By Timothy Hallinan
BANGKOK: Well, as a place to live, it is undoubtedly the most cheerful big city on earth. The Thai people somehow ingest the heat, the gasoline fumes, the permanent Gordian knot of traffic, the heartbreaking poverty, and through some form of internal alchemy turn it into broad, beautiful smiles and almost infinite compassion for the befuddled, sweating Westerner in their midst. (It’s also the world’s best restaurant city right now.)
As someone who has lived part of each year in Bangkok since 1981 and has set three fact-based thriller novels in the city — including A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, and the just published Breathing Water — I know that as a setting for fiction, it’s inexhaustible. It is, as Maugham famously said of Monaco, a sunny place for shady people. It’s a city that people roll downhill into. Sexpats, wanna-be kick-boxers, uncredentialed “English teachers,” world travelers whose tickets have inspired, ecstasy burnouts, people who gather tattoos on their travels the way the tourists of the 1930s gathered stickers for their steamer trunks, the no-budget tourists of Khao San Road — they all come here to add their individual bits of color to the Thais’ rather skewed vision of the West. And the Thais keep smiling, although over the course the 28 years I’ve been living here part-time, they’ve learned to smile with their hands out.
Even spies wind up here. There used to be a bar, Lucy’s Tiger Den, where guys who in a different era would have been just as likely to kill each other, instead just got drunk together and recounted the old battles. I borrowed one of them, just cut him out with scissors, named him Arnold Prettyman and dropped him into the second of my Bangkok books, The Fourth Watcher. A (maybe) retired CIA spook, Arnold was fun to write because he was incapable of speaking a sentence without first checking it thoroughly to make sure it’s at least partly untrue. Sadly, Lucy’s is closed now, but the club still meets, although they now gather in a location they prefer to keep secret. Naturally.
When I decided to write about the city — after spending much of two decades here — it was with a lot of misgivings. It would be an overstatement to describe my Thai-language skills as modest. And I knew how deceptive Thailand is. The people are so open and so welcoming that you’re tempted to believe you understand them. They do this great imitation of being just like us. But then you see them do the same thing with the Japanese and the Russians, and you realize that they’re just very instinctive about giving their guests what the guests want. So it took some time to feel like I had any understanding at all.
And I knew I required a character who didn’t understand the culture any better than I do, but who needed to understand it in order to create the life he wants. Poke Rafferty, my protagonist, is an American travel writer who’s been looking at other cultures as subjects, something observed through a pane of glass, written about, and forgotten. And all of a sudden one of those cultures turns around and bites him. He loves Thailand. He loves the Thais, so much that he marries one and adopts another. If he’s going to make this life work — and it’s a life he loves — he has to understand more. But he’s free to make mistakes, he’s not the go-to guy for inside info on Thai culture.
Beyond Poke, there’s the challenge of writing Thai characters, which is especially acute since two members of Poke’s family, his wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter, Miaow, are Thai. I’m very careful with it, but to be candid, I know I botch it all the time. And Thai culture is so different from my own culture that I don’t even know what questions I’m not asking. So I try to concentrate on the things I do know from my Thai friends — about status in society, for example, or family relationships, or the Thai genius for finding something to enjoy in practically everything — and then I rely on my understanding of what else the character is — wife, mother, crook, cop, politician. Two Thai friends are kind enough to comb the books for the howlers, but I’m fully aware that Thais who read these books will understand that I’m as much a farang as Poke is.
Lately, of course, Bangkok is interesting in a new way — as a city of political upheaval. The Kingdom has been ruled by the same Thai-Chinese elite since seven families loaned King Rama II the money to build Bangkok in the 1760s, but the voters are tired of getting identical Thai-Chinese candidates and their cousins all the time and have begun to rebel. And the ruling elite is striking back, deposing prime ministers as fast as the people can elect them. They’ve deposed three in the past 2 ½ years, on a variety of charges. One got canned for making an omelet on TV. Literally.
The conflicting demonstrations — red and yellow shirts, as we saw on CNN — represent competing outlooks, but neither party really cares about the people. What it’s all really about is the river, the absolute Mississippi of corruption money that flows through the Kingdom — billions of dollars a year. And that’s the background for my new book, Breathing Water, as Poke stumbles between the grinding wheels of two opposed and massively powerful factions. Most of the book focuses on the most dispossessed — the poor, beggars, street children — whose fates are also in play, although they have nothing to say about it.
So I think I’m lucky to have such an infinitely interesting city to write about, and I’ll keep writing about it as long as anyone wants to read the books.
Tim Hallinan’s Breathing Water is published in the United States by HarperCollins, in Italy by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore and in Spain by Via Magna.
READ: More from Tim Hallinan on his Web site
BUY: Breathing Water