Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Feet of Clay
Today there is a huge celebration of the hundredth anniversary of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, one of Thailand's most gifted and famous artists, to which (for reasons that may become apparent in the course of this blog) I haven't been invited. This is a pity, because I would be one of the first to recognize that Kukrit's genius was unique.
However, I have not in the past, nor would I now, attempt to whitewash those aspects of Kukrit's career as a novelist which stand in the way of his achieving true international stature.
I'm referring of course to Kukrit's propensity to imitate the actions of a hermit crab or cuckoo: that is, to build his novelistic structures inside someone else's home. Until aficionados of Kukrit's work are able to face up to, digest and come to terms with Kukrit's blatant plagiarisms of internationally known literary works, they will never fully appreciate Kukrit's true talent — which was to employ an uncanny and boundless linguistic invention and creativity to create out of these borrowed structures material that was uniquely his own, and uniquely Thai. To accept one's idol's feet of clay is not to deny that the head and the heart may be of pure gold.
As long as Thailand was a relatively closed society, and as long as Thai literature was something designed to be enjoyed only by Thais, one could ignore the occasional barb from an outsider who, after all, by definition, "didn't understand Thailand." When it was mentioned by some that the Don Camillo series was lifted wholesale into Kukrit's Phai Daeng tales, people simply said "So what?" Indeed, when I read Kukrit's novel Kawao ti Bangphleng and realized it was an almost scene-by-scene adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, a book every English schoolboy of my generation was forced to read, "So what?" was also my own reaction. Everyone knew that M.R. Kukrit was less than upfront about his sources, and everyone knew that he was a great writer of the Thai language, so what difference would it really make?
Alas, in the 90s Thailand was no longer — and is no longer — a "relatively closed society." What we do is seen everywhere and the Thai language is no longer the secret language of an obscure minority, but studied by professors in major universities around the world. It is even possible to do Thai at A level in my old school, Eton.
Therefore, when I bumped into Khun Jareuk Kaljaruek, CEO of one of Thailand's most important film studios, in Hollywood, and he told me he was making the most expensive Thai sci-fi flick of all time, having acquired the rights to Kukrit's novel, for the first time I was forced to take him aside and say, "Before you release this film worldwide, there's something I should tell you."
The Midwich Cuckoos had been filmed three times at that point: as Village of the Damned, as the sequel Children of the Damned, and as a new remake by John Carpenter which was being released that very same year. It's not just some obscure junky paperback — though it might have seemed that way to someone unaware of the history of science fiction. It is and was one of the seminal works of the genre. In addition, the original screenwriter of Village of the Damned, Stirling Silliphant, was at that time the most highly paid screenwriter in the world, and in the nineties he happened to be living in Thailand. Stirling was asked by Caravan, a leading Thai magazine, to write an article about the forthcoming sci-fi flick. Only then did he discover that the movie he was to write about was, in essence, his own. (The magazine decided that I, as an ex-patriate Thai living in Hollywood who wouldn't ever return to Thailand to face the scandal, would have to write the article — and offered me danger money to do so.)
This was definitely a major crack in the forcefield that shielded Thailand from "the real world".
Well ... despite all this, I came back to Thailand ... and the truth about these novels hasn't dented Kukrit's reputation in Thailand one bit. Now that the grand old man is celebrating his 100th birthday, it might be time to examine the cultural context of it all.
The major creations Kukrit's auctorial career happened in another time — one far removed from today's hyperconnected world. In the culture of Thailand we were emerging from a world in which artists were not considered societal icons who illuminate the human condition and hold the mirror up to society. They were, in fact, as were European artists in the eighteenth century, servants.
At the beginning of the last century, no one thought anything of it if a composer or poet published a work anonymously or even under the name of some important patron, such as a royal or an important aristocrat. Indeed, schoolchildren in Thailand even today learn that certain major works were written by various early monarchs, when this was never understood to be the case at the time. The ascription of someone else's name to a work of art was not considered particularly demeaning because that art was created in the service of those noble individuals.
By the same token, literary works from other cultures were frequently recomposed in the Thai language and are now viewed as wholly Thai — works such as the Ramayana, the central epic poem in Thailand's cultural tradition.
Kukrit therefore grew up in a cultural context in which an author's proprietorship was not clearly demarcated as it is today — neither legally nor conceptually. In a sense, he was just going what everyone else did — the only difference being that he happened to possess genius, and therefore what he did is remembered.
Indeed, all great art has sources. Shakespeare's plays drew on Hollinshed. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has provided a structural framework for countless pieces of fiction (including one of my own) as well as movies like Apocalypse Now. Jane Austen's Emma was hilariously recreated in contemporary L.A. in the movie Clueless. You might ask, therefore, in response to the Kukrit problem "So what?"
To dismiss these borrowings as homages is one solution to the Kukrit problem. But there remains the fact that M.R. Kukrit stated at the time that when he wrote The Cuckoos of Bangphleng, he wrote it simply as the inspiration came and had no idea how the story was going to turn out from day to day (it was first serialized in a Thai newspaper.) He made this statement even though the derivation of the work is embarrassingly obvious — he didn't even disguise the title. Instead of saying, "I'm going to pay tribute to this seminal novel by creating a Thai version of the story" he acted as if John Wyndham's novel didn't exist.
Why didn't he simply say it? His brilliant writing, his astute observations of Thai village life, and the cleverness of the adaptation would have been enough to merit praise for the novel without having to pretend that the idea was original. And yet something prevented M.R. Kukrit from making this statement. Was it vanity? But no one disputes Kukrit's position as a foremost figure of Thai letters. I believe in fact that Kukrit would have received more kudos for stating that he intended to serve as a bridge between western culture and Thai literature.
I cannot really fathom this. My mother's novel, Mongkut Dok Som, was inspired by a novel by Chinese novelist Su Tong, and in her introduction to the published edition, she clearly says so. No one has ever said she was any less of a novelist for saying so — and indeed she went on to prove her own plotting skills by creating a sequel that owes nothing to Su Tong at all.
In fact, artists do not exist in vacuums. All works have sources. Yet it seems that in these instances, M.R. Kukrit wanted to be in a vacuum. He wanted to be enshrined in solitary splendor and he was amply protected from a lawsuit by the Wyndham estate by the inaccessibility of the Thai language. It is, in the end, probably only about ego. And ultimately, it shows a disdain for one's readership that is disturbing, and threatens to overshadow the magnitude of his achievements.
When I was a child, my mother used to read Si Phaendin to me every night and it was from Kukrit's writings that I became connected to Thailand's cultural past. I think it is fair to say that I wouldn't be who I am today without the influence of his writings.
But in order to completely understand the person, and the writer, one must also face the darkness in that writer, that person, and come to terms with it.
Every great artist I know of has harbored darknesses within. Wagner was a hideous human being and yet in his art, he showed an incredible understanding of the human condition. Venality, sexual perversion, terrorism — you name it, some great artist has done it. They are human beings. We should celebrate that.
To realize that Kukrit's was a flawed genius does not in any way denigrate that genius. Let's stop ignoring the elephant in the room, acknowledge its presence, and free ourselves to appreciate this artist for what he was.
I've noticed that the Wikipedia article on Kukrit does in fact acknowledge the actual source of several of his novels. Nevertheless, at the time that I wrote my article for Caravan, the revelation about John Wyndham came as a complete surprise to many people. I guess the dust has settled somewhat now that the Master has gone on to his next incarnation.