Two Thai Novelists Explore Bangkok’s Swirl of Remembering and Forgetting

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad

By Veeraporn Nitiprapha

In 2010, my husband and I left our young children sleeping at home in Bangkok and went out to cover what we feared would be a massacre. In front of us, in the hazy heat of May, a military sniper shot a street protester. Armored personnel carriers rumbled toward us from different directions, trapping protesters in a pincer motion.

A block away from the killing, street vendors were selling coconut ice cream. At least 90 people died in the security forces’ assault on protesters that spring, including two medics, an Italian photographer and a soldier struck by friendly fire. When we got home, our boys were still napping. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the deaths nine years ago.

For all its memorable brashness — the chili-laced cuisine, the vicious heat, the excess of tropical botany — Thailand excels in forgetting, a deliberate amnesia that makes history turn, if not in circles at least in cul-de-sacs. Two novels from Thai-born authors, “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, and “The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth,” by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, examine these hidden, overlooked spaces, where ghosts and spirits and discarded dreams orbit, even as people try to outpace the past. “So much,” Pitchaya writes, “had been lost or erased from the books.”

There are a lot of characters in “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” multiple generations all connected, it turns out, to a single house built by the great-great-grandfather of Sammy, a photographer with a penchant for leaving when things get uncomfortable. In rough chronological order, the Bangkok home is linked to an American missionary doctor, a divorced socialite, a construction worker hopped up on brightly colored pills, a student who survived an earlier political massacre, a troubled plastic surgeon and the young owner of one of the faces he carves. There are many others. Some are animals.

At first, each chapter feels more like a deft character sketch than something with the forward momentum of a novel. Eventually, though, the stories begin to intersect and build on one another, like banana leaves woven to make a floating offering for the water spirits.

Despite the profusion of characters, Pitchaya’s debut novel is more an evocation of a place than of a people. In Thai, Bangkok is called Krungthep, and not just that but Krungthep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya and over a dozen words more. It means the city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city and so on.

Sammy’s father, a former Thai diplomat living in London with Sammy’s British stepmother, laments the latest paroxysm of political violence in Bangkok, the deaths of more pro-democracy students on the streets as the military imposes its will. He asks Sammy, also in self-imposed exile, whether he still knows Krungthep’s full name, as he did when he was a boy.

Sammy does not. Few Thais remember how to say the entire name; getting partway through is like knowing a few numbers past the decimal point of Pi. Bangkok is changing too fast, shedding layers of its history like the skins of a snake. Yet the city retains its allure, and the quest to return is like some animal, “its tail straightened like a rudder. Sammy knows it won’t stop until it’s home.”

“The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth,” which won the South East Asian Writers Award for the original Thai edition, is also lush with characters — and foliage and fauna. In Veeraporn’s telling, the Thai capital doesn’t unfold, as in Pitchaya’s plaited tale, but explode.

Like a Thai soap opera that captivates viewers in air-conditioned condos and wooden shacks alike, the novel follows three characters, two sisters named Chareeya and Chalika and an orphaned boy named Pran, and the concentric circles of melodrama and tragedy that trap them. There are affairs, deaths and doomed romances aplenty but, as in a telenovela, the effect is less poignant and more propulsive.

In Veeraporn’s Bangkok and the small riverside town near the Thai capital where the three main characters grow up, the colors appear heightened, the sounds — Schumann, the Cure, the Thai country music that was fortified by what Vietnam War vets left behind — amplified. Ghosts mingle with lovers. A woman is the mother of five children who shared three fathers, “a mathematical riddle and parentage conundrum.” Adjectives abound.

Gardens overflow with champaca, pikul, ylang ylang, Mon rose, monkey flowers and butterfly pea, an unfamiliar and thrilling taxonomy. Chareeya and Pran flirt, a ritual that can seem “like two Siamese fighting fish grappling each other in a bottle of glue.” Characters feast on Israeli tabbouleh, Hungarian goulash and rose-tinted spheres of condensed goat milk from India — a nod to the Thai ability to synthesize new ingredients, music or art and give them a distinct national flavor.

The effect of Veeraporn’s narrative is akin to a malarial hallucination, but that’s what Bangkok feels like: a soap opera in which someone wakes up and realizes that the preceding episodes were all just a fever dream. Or is the waking the actual dream?

The exact fates of characters matter less than the unexpected rotations of life. Veeraporn describes a mollusk that discovers its shell has gone missing while it slept. “It spent the rest of its life creeping along, naked, in the cold loneliness of a beach shining with a million white shells,” she writes, “without ever being able to find a shell that fit quite like the battered old shell it had lost — not a single one.”

“The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth” was written in Thai and painstakingly translated by Kong Rithdee, a movie critic and documentary filmmaker. There are few concessions made to non-Thai audiences, apart from an occasional footnote to explain a touchstone of Thai culture and a list of botanical names at the end of the book. Veeraporn’s Bangkok is an immersive experience, exotic but not exoticized.

Pitchaya, who grew up in Thailand but also in Saudi Arabia and the Southern United States, informs in a more conventional fashion. “Bangkok Wakes to Rain” is written in English and, particularly in the first half of the novel, explanatory clauses about Thai history or culture can feel a bit like a travel guide, albeit an adroitly written one.

The novel falters when it reaches into the future, a dystopian vision of a capital drowned by hubris and climate change. Bangkok’s reality is both real and surreal enough without entering the realm of science fiction. But Pitchaya soon takes the story back to the past, and characters that were just one part of the city’s mosaic — a once-famous jazz pianist, an American missionary coming to terms with Bangkok, the now-middle-aged survivor of the long-ago military crackdown — come alive. “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts,” Pitchaya writes.

For Veeraporn, that ritual of recollection and loss — “to erase from our heads who we are, what we’ve had to feel happy or sad about, or that we ever had anything to remember” — takes place in an urban jungle in which the real jungle intrudes, with bugs and snakes and giant monitor lizards. Bangkok is an overgrown Garden of Eden in which digging turns up nothing but “blind earthworms, one after another, lost in a labyrinth of their own making.”

Hannah Beech is the Southeast Asia bureau chief of The Times, based in Bangkok.

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad
360 pp. Riverhead Books. $27.

By Veeraporn Nitiprapha
Translated by Kong Rithdee
207 pp. River Books. Paper, $11.99.

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