With the arrival on the scene of indie trade publishers like Deborah Smith’s Tilted Axis Press, and Will Evans’ Deep Vellum Books in the US, bringing new fiction from South-East Asia to English- language readers, and young translators like Mui Poopoksakul bringing Thai literature to the English-speaking world, writing offering an inside take on the region is getting fresh impetus and visibility.
River Books has been a respected publisher of books on the region for many years, offering readers in-depth, insider knowledge about South-East Asian art and culture. Narisa Chakrabongse, the founder and CEO of River Books, is the editor of the Oxford River Books English-Thai Dictionary. Chakrabongse Villas, the family home, is a small boutique hotel in Bangkok.
I caught up with Narisa Chakrabongse some months ago at the launch of Rabbit Cloud and the Rain Makers, and we met up later to talk about her unusual Thai-Russian-British background, being a foreigner living in a strange land and, of course, River Books.
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Top 5 escapist reads from River Books, to lighten London January days
The Romance of Cinematic Culture, with a Thai Twist
Thailand’s Movie Theatres: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape, Philip Jablon (non fiction, illus.) buy here
“In Thailand, the standalone movie theater represents a form of public entertainment that has all but slipped through the cracks of memory into the abyss of time. For the last decade-and-a-half as the trend to demolish old cinemas in Thailand has continued, a full generation of Thais has come of age with little if any knowledge of the outsized role these theatres once played . . . The multiplexes confined within shopping malls had always felt cheap and antiseptic; cutting edge as far as comfort and technology were concerned, but otherwise devoid of any character . . .” — from the Preface by Philip Jablon
In the 1950s and 1960s, movie theatres across Thailand were important architectural statements and featured signage using decorative fonts, chandeliers or neon lighting, and specially designed posters. At a time when few houses had electricity, they were centres of social and cultural life where people came together regardless of class or occupation. Going to the movies was an exciting, popular activity in itself. It was not just something you did as part of your shopping trip to the mall, or sitting at home choosing from a dizzying range of films on your Amazon Firestick, or streaming a Netflix miniseries on your iphone. The popularity of the standalone cinema has become a thing of legend in Thailand.
As well as providing a superb, indexed pictorial record of standalone movie theatres dating from before World War Two, state-built theatres, and the architectural creations of the boom years of the 1960s to the 1980s, Thailand’s Movie Theatres also features superb reproductions of posters and other paraphernalia. Behind-the-scenes interviews with projectionists, dubbers and painters give intriguing insights.
There are entertaining and illuminating nuggets of information about Western movies that went down a storm with Thai audiences, and why. One example being Sidney Lumet’s 1973 police drama Serpico, starring Al Pacino as the upstanding incorruptible NYPD cop. Police and political corruption in the dictatorship was a rumbling issue at the time in Thailand.
Thailand’s Movie Theatres is a beautifully-produced, seminal work. It is a must-have book for the curious punter, the student of twentieth-century popular culture, or the graphic designer looking for inspiration.
A Dystopian Soap Opera
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translator: Kong Rithdee (fiction) buy here
– Winner of the 2015 South East Asian Writers Award for fiction in Thailand
“As a little girl, Chareeya collected all sorts of creatures she found on the road and surrounded herself with them, like someone in a bunker: dogs, cats, ants, birds, squirrels, lizards, turtles. There was the tree frog that leapt from the pocket of her school uniform and disappeared forever into the garden, the soft jelly that transformed into a blue butterfly and fluttered away when she opened its box one morning, and the cicadas that rubbed their wings to produce annoying shrieks that went on all night long. Chareeya didn’t just take good care of her pets, she counted them as family.”
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth is an unusual, quirky read about children who grow into adults whose lives are coloured by sadness and fear; muddled relationships and shipwrecked interior lives. Written in succulent, vivid language, the narrative is threaded with cultural references, political innuendo, shifting images, the aromas of food and tropical flowers, the sound of music and wind blowing through the blossoming garden over the water.
On the day Chareeya is born, her mother discovers her father has been having an affair with a traditional Thai dancer. When her mother threatens suicide, her father quits his teaching job, cuts off all contact with his mistress, and sinks into melancholic gloom. “He was a transparent entity . . . a man whose inability to have contact with other human beings was absolute.” Nual, the nanny (who has three lovers), is warm and caring. The two little girls grow up in the yellow house by the river, and do everything together like Siamese twins, while their wounded, vengeful mother is consumed by her obsession with their father.
Pran accompanies his nomadic railway-worker father around the Thai railways, his mother having been left behind in the arms of her lover. As he gets older, when his father is away, he stays with random families who take him home with them after school. He had once stayed with Chareeya and her older sister, beautiful Chalika – an indelible memory – and they come back into his life after a near-fatal drowning. Now a musician, he suffers from unrequited love.
Natee is smothered by his parents who work in the cinema – they never let him out of their sight. His life is tuned to the rhythms of the films he watches and soap operas that air on Thai television each night. He develops a fantasy life, telling women he meets that he is a “conflict reporter” as opposed to a straightforward political reporter, and recounts scenes of vivid carnage down the phone line as though he is on the frontline, but is in fact at home.
