50 is apparently the 50th book from the fertile
mind of S.P. Somtow (Somtow Sucharitkul) (ISBN 978-0-9800149-2-1, Diplodocus
Press, 2008). The cover states that Somtow is “the most well known
expatriate Thai in the world” (according to the International Herald Tribune).
This could be debated, as there is a certain ex-PM probably better known,
but at least Somtow does not polarize his readers, nor has he, to my
knowledge, skipped bail.
Having just had the pseudo-political turmoil on the
streets of Bangkok, it has been interesting viewing and listening to the
reportage from the foreign media. There has been much indignation from the
local ex-pats over bias and lack of understanding of the situation, and then
on page 11, Somtow begins this book with his own indignation over a visiting
human rights advocate in 2006, writing, “What gives this person from the
world beyond, who has never experienced what we have experienced, who has
never known what it is like to be a Southeast Asian, the right to tell me
that I am not free? Why is it that these people so far away, who have never
breathed our Southeast Asian air, never felt the burning Southeast Asian sun
on their faces, always presume to know so much about what we think, feel,
are?” This is a fundamental truth, and from those lines onwards, Somtow’s
Opus 50 unlocked dark Thai secrets and shows the reader another side of the
Land of Smiles in 16 disparate chapters.
Following his time as a monk he speaks of a lesson he
experienced. “I learned that I come from a country where impossible things
happen, a land that bridges the territories of reality and dream. Here we
are still close to the source of magic.” Accept that concept and you can see
why farangs have such difficulty in the understanding of Thai beliefs and
the Thai psyche.
When you get to a chapter entitled “Somtow’s Guide to
Elmer Fudd’s Guide to Grand Opera” you begin to boggle at the depth of
experience in the author. To take a cartoon with Elmer Fudd attempting to
“Kill the wabbit” and dissect out the musical score as he stalks Bugs Bunny,
(which is the full blown Valkyrie theme as played in The Ride of the
Valkyries, Act III of Die Walkure), takes some doing and places Bugs on a
different pedestal, and better educated.
Opus 50 has even more revelations. If you are looking for
a book with simple language made up from single syllable words, gratuitous
sex, peppered with four letter F-words and a plot you can’t miss, then Opus
50 is certainly not the book for you.
If, however, you are looking for exquisite use of the
English language housing amazing insights into the Thai society and mores,
then Opus 50 is the book for you. It was a delight to read an author who
understands the subtle nuances of the language, and even more amazing when
it is taken into account that he is Thai.
At B. 430 this is a literary bargain. Select a comfortable chair and
enjoy the read.