future is uncertain; one should be wary of hope and goals. Jom says that hoping is "the most terrible mistake human beings can make.... Because it makes us dissatisfied with what we have, so we suffer and keep grasping at what we don't have endlessly." Thus spoke Siddhartha.

Time has been televised, and its plot often resembles that of Thailand's rather sordid and factory-made "TV dramas". Ning gets pregnant, has an abortion, takes to booze. Fatso's father nearly drinks himself to death, while his mother threatens to blow her brains out. Porm loves Fatso; Fatso loves Jom; Jom loves nobody. Such dramas are recognizable by their soundtracks, punctuated by hysterical shrieks preceding the sound of gunfire, breaking glass, slaps in the face. If societies were judged by their soap operas, they would appear grim societies indeed.

Happily, Thailand is more than its soap operas, i.e. more than upper-middle-class Bangkok. Fatso realizes this on a visit to Nong Khai, a small border town in Thailand's poor, rural northeast. He hears a mouth organ "gentle and brimming with love and hope, whereas the Bangkok tunes were laced with sadness, hopelessness and dejection." Back home, Fatso munches on painkillers while listening to songs with titles like "Road to death." And Bangkok's rich think the rural poor are miserable!

At least in modern times, any culture's literature will see the culture through a glass darkly. Writers are often solitary, brooding creatures: they write because they cannot simply be. But Time became a national bestseller in part because it was so accurate, the moral chaos it depicts so real. Fatso may be an aberrant case of the Thai child, but of his generation of Bangkokians he is apparently representative.

The book's bestseller status may also be explained by its depiction of the Thai army's notorious 1976 massacre of demonstrators from Thammasat University: a Kent State writ huge. 1976 means to middle-aged Thais what, say, 1968 or 1969 means to middle-aged Americans; and in both cases one object of student protest was the "American imperialism" of the Vietnam War. Porm, the only true activist in Fatso's gang, is killed as a result of the crackdown, crowning the gang's sense of discord and futility.

Marcel Barang has become perhaps the leading translator and promoter of contemporary Thai literature, and to his work and devotion Thaiphiles everywhere should doff their caps. But his translations (like his postscripts) are sometimes ostentatious or overdone. Adverbs are used far too often, as when Ning "sits down dejectedly. She hunches forward and peers out absent-mindedly." A better writer would let the verb do all the work. That said, the dialogue relies too much on clever but unnecessary verbs. The characters do not merely "say" -they "assent", "resolve", "retort", "beseech", etc. Thus the dialogue is constantly tripping over its qualifiers. The text also suffers from excessive cliches, e.g. "she got blue in the face and left in a huff." The use of non-standard English ("alright") and British slang ("whinger") is also distracting, as is the mixture of Cockney and Huck Finn used to indicate non-standard Thai ("The pencil's me own", "I ain't no dog!")

But translations, alas, will always be inferior products. And the quality of the prose is not really the point. Rather it is the faithfulness of the picture. And the reason we read literature is to be reminded that we are not alone, and that human problems respect no national borders. Anomie, in other words, is going global like everything else.

- The End -

Review of Praphatsorn Seiwikun's Time in a Bottle, Thai Modern Classics, 1996.

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