Still Awaiting The Writer: Thai Literature and Wanlaya's Love

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 26, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

It's not easy being a bibliophile in Thailand. It is a profoundly subliterate country. An expatriate teacher's brightest students will only grudgingly read anything but comic books; and the expatriates are little better. People come here to revel, not to read. The rare exception settles for the most insipid, cookie-cutter works of shallow sexual misadventure, of which Christopher Moore's works are the apotheosis.

Another barrier to literacy is the scarcity of Thai literature in translation. Tolstoi in Thai is more common than Sunthorn Phoo in English. This because it is a rare Anglophone who has heard of Phoo - because translations are rare. The circle is vicious.

But is there a significant Thai literature in the first place? Many a disgruntled Thai intellectual would say, No. Thailand is not a dynamic society. Illiterate farmers form a majority, while the educated leisure class is generally so intoxicated by its newfound wealth that BMWs are bought, not books. Walden Bello's A Siamese Tragedy, documenting the precipitous rise and fall of Thailand's economy, blames the fall chiefly on a failure to invest money in education - to say nothing of art.

I deplore this for selfish reasons. I became an expatriate in part to emulate my literary-expatriate forbears, the Lost Generation commemorated in Hemingway's Movable Feast. Roundly convinced that Hem's Paris - home now to EuroDisney and Starbucks -- no longer exists, I thought that Asia might afford a modern-day equivalent.

Suk, publisher of Suk's Editions, voiced a similar hope that "Hemingway II" or "Joyce II" would materialize out of Bangkok's streets, and that he would be their Sylvia Beach. This was not without ground: the modern equivalent of James Baldwin's "whore" Paris is the whore Bangkok. Patpong and AIDS would probably render garrulous and lascivious Henry Miller speechless and sexless.

But what Paris possessed that Bangkok conspicuously lacks is a tradition of literature. Notwithstanding their fascination with the seedy and the depraved, the members of the Lost Generation were insatiable readers of a long line of French writers: Hugo, Balzac, Zola, Racine. Miller's famous list of inspiring books fills a page or more. Sylvia Beach the publisher was first and foremost a glorified book-peddler. Writers were drawn to Paris not by the scent of whores but by the scent of intellectual ferment. Whores merely provided a topic. In Thailand the converse is true.

Curious, then, that my first memorable contact with Thai literature should be Seinee Saowaphong's book about Thai ex-pats in postwar Paris, Wanlaya's Love, first published in 1951. The book opens with the refreshingly ingenuous line "I love Paris!" Not so refreshingly, this exclamation becomes the theme of the book. Still, insofar as one loves literary Paris, one will love Love. For though Saowaphong only visited Paris three times, his portrait is vivid and broad -- "is alive and rings true", says translator Marcel Barang.

Love's characters, on the other hand, are not very alive and their words ring rather hollow, at least in the postmodern ear. A "novel of ideas" in the tradition of Cortazar and Kundera, Love's characters are little more than idle mouthpieces for aesthetics and ideologies. Too bad that Love's characters are so flat, their ideas so trite. From featureless names we hear yet again about "the toiling masses", about how people's lives are like passing trains; we yet grapple with pre-positivist puzzlers like, "What do you mean by meaning?"

By these poseurs and their positions, one is reminded of Naipaul's "mimic men": non-Europeans playing European. Take this letter to the narrator:

"Winter is upon us. All of us here are preparing to go skiing in Davos....We would be thrilled to have you share our fun....How is Paris? I have a suspicion you have already forgotten Geneva....Love and kisses."

Ah -- skiing in Davos, forgetting Geneva. Haven't we all wanted to do either or both (without forgetting the toiling masses, of course), or at least write letters suggesting that we have? I suspect Saowaphong of the latter. His well-disguised admiration of all things haute Parisian or European - aperitifs, Montmarte - can be nauseating, especially when it appears alongside hackneyed hymns to socially committed art.

Obviously Saowaphong is - speaking of the trite -- "conflicted." Living the high life in the capital of the world, he must encourage us not to forget the laborers in the rice-paddies. Acting like a European, he is told: "Remember you're Thai." These two conflicts (rich/poor, Western/Thai) could be the basis for a truly Thai literature. But Love only depicts the European high life; of Thai laborers we only hear so much pretentious talk. The one living, breathing laborer in the book is simply implausible: he talks like an Oxford don.

Perhaps Saowaphong and other Thai writers are not conflicted enough. Literature thrives in atmospheres of trauma. Take war, for example. There is no better tonic for literary languor. The Lost Generation, reacting to the chaos spawned by World War I's effective termination of the Enlightenment, is a case in point. The literary outpouring of Thailand's near neighbors, India and Vietnam, can similarly be attributed to historical friction. Thailand is one of the most peaceful countries in the world: its foreign policy and public life are marked by quiet evasion.

For this reason, it is not realistic to expect to find the Left Bank on the Chao Phraya River. That is, perhaps, until the next revolution, like the one in 1973 that renewed interest in Saowaphong. "Bangkok," he writes, "is still awaiting the writer that would delve into her heart and lay it bare for all to feel pulsing." The publisher Suk echoed this almost a half-century later. But until readers develop an interest in literature beyond comic books, Tolstoi translations, and identical bargirl stories, it will echo still. Hemingway II will appear only if Bangkok becomes more traumatic than it already is.

Saowaphong, Seinee, Wanlaya's Love, [Thai Modern Classics, Bangkok, 1996]. ISBN 974-89755-2-5