Sunday, January 23, 2011

No Way Out of Paradise

Boonma lived in a shack, a ramshackle shack. The corrugated iron that served as a roof did little to add charm to the abode. He had built the house by taking a wage advance from his employer, a Chinese businessman. The three hundred baht loan, along with the permission to build on his employer's land allowed him to create a home for his wife, their three children and his grandfather. Yet the very loan that gave him the ability to create his own home made him suffer. The money coming in wasn't enough, especially when his wife became pregnant with their third child, and then grandfather was hurt, unable to work.

Boonma's loan was sold to another man and the underemployed protagonist is sent to sea to work. While on the stormy waters trying to eek a living things at home take on an inevitable decline. The poverty induces mother to shack up with another man, and Sida began engaging in sex work. What does Boonma do when he arrives home again? He rages. He beats his wife senselessly and almost destroys the house at the same time. The battered wife slips out in the night, and soon Sida leaves as well. Boonma returns to work on the seas and the two youngest children are left with grandfather to fend for themselves.

Chart Korbjitti's novel read easily on the raft as I floated on the river. I read the short novel in one afternoon whilst on a small raft in the Kanchanaburi province west of Bangkok. The raft floated lazily along the river Kwae Yai, the same river which was immortalized in the movie "Bridge Over the River Kwai." I was on a group vacation, with 8 other friends. We'd come out to Kanchanaburi and headed for one of the northern parks to spend a couple days by the water, and the water falls.

The simple narrative was made more interesting by the varying third person viewpoints, in one chapter it was Grandfather who was the focus, in another it was Ort, the older brother, and shifting back again to Boonma. Like Korbjitti's other novel, The Judgement, which won him the S.E.A novel award, No Way Out focuses on how inescapable fate is. The effects of karma are clear in Korbjitti's novels. If you misbehaved in your last life, you suffer in this one.

Boonma reflects on the horror of his life late in the novel, "What kind of fate was this? He must have committed a lot of sins in his previous life to have to repay with such suffering in this life, he thought (p. 125-126)."

Boonma isn't the only one to feel the heavy hand of fate and internalize life's current plight as one's own fault. Grandfather too blames himself. "'If I hadn't come to Bangkok at that time,' he continued in silence, 'no one would have had to suffer on my account.' ...The old man's life had been like a pretty piece of coloured material whichsomeone had had made up as a shirt and which, when it started to fall apart from use, had begun to lose its value and turned into a tattered old rag. As time had gone by, it had become dirtier and worthless. His life had been just like such a rag, a lonely, exhausting and worthless life. Now it was gone, waiting to be forgotten." Suffering in life is not only one's own fault but one's miserabalism just shows how worthless your life is. You were born in a squalid condition because you lived a squalid life previously. Poor people deserve their poverty in other words.

Korbjitti adds black humor into the mix with his ending. With Grandfather dead, his wife and daughter gone, and Ort arrested while trying to provide for the family, Boonma takes his fate into his own hands and poisons himself and his remaining son. The son dies from the poison, while Boonma is woken in a hospital. "'Don't try to commit suicide again, uncle. Believe me: death never solves anyone's problems. Stand up to life and fight. Fight with all you've got. And you'll be a winner.' The nurse lectured him with words she had ready- prepared for comforting all patients in his situation." The nurse's words don't echo the predominant theme of karma but humorously invoke agency, an agency which is denied to the working poor, as Boonma is. Her statement is also suggestive of the Horatio Alger myth of the western world, of which she may be trying to emulate herself (Nurses would be far more exposed to western concepts than working poor such as Boonma due to university education).

The novel's close is clear from the onset. The back jacket of the book has its last paragraph written on it: "Boonma was sentenced to death, but thecourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment because of his full confession. He didn't appeal to the Supreme Court. He did nothing, except quietly accept his sentence. Sometimes late at night, fellow prisoners heard him wailing, like a tortured animal, alone..."

Born amongst ruins Boonma is committed to ruin. His house is destroyed, the iron corrugated roof for which he struggled for is wrecked by workingmen, agents of a the landowner. The land could be further capitalized on and so Boonma's house is easily torn apart. The house that was there might as well not have existed. It was worthless like a used up rag.

Korbjitti's novel reflects the dominant Buddhism mores of Thai society. While spectacular myths such as Horatio Alger keep capitalism entrenched in the western world, Buddhism does its own work in the exotic east. Our good friend Karl has always said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." The Buddhism of Thai society reinforces class hierarchy by reinforcing the idea that one's fate is one's own problem rather than a societal and structural one.

The novel was a sharp contrast to my lazy vacation.Outside of my temporary paradise was a world that was cruel and fixed. I looked at one of the boat boy's and asked my friend how much he got paid. "About two-hundred baht a day," she said, "but you don't need much to live on out here."

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