22 May 2009

Rush Out | กรูกันออกมา

Paretas Hutanggura is probably most remembered from his collection of short stories The Witch in the Building (แม่มดบนตึก). Some of the stories remain a must-read for those interested in contemporary Thai Literature, as Paretas is one of the most sarcastic authors around who does give an accurate picture of consumer culture.

In Rush Out, he continues in the same vein of sarcastic parody, tackling the film industry through the characterisation of two characters, a traditional minor royal and a PhD upstart who just finishes her study abroad. If the former prefers everything to be traditional, the latter simply thinks that tradition is anything but dead and society should be more frank in dealing with violence and the corruption of the public mind. The two are asked to be in the same panel for the Pirate Award, which is given to the best scriptwriter, whose script will be made into the film. So what we see is the contrast of the two extremes, one traditional and the other radical and transgressive.

Such a contrast, in fact, is what exists in Thai society and is deepening. We have people who still preach about the evils of globalisation and the glorious days in the past. At the same time, we have newer generations of people who think that these opinions are simply a myth and that these older people are deluding themselves to be something they have never been from the start.

Paretas, of course, doesn't offer any solution to this crack in our social structure, but he does revel in portraying the contrast in the Rabelaisian manner, as if he realised that there's no way out, just a cynical look at the whole scenario of absurdity. For me, this novel is special, as it is the first time I feel that I need to read quickly. It's not made for careful perusal. Perhaps the style itself reflects our faster pace of life, where we are not supposed to stop and think. Because if we do so, existential absurdity is what we are going to feel.

21 May 2009

824 | แปดสองสี่

824 is a (not quite) new novel by Jane Vejjajiva, who did stir the Thai literary circles with her debut The Happiness of Kati. However, in my humble opinion, this work is far better than her former, which already won her the SEA Write award. Well, my compliments don't logically mean that she'll automatically get the Nobel Prize for Literature, but at least it does show that her expertise doesn't only lie in the portrayal of the upper-middle class.

The strange title does have a meaning: Jane tries to depict the lives of 8 beings (seven people and one dog) within 24 hours. They all live down the same alley and even though they don't know each other, their lives somehow are related. Doesn't this sound a bit too familiar? If you think this is something truly new, I'd recommend you to read MR Kukrit Pramoj's Many Lives and, of course, its prototype -- Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which was first published as far back as 1927. However, different from these two novels, which end with death, 824 ends with hope.

The characters do vary as the author attempts to cast a wide net to capture creatures from all walks of life, from various gender and class dimensions. Therefore, we have a good-intentioned transvestite, a drunkard, an old man who despite his age tries to take care of an old lady with whom he fell in love long time ago, and a Frenchman who is head over heels in love with Bangkok. All in all, 824 has all the material to create a soi melodrama, in which all characters have challenges to overcome, past to forget, present to live, and future to look forward to.

Even though some elements are a bit cheesy, like the love story between the two old people and the transvestite's secret admiration for a younger man who accepts him for who he really is, we can't deny that the author remains a strong strategist who plans and plots (in all meaning of the word) everything carefully, so much so that every life seems to miraculously intertwined that there's no space for "reality" to happen. In other words, the all-too-well plotted plot has no loose ends, thus reiterating its status as fiction rather than reflecting life.

Somehow, I find this perfection a bit too oppressive, as we all know that life is not like that. Life has, as it were, loose ends and dead ends. If The Happiness of Kati is the ideal portrayal of the upper-middle-class girl who learns to cope with the death of her mother, 824 is likewise idealistic in its depiction of cosmic ordering of the lives of seven people and one dog, an order so monstrous that it can only be created by a human who yearns for meaning in such a meaningless world.

14 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York

According to Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, synecdoche is a device whereby a part of something is used to signify the whole, or (more rarely) the whole is used to signify a part. I tired my brain out thinking about the connection between this special figurative device and Charlie Kaufman's new film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

As in some of Rene Magritte's paintings, Synecdoche deals with the issue of a play within a play. Caden, the main character, finds himself a victim of weird diseases, giving him rashes and strange symptoms. They make him obsessed of death, to the extent that he wishes to create a great work of art dealing specially with this issue. He is also in a failed relationship with his wife Adele, a famous artist of her own right. One day she chooses to walk out on him with their daughter Olive, moving to Berlin. Caden has no choice but to dedicate his whole time and energy on this new opus. His new 'theatre' houses the whole of his neighbourhood in New York, as he aims to portray his own life in its crudest reality.

However, his attempt to replay his own life down to its minutiae has setbacks. He hires an actor to play his role, only to find that the actor falls in love with exactly the same woman he fancies. Taking his role to heart, the actor commits suicide, causing Caden to find another person to play his part. Then, the whole thing becomes more complicated, as Caden appears in his own film dictating how his actor should act. This makes one wonder whether there should be another Caden out there dictating this Caden (surely some audience would have thought Charlie Kaufman himself would be that Ur-Caden).

