Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Kingdom in Words — Best Thailand Books

Regular contributor John Borthwick bookworms his way through some of the best reads about Thailand — in fact, fiction and sci-fi.

“Thailand is the Italy of Asia. Great food, beautiful women, joyously corrupt and totally dysfunctional.” So writes Jake Needham, author of taut, intelligent thrillers set in Thailand. The Big Mango and Killing Plato are perfect stuck-in-the-airport novels or an on-the-beach read. In fact, your Thailand reading can fall into three phases: On The Plane, On The Beach and Back Home.

On the Plane

Jake Needham’s plots are steeped in international politics, big money bastardry and the onion layers of Thai corruption. (The Wall Street Journal Asia notes, “Mr Needham seems to know rather more than one ought about these things.”) Add sharp dialogue and pace, and you have the classic The Big Mango and recent delights like A World of Trouble. Needham’s work is notches above the recurrent template of farang fiction about Thailand, of go-gos, goons and gumshoes.

The Ideal Man: The tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war by Joshua Kurlantzick is an excellent new biography of the legendary Jim Thompson, “silk king”, spy, socialite and disappearing man. The book’s sub-title sets the scene. Exceptionally informative about post–WWII Thailand and its most glamorous foreign resident.

Jim Algie’s Bizarre Thailand: Tales of crime, sex and black magic is nowhere near as sordid as its tagline suggests. Arcane local knowledge, and funny, too. In a similar vein, but people-focused, also check out Bangkok Babylon and Thailand Confidential both by Jerry Hopkins (biographer of Jim Morrison).

Money Number One: The single man’s survival guide to Pattaya and A Fool in Paradise — the titles say all that one needs to know about “romance” in Thailand. Aussie expat Neil Hutchison’s funny-ouch! anecdotes should be mandatory in-flight reading for all arriving foreign males between the ages of puberty and senility.

On the Beach

Ex-lawyer John Burdett’s four novels featuring his eccentric Thai-farang police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep — in a Bangkok of bizarre murders, dirty politics and curious sex — are smart, street-credible page turners and full of gloriously bent characters. Start with Bangkok 8. Burdett’s cast of good- and evil-doers is infinitely more nuanced than the penny dreadful dames and private dicks in the prolific Christopher G. Moore’s series of who-dunnits, also set in Thailand. Moore’s short story collection, Chairs is recommended, instead.

Jasmine Nights by Thai renaissance man and aristocrat S.P Somtow is rightly billed as “the classic coming-of-age tale in Thailand of the 1960s.” Set in a time-warp family enclave (“our remote little island kingdom on Sukhumvit Road”), at one point Somtow’s father tells him that the coming Vietnam War will soon change everything for them: “This place we’re in now is a piece of paradise ... But in this tiny Eden, there is no hint of the change that will sweep the world. We’re not really of this earth ... but it can’t last.” While it does, the story is sexy, magical, poignant.

Flavour-of-the-year Norsk noir novelist Jo Nesbo penned a Bangkok crime tale way back in 1998 that has only now been translated to English. Cockroaches sees his Oslo police detective/defective Harry Hole in Bangkok investigating the murder of the Norwegian ambassador who has turned up dead in a seedy motel. As they do. Go-gos, temples and opium dens(??) are the screensaver backdrops to Harry’s hunt.

Canadian poet-novelist-travel writer Karen Connelly knows Thailand and its language well. Try her adroit, youthful account of a year in the Kingdom, Touch the Dragon: A Thai journal. A much later book, Burmese Lessons: A true love story is a gritty, open-heart account of journey and loving in the Thai jungles amid exiled Burmese resistance groups.

A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds was first published in 1956. The Asian Wall Street Journal clocked it as “Among the ten finest novels written about Asia.” That’s a big call for a “young foreign man meets unscrupulous local vixen” tale. Nevertheless, it’s a plot still played out to this day, nightly. Which might explain this compelling novel’s re-emergence.

Back Home (and wishing you weren’t)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a dystopian tale of gene scammers, agri-corp wickedness and an engineered, quasi-human woman, the “windup girl” of the title. All set in a future, post-diluvean Bangkok where government departments war for keeps against each other. William Gibson meets Blade Runner meets GM-induced famine.

Private Dancer sees Irish crime writer Stephen Leather (or at least his tragic protagonist, Pete) tread the same ground, shed the same tears and not learn the same lessons that Jack Reynold’s callow hero didn’t learn 50 years earlier. By the 21st century, however, everything in the Big Mango’s bar world is harder and far more sinister. Down, deeper and down, lovestruck Pete sinks into his obsession with a ying fatale. Slow Learner could be the book’s alternative title.

In Borderlines, fine English writer Charles Nicholl headed north to the Mekong and into Burma in search of rebels, jade, opium traders, insights and an elusive friend, Katai. “... sometimes I think that it wasn't just Katai who ‘got away’, but Thailand itself, the whole strange trip. I never really got to know where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.” Sounds familiar?

Happy reading!

John Borthwick is the author of Summer in Siam, a collection of essays about travelling in Thailand.

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