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Interviews | September 2, 2014 1 comment
David Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone... Continue »
The Power of Differenceby John Burdett
I had visited Thailand dozens of times before I decided to write a thriller based in Bangkok. I had no particular interest in its famous sex industry or the young women who worked in it. Nor did I have any particular interest in Thai Buddhism, which seemed so much less alluring than Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. I thought I was simply looking for an exotic location which had not been "done," or at least not overdone (how many detective thrillers have you read that are not based in New York, or LA, or London or Paris?). I thought I would get a flavor of the city, which the Thais themselves call Krung Thep (City of Angels), by hanging around in some tourist bars, until I made more contacts with the "real" Thailand. I was looking for an introduction to someone working in the Royal Thai Police, who might give me an insight into local law enforcement. I had no idea that the lives of the young women I was talking to in these bars were stoking up a passion in me of a literary nature. The more monumental events of consciousness seem to happen off-screen.
I also decided that I ought to know more about Theravada Buddhism (that is practiced throughout Southeast Asia), so I went on a two-week meditation course in a monastery a few hundred miles north of Bangkok. I had no idea that the radical discipline of vipassana meditation would stoke up another passion.
The world other than as advertised can be an amazing place. These young women who sold their bodies every night were not victims, they were not cheap or vulgar, they were not miserable, they were not desperate, they were not even (and here it really gets weird) promiscuous. It's true, I'm not the first person to make the observation. The girls sell their bodies often as an act of personal and voluntary sacrifice, because they are the only member of their family (almost invariably rice farmers from Thailand's poorest region known as Isaan) who can make that kind of money in the big city. I learned that men who want to be lovers of such whores (as opposed to customers) are expected to have some high moral standards; in particular, they better be faithful (Thai surgeons are the best in the world when it comes to penis re-attachment: they get more practice). The quid pro quo is that she will be scrupulously faithful to her boyfriend too out of working hours.
I also learned that Buddhism is the most extraordinary psychology ever invented. I'd had no idea that for more than a thousand years after the birth of the Gautama Buddha the very best minds on the planet had dedicated themselves to the study and elaboration of levels of consciousness. People who truly dedicate themselves to Buddhist meditation can be quite exceptional. In the monastery where I was meditating one elderly monk who was dying refused all medical treatment because he wanted to watch his body disintegrate no way he was going to miss the end of the show by numbing his mind with painkillers. I discovered that Thailand was one of those countries, like Sri Lanka and India, where memory of past lives used to be commonplace. Go back a few generations and you find people talking about earlier lives with total certainty.
One young monk who positively glowed with meta loving kindness explained to me that the West was a culture of emergency: "If you didn't think you could control everything you wouldn't have so many emergencies, would you?"
I had found my exotic location, but the nature of the difference was more than I had bargained for. How could I, a Western man who didn't speak much of the local language, put himself in the shoes of a Thai? I didn't have an answer, but I did realize that I was starting to see the world somewhat in the Thai way and decided to let things develop without reference to my original plan. I had to find out more.
The girls who worked the bars were indeed heroes and acknowledged as such in their home villages, where people were deeply impressed by the way a young woman could go to the big city and extract so much money from those exotic and formidable-looking farang men that she could support her whole family, send siblings to university, pay her parents' medical bills, build herself a new house and retire by the age of thirty. I calculated that the average bargirl sends between sixty and seventy percent of her earnings home to some impoverished village in Isaan where she has probably been brought up in what to Western eyes is no more than a shack on stilts. Very often she will be barely literate, having left school in early teens (or before) in order to make a contribution to the family finances, but she dresses like a fashion model and learns English, German, Japanese, French, Malay, Chinese whatever she needs for her business with amazing speed. Those who travel abroad become connoisseurs of jails and five-star hotels in equal measure.
Like all true heroes, the girls were tough, too. Not a one of these beautiful women didn't have some serious scarring somewhere on her body from a motorcycle accident, usually sustained when taking a corner too fast whilst drunk. And they loved to fight. Many of them proudly related stories of gladiatorial fist-fights, sometimes with other women, quite often with men, usually conducted in a back alley out of view of the cops, (only a knockout or serious flow of blood ended the battle). They were fiercely patriotic, too. There are sixty-one million people in Thailand and you get the impression that every one of them would happily die for their king.
One evening I was sitting at a bar in Pat Pong, probably the most famous red-light district in the world, when an attractive young woman started talking to me, then a few minutes into the conversation admitted she was a man. She/he was stuck in the middle of the transition from male to female. Her sponsor, a Western man, had paid for the course of medication, most of which consisted of estrogen in one form or another, so that she had grown breasts and developed an impressive luster in her long black hair. Her farang lover had lost interest, however, and now she was trying to raise money for the final step which was surgery. It struck me with some force how radical Western consumerism can be in its effect on the Third World, even to the point of changing men into women. My new friend readily admitted that she did not fit the profile of a transsexual. It had not occurred to her to think she was a man trapped in a woman's body. She had decided to have the operation partly because her lover wanted it but mostly because she expected to be much more marketable to Western men as a woman.
At the same time I thought more and more about Buddhism. I had often reflected in a vague way how infantile Western culture can be when faced with some of the more challenging facts of life, especially death. In the West we pay specialists to keep death out of sight, except when a close relative dies. In my monastery one senior monk used to arrange for the local hospital to send him cadavers, to assist in his meditation on the supreme reality of death and whatever lies behind. That probably sounds morbid to a Western mind (even in Thailand it's not exactly mainstream), but I no longer find it so. On the contrary, I have at least absorbed the Buddhist lesson to the extent of finding our Western habit of distracting our minds from reality to be morbid and dangerous in itself.
Then one fine morning, about a year after my arrival, I found myself writing a story narrated in the first person by a Thai cop who was half western by blood, who was a passionate meditator, whose mother was a whore and who had grown up amongst those very young women and katoeys (transsexuals) with whom I spent my evenings chatting. I didn't need to think about "voice," it was there every morning, nagging, persistent and quite indifferent to all those rules about novel writing I had so conscientiously studied.
John Burdett, April 2003, Hong Kong