However, this role of making a lot of decisions tires Caden out, as towards the end he chooses to be a cleaner instead. In turn, he lets a cleaner take his part and he himself waits for her order. Perhaps this is nothing less than an existential crisis that he suffers from, losing faith in life as it were and prefering to live like a crab in a deep sea like Eliot's Mr Prufrock. Perhaps this is where synecdoche comes in, as the life of Caden somehow is part of our life, the fate of humanity whereby we have no real desire to dictate our life. One key reason is that we know that even though we make decisions, fate will get the upperhand and have its way with our life, the same way that Caden's life just spirals out of control especially the moment when he thinks he has the firm grip.

Imitation is a key motif in Synecdoche. Caden tries to imitate the whole of his life on the grandest scale possible, the same way as Borges's mad cartographer does, only to realise the futility of his ambitious project. Adele, on the other hand, is a miniature painter, trying to create the smallest piece of artwork. They work on the opposite directions of this synecdochic representation. However, we see neither of them is really happy. Caden is a bitter old man yearning for his secretary Hazel, a symbol of desire as she lives in a house on fire. If Hazel is desire, Adele is lack (as Lack is her maiden name). Both of these women figure as the impossible for Caden and somehow become the drive for him to create the great opus.

I'm sure those literature students will have fun interpreting this film, as there're a great number of allusions and references here. But of course this can make the whole film really difficult and challenging. But if you enjoy his earlier films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind, all of which were written by him, I'm sure you'll like this one, too.

09 May 2009

Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans

Written by Luis Fernando Verissimo, Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans is clearly a parodic homage to Jorge Luis Borges, one of Dechito's favourite authors. The plot is a cross between two genres: detective fiction and campus novel, revolving around Vogelstein who has a cat called Aleph. He once translated Borges's short story and added what he thought would improve the story. Borges complained and this has left a sense of guilt on Vogelstein's mind, especially now when Borges is world famous. He longs to meet the Argentine author to make up for what he sees as academic carelessness on his part.

Fate works its way and one day Vogelstein finds out that Borges is to appear in a conference on Edgar Allan Poe in Buenos Aires. He doesn't hesitate to join the conference, only to find out that a keynote speaker is brutally stabbed to death. Suspects abound as the speaker himself is notoriously vicious and spiteful, always on alert to discredit aspiring scholars who wish to be on his par.

The premise is petty and serious at the same time, as academic wrangling leads to a murder in a locked room, the scenario made famous by none other than Poe himself. Of course, there is no orang-utan this time, as most readers who are acquainted with Borges would also be familiar with Poe, naturally. The body of the victim also lies in a weird position, leading to further ruminations on the part of Vogelstein, the witness, who is now working with Borges to find the solution to this mystery.

This simple summary should be interesting enough, but Verissimo manages to add more elements, such as Dan Brown's famous deciphering of arcane codes and Agatha Christie's unreliable narrator (popularised by her The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Thus, what results in this novella is a highly interesting and fun read, especially suitable for Borges fanatics. The homage to Borges is the last part whereby he 'rereads' what Vogelstein tells him, showing that the Argentine author is always one step further despite his awkward manners and almost blindness.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a sequel. Though it may not be always historically accurate, it is a good film with beautiful images and strong characterisation. The film sets out to portray how the Virgin Queen maintained her power through the turbulent times later in her reign, especially during her political fight with the Spanish and Mary, Queen of Scots.

What I like about the film is the extent to which the director, Shekhar Kapur, has invested in the image of Queen Elizabeth as the prototype of a Renaissance figure who finds the religion redundant and somehow contradicts with human emotion and creativity. Thus, we see the contrast of colour: while black is associated with the Spanish and the Roman Catholics, resplendent white is linked with Elizabeth herself and her reign. From the perspective of the film, nature also aligns itself with the Queen, as its storm wreaks havoc on the Spanish Armada. What is underlined, therefore, is how much religion, especially Roman Catholicism, is portrayed as oppressive and against nature. This interpretation is shrewdly highlighted, especially in the scene when Elizabeth watches the tempestuous sea. However, this should not blind us to the fact that in reality during her reign the Roman Catholics were just as vehemently persecuted.

However, one wonders whether Elizabeth herself, with nature on her side, can prosper. We see how much she represses her carnal desire and channels that to her political creativity. We see how much she feels for her cousin, Mary the Queen of Scots, who is about to be beheaded thanks to her order. In other words, she is also victimised by nature, as she cannot control her desire and longing. Nonetheless, according to the film, she is more successful than the Spanish, as she allows herself to succumb to these human emotions, not negating them altogether and being transformed into a lifeless lumb of blackness like King Philip II (as the film portrays him to be).

True to its glorifying style, the film chooses to end with the death of Sir Francis Walsingham when the Elizabethan reign is at its highest, with its colonies around the world and no more equal political enemies. However, I can't help but wonder if the film had chosen to follow her path till the moment she actually dies, we may perhaps see and understand more of this Renaissance figure, especially how more human and frail she can become.