Seeing things as they really are, and capturing the reality of life, eludes most of the characters who each in their way live in dreamlike suspension, embroiled in their own particular fantasy and longing. Written with the consuming intensity of a feverish increasingly dystopian dream, this novel has a weirdly bewitching, addictive quality to it.
A practical guide for students and sightseers alike
Ancient Sites of South East Asia: A Traveler’s Guide Through History, Ruins and Landscape, William Chapman (non fiction, illus.) buy here
“This book is about one of the world’s most outstanding collections of ancient sites, those of mainland and island Southeast Asia. Spread across the mountains, valleys and plains of this culturally diverse region are remains of Buddhist and Hindu temples, sections of ancient city walls, and the platforms of former shrines and palaces. Some of these sites are well preserved. Others are ruins . . .” — from the Preface by William Chapman
I have always wanted to travel around South East Asia. For now I can only do it from the comfort of my armchair: frustrating! If I ever make my dream real, this is the book which will accompany the historian in me . . . Sites in Indonesia (for ex. the Hindu shrines of Bali), Vietnam (for ex. Champa sites), Cambodia (for ex. the Hindu temple complex, Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world), Thailand (for ex. the palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and statues of Ayutthaya, 80km north of Bangkok), Laos (for ex. Hindu temple, Wat Pho), Myanmar (for ex. the former royal capital Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River in what was Burma) and Malaysia (for ex. 9th century Buddhist temple, Borobodur in Indonesia), are covered.
With 312 pages of accurate illuminating information, illustrated with 425 colour photos and 76 maps and plans, Ancient Sites of South East Asia is not only perfect for students or researchers, but also the casual traveller.
A magical 21st-century folk tale for children
Rabbit Cloud and the Rain Makers, Gee Svasti, (children’s fiction, illus. Kate Baylay buy here
“Stepping out into the city was a surprise – as if he hadn’t had enough surprises to last a lifetime. To Solo’s eyes, more used to rocky walkways, tiny dusty houses and withered skeletal trees, every step through Estourias was like watching a David Attenborough programme on widescreen TV. Actually, to be accurate, Solo didn’t know about David Attenborough, let alone TV. In Karia they had only a small theatre with three puppets, one of which was a mouse. Thus their only production was the Pied Piper of Karia.” [p.37]
There has been no rain in Karia for two years, six months, twenty-seven days and sixteen hours. So every week, Solo goes up into the mountains to get water from the lake. He fills up two buckets and returns to his grandmother’s house in the village. When a strange cloud in the shape of a rabbit appears in the bright blue sky and follows the boy around he is amazed and delighted, but it does not stay since the dry air is dehydrating.
The survival of the villagers is threatened by the ongoing drought. So the boy sets off with his cat which looks like a fox. They head into Coyote Mountains, bound for the city of the rain makers. It is a perilous enterprise, no one who has attempted the quest has ever returned.
Unfortunately for planet earth, supplies of water are running dry at an alarming rate. Water scarcity is likely to be a catalyst for the coming global crisis. A tragic example being the bush fires raging across South West Australia that started after an abnormally long period of drought. Although fires are a natural part of its weather cycle, scientists have long warned that its steadily hotter, drier climate will mean fires are more frequent and intense.
Authentic, sweeping period romance
Katya & The Prince of Siam, Narisa Chakrabongse & Eileen Hunter (biography & memoir) buy here
“The rainy season was over a week ago and we go for a drive every evening after dinner. Tiny phosphorescent insects dot the trees like stars and fly around our car. Old shady alleys look somehow magical where huge trees line the canals covered with lotus flowers. We whirl along as if in a fairy tale and I can quite understand now why Siam is called a fairy land. Elephants walk along the streets, there is plenty of delicious fruit and beautiful exotic flowers – it really is like being in paradise.” — Katya in a letter to her brother (1906)
Katya – Ekaternia Ivanovna Desnitsky – secretly married Prince Chakrabongse of Siam in 1906. Since she was a “farang”, a foreigner, the Siamese royals were enraged. For the son of the only Buddhist monarch in the world to marry a Russian auburn-haired beauty in a Christian church in Constantinople was scandalous.
The birth of a baby boy, Prince Chula, eased tensions, and being a foreigner living in a strange land was softened by being kept in sumptuous, palatial surroundings. However Prince Chakrabongse’s affair with a fifteen year old princess while his wife away on a trip to Europe and Canada brought to a tragic end the fairy tale union, despite polygamy still being freely practiced (it was abolished in 1935).
Based on letters and diaries, Katya & The Prince of Siam is a collaboration between Narisa Chakrabongse and her late aunt, the writer, Eileen Hunter. Descriptions of the Tzar’s court in pre-Revolutionary Russia at the Summer Palace, and at the Siamese court of King Vajravudh in Bangkok before World War Two, make for a riveting romantic atmosphere.
A surprise nugget was the discovery that actor William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff, was the nephew of Anna Leonowens. Her memoir about her time working as a governess to the children of King Mongut in the Royal Palace of Bangkok very loosely inspired the musical The King and I, as well as two award-winning films.
Katya & The Prince of Siam is perfect for fans of the Netflix series Kurt Seyit & Sura or the Sky Atlantic and HBO miniseries, Catherine the Great. Perhaps a bright spark on the lookout for book-into-film projects will option the motion picture/TV rights. What a movie it could be!
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