Some South East Asian Novels

Four Reigns was first published as a newspaper serial in Thailand in the 1950s. The author, Kukrit Pramoj, was in the first generation of Thais to undergo and overseas education – he went to Queen’s College, Oxford – and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot of his own life in this book. Which makes for an interesting if rose-tainted read.

The story starts with Phloi, a likeable child who leaves her father’s house to work as a courtier of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of the current Ratanakosin dynasty (His Majesty King Vajralongkorn is the tenth). Phloi spends her late childhood and adolescence in court, has her heart broken once, but follows her father’s advice and marries well. She has four children and the book follows their intertwined lives as well as her own.

Phloi faces few conflicts – she has good karma – which makes the story itself is somewhat saccharine. Yet the characters are well drawn and, even if the book is rather free of incident in Phloi’s own life. One of her brothers becomes a degenerate, she has an evil half sister, and so on. On top of that, not only was Thailand affected by two world wars and the Great Depression, but the kingdom was also going through the throes of a massive modernisation. And, after the death of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), there was a series of short-lived monarchs between him and the late King Bumibol (Rama IX), all of which affect the lives of the characters.

Setting aside the historical background, the book is also brought to life, especially in the early parts, by the detailed descriptions of a court life that is no more. I am not in a position to know if the details are authentic – and I suspect that many of them are recollections of the author’s own mother – but they are beautifully sketched. I was also fascinated by how much, and how little, the social mores of Thailand have changed – how Phloi is happy to ask her husband if he’d like her to find second wives and concubines (he declines), how wives and husbands separate, how the hierarchies of wives change.

Four Reigns is regarded as a classic – the eyes of a Thai sitting next to me on a plane popped out of his head when he saw me reading Tulachandra’s translation into English – yet although the book was never boring, and although it was not written as a page-turner, what let it down was a one-sidedness. The characters covered the good, the bad and the ugly, though no one was evil, but they were all upper-class and well-heeled. There was no hint of the grinding poverty that is the lot, even today, of many Thais. Somehow for me, that left a void in the centre of the novel – I’d hope for more of a seven hundred page epic.

No one, however, could accuse Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (and translated by Annie Tucker) as lacking in evil. Though written in 2011, the novel is set in broadly the same period as Four Reigns, albeit in Indonesia.

The book starts with Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s greatest prostitute, rising from her grave, twenty years on, to avenge those who have wronged her and her daughters, but covers the time from her birth to her (first) death, overlapping the First and Second World Wars, up to the early years of Indonesia’s independence.

Often hilarious, the book describes a world of the other-natural, with ghosts and spirits, bold and cruel characters, and with lots of incident. Its world is one of fleeting relationships, of husbands who rape and husbands who love, of women determined and manipulative. It depicts the hierarchies of Indonesian towns, where crooks and cops carve up the power and populace bumbles along as best it can. Where in Four Reigns, the karma of one life determines the karma of the next; in Beauty, payback does not take that long.

Yet, despite the vivid writing and continuous invention, Beauty wore me down. Most of the final fifty pages concerned Dewi Ayu’s grandchildren and, by then, I didn’t much care. Those pages left me wondering where the book was going, and wishing it would get there sooner. As it happened, there was a neat ending, but it could have got there much sooner.

That aside, read together – and it’s mere serendipity that I did – the books are an immersion into a world as strange and wonderful as any sci-fi. Go out and buy them!