21 March 2010

เงาสีขาว | The White Shadow

The White Shadow has long been held as one of the best contemporary fictional narratives by those in the know. A work of substantial length, The White Shadow or the Portrait of An Artist in His Turbulent Years is not an easy read, especially when we take into account the author's eccentric choice of not dividing the whole text into paragraphs and his daring revelation of his angst and hatred for himself, those around him and the world in general.

Of course, this sense of hatred is not uncommon in modern literature with those works of such French authors as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who were sick of their surroundings and used their literary skills as a means of psychological healing (and paradoxically dwelling further into the dark abyss of the human mind). What is distinguished about The White Shadow, however, is how the author brings this state of mental complexity to the Thai landscape and shows how an average man, like him, can feel the same way.

With the literary work of this kind, one of the problems the author faces is how to steer the narrative away from the creation of a whimsical narrative that is eventually simply a work of self-gratification. Danaran Saengthong manages to move away from this, with his subtle criticism of Thai society, in which political correctness and the double standard of morality are something as commonplace as Starbuck's in Bangkok. However, through his masterly storytelling, he doesn't extol himself as a hero that can have an effective distance from all this mental corruption; he is himself corrupt and this leads to an ironical question that is strongly felt throughout -- how much can we believe this man, when he himself says that he's not that better from the rest? Perhaps this is exactly the reason that makes the message of this life story so pithy. Aren't we all like him? We like to criticize the status quo and yet emerge as an immaculate judge? The White Shadow just makes manifest that such an arrogant standpoint is impossible.

Another element that is special to this narrative is how the author seems to bare all the hidden social conventions that are hushed. His misogynistic standpoint, however, is highly controversial but is symptomatic of Thai patriarchy in general. His inability to love is also another reason why he is unable to settle down with a woman. Perhaps what we see here is something perhaps worth a psychological study. It is my conjecture that the author wishes to retain an emotionally charged life, in which he sees things as bright and interesting so that he can turn them into a work of art. However, life is not art and life is in fact boring, especially when we take into account certain 'traditional' stages of life that each of us is subjected through, such as education, courtship, marriage, procreation, children rearing, and coping with old age and death. Through his life story, we can sense the anger and anxiety of the author who doesn't want to subject his life to such mundane stages, whilst at the same time seeing them as unavoidable. This existential crisis is closely tied with the traditional Thai sense of manhood, in which men need to prove their performance through the conquest of women as well as their skills in infringing social codes.

Through the sense of inexplicable hatred and complaint of existing conditions, I find the book a compulsive read. As the novel progresses, we can perceive that the author is in fact a storytelling virtuoso who can keep us riveted to the chair reading his narrative that gradually unfolds the stories of people around him, those stories that are somehow related to his as well as his implicit comments on them.

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