A very Japanese Thai novel

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I was surprised to find a Thai novel for sale in the gift shop of the Honolulu Academy of Art. A very Japanese one the novella Behind the Painting (Khang Lang Phap) byby Siburapha [pen name of Kulap Sapradit, 1905-74] turned out to be. It is mostly set in Japan, but also has a very Japanese sensibility (akin to Kawabata), chronicling the love a Thai student (Nopphon) going to university in Tokyo developed for the (Thai) wife of a Thai magnate (Chao Kunn Atthikanbodhi) much older than his wife, Mom Tarchawong Kirati — who is beautiful and delicate in very Japanese ways — is often consigned to Nopphon while her husband has business meetings. They actually touch fleetingly on an outing.

Kirati memorializes the mountain stream in a watercolor that Nopphon treasures forever after. Having completed his degree and returned to Bangkok, Nopphon visits the widdowed Kirati before she dies at a relatively young age.

The delicate novella of sad sensibility and love that is shared but not physically consummated (first serialized in 1937-38) is accompanied by some extremely didactic communist agit-prop stories about the humanity of common people and the arrogance of aristocrats who either get their comeuppance (Lend Us a Hand) or lose their daughters to unseemly working-class men (The Awakening).

After being released in 1957, after four years imprisonment, Sapradit was granted asylum in the PRC (where he seems not to have noticed the famines brought about by the lunacies of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” followed by the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”…). There he contributed to the Afro-Asian Solidarity Front’s cultural activities and to the Thai-language radio propaganda broadcasting. Behind the Painting was interpreted by Sairpradit’s later comrades as showing the inevitable destruction of the upper class (Kirati) and impotent dishonesty of the comprador elites (embodied by Nopphon). I’m relatively sure that the writer identified with Nopphon and Nopphon’s idealization of the beautiful and exquisitely sensitive older woman.

The Siburapha texts occupy only 144 pages (there’s also an 8-page biographical introduction and a two-page glossary of Thai words not translated in the text), so could easily have encompassed The Jungle of Life (Pa Nai Chiwit), which was also serialized in 1937. The thin volume does not convince me that there was a great Thai writer, like, say the Indonesian leftist Pramoedya Ananta Toer (The Girl from the Coast, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations), who served time in jail by the Dutch, by Sukarno, and 14 years in a forced-labor camp on the remote island of Buru by the Suharto regime.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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