For a sizeable chunk of my adult life I have lived in South East Asia, shuttling between Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. One balmy day in late summer, while strolling through a raucous marketplace in Saigon, I came upon a worn copy of Bangkok Tattoo on the counter of a dive bar selling moonshine whiskey, pork sliders and pho. The book’s hard living protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is the progeny of a retired Thai sex-worker and one of her farang (foreigner) clients, a long-gone Vietnam War G.I.
Sonchai works as a detective in the Royal Thai Police Force and has acquired a troublesome reputation as the only cop on the force who can’t be bribed. This quality, unsurprisingly, has not helped his career prospects. Bangkok Tattoo is the second in a series of gritty crime stories set around Sonchai and his exploits. The others are: Bangkok 8 , Bangkok Haunts , The Godfather of Kathmandu , Vulture Peak and The Bangkok Asset .
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Rooted in reality
John Burdett, the author, is a Thai-speaking former lawyer who has spent a major part of his life in Asia, in the process chatting up hundreds of bar girls to gather material for his novels. One would be hard pressed to find a foreign writer who nails the sacred and profane aspects of Thai culture so effortlessly, a duality that can be seen as two sides of the same coin, like the Buddhist shrine seen at the entrance to many sex clubs.
Unlike some British expat writers in Asia, William Dalrymple for example, Burdett does not wallow in exotic fantasies of a bygone era. He is firmly rooted in the here and now, effortlessly blending into the culture that he has adopted as his own.
His protagonist Sonchai is an arhat , a Buddhist with the rare ability to meditate in the most challenging situations, including in peak Bangkok traffic. He often looks to the scriptures for answers to ethical dilemmas or when things go horribly wrong, as they often do in his profession. But unlike his former partner, Pichai, he has not been able to muster the courage to be fully ordained into monkhood. “Was the Buddha really a transcendental genius who pointed out all that time ago that nothing was even more inevitable than death and taxes? Or was he a third-century B.C. dropout who could not cope with the rigors of statecraft?” he asks rhetorically in Bangkok 8 . Here “nothing” refers to the Buddha’s core teaching of shunyata , or the inherent emptiness of all material and mental phenomena. He further wonders, “Is it my farang blood which fills my mind with such sacrilegious thoughts from time to time?”
When not seeking answers in the sacred texts, he likes to ingest hallucinogens to help reconcile his spiritual quest with the grim realities of homicide investigation. His philosophical ruminations about the differences between the Western and Asian mind are a thing of wonder. In sharp and unflinching detail, Sonchai takes us into the mind of a Thai “wife for rent” as she toys with a series of European patrons, manipulating them with finesse while offering Freudian insights into their personal neuroses.
The women in Sonchai’s world are not victims. “Western women can’t handle it that their men get a better time over here,” says Sonchai’s mother Nong, turning her withering gaze on the moral hypocrisy of farang culture “In the sex trade we see a true redistribution of global wealth from west to east. That’s what’s got them so hung up.” Nong is a madame who operates a brothel as a front for her powerful investor, a police colonel who runs a major part of the drug trade.
Sonchai often reminds his readers that they are farangs , and thus outsiders, to be schooled in the ways of the East. And he does this with a healthy dose of condescension and breathtaking candour: In Bangkok Tattoo , he writes, “These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farangs exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough drunken whore-mongering husbands in their home villages.”
Burdett has a penchant for mining the West’s fraught encounters with the East, displaying an impressive command of a literary style that could be described as social satire. No matter how outrageous the plots — a U.S. marine murdered in a car full of Cobras dosed on crystal meth, a telepathic Tibetan tantric adept cum heroin dealer, a detective having intercourse with the ghost of a deceased lover — his street cred shines through, which is probably why his work has not been translated into Thai. Given the country’s draconian laws, he could easily find himself incarcerated, or worse, for exposing the thriving nexus between the criminal underworld and the state. And he enjoys living in Thailand far too much for that.
Illusion of control
His prose is acerbic, compulsively readable, and the social commentary cuts straight to the bone. There are many passages that have uncanny resonance with ongoing world events. For instance, in Bangkok 8, a monk makes a striking observation: “Actually, the West is Culture of Emergency: Twisters in Texas, earthquakes in California, windchill in Chicago, drought, flood, famine, epidemics, war on everything — watch out for that meteor and how much longer does the sun really have? Of course, if you didn’t believe you could control everything, there wouldn’t be an emergency, would there?”
He is talking of the illusion of control that undergirds the modern world, providing it with a false sense of its own invincibility. It’s an illusion that is causing mental breakdown and disorientation on a global scale, as we watch our smug certainties unravel before our eyes.
The Buddha taught that impermanence permeates all aspects of life, even inanimate objects, and this is a constant reminder of the powerlessness of man. However much we may desire to predict outcomes, learning to accept the inherent uncertainty of human existence could be what ultimately liberates us.
The writer is a cultural critic and filmmaker.