Thursday, February 01, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj

I’ve just finished reading Four Reigns, a translation from Thai into English of Si Phaendin (Thai สี่แผ่นดิน,) by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, published by Silkworm Books. It happened to be the first Amazon recommendation that I took any notice of and hence I bought a copy from their store. Funny how I didn’t know about it, especially as I have for some while been pondering building a small traditional Thai house inspired by his family home in the centre of Bangkok, now a museum.

In fact, M.R. Kukrit, who is widely regarded as a Renaissance man, was admired by my mother, particularly for his sharp observations on society. Her siblings and others in the family household were likewise impressed and more recently one of my cousins got married in M.R. Kukrit’s home (heritage house was evidently available for hire for private functions :-) So, with a keen interest to learn what this literary maestro has to say, I’ve decided to write a review with occasional reference to my mother’s background, whose biography, The Life and Work of Fuengsin Trafford, I published in 2016. I’ll focus more on the content that style as English literature was never my forte! As this is going to be lengthy, I shall serialise my posts, mimicking the process by which the novel itself was originally published in a newspaper.


The Four Reigns is a historical novel based on the experiences of the author and his connections in what may be regarded as a bygone age — Mom Rajawongse is a title indicating that he is a royal descendant (his great-grandmother, Ampha, was of Chinese descent and was a consort of King Rama II). It’s a wonderful and very meaningful work, set in Thailand over a period of about 60 years, from the latter days of the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) through to the death of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) — hence the title. The front cover to the Silkworm Books edition displays four postage stamps, one from each reign, each depicting the respective monarch. They are enduring mementoes: like some of my relatives, I started collecting Thai stamps as a child; seeing the stamps on the cover I delved into my albums to locate them. Accordingly this review will have a section for each reign, each one personally ‘stamped’ with an item of the same denomination from my own collection.

The story was originally serialised in 1953 across many columns of Siam Rath, a Thai newspaper that the author co-founded in 1950 (as distinct from Thai Rath, another newspaper that was founded in the same year). Its readership comprised the highly educated and well-to-do for whom having 'Siam' in the title connoted associations with kingdoms and absolute monarchies going back many centuries. It was thus distinct from Thailand, which was the country’s relatively new name, emphasising the nationalism that had emerged following the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In the 1950s Thailand was starting to prosper economically, but memories were still fresh of the Second World War and of the sudden death of the King Ananda Mahidol, both of which had left deep impressions.

Si Phaendin became a Thai classic, so it’s quite striking how the audience has since diversified. It suggests a much wider appeal; even though the newspaper presupposes a certain educational background (beyond basic literacy), the stories would have been shared throughout the sois (side streets) and khlongs (canals) in Bangkok and the provinces, for the social strata are very much interconnected. The author and this work became national treasures; Si Phaendin has continued to maintain its popularity and been realised in many media, including long-running musicals. More recently, television adaptations are still impressing younger generations (with archives on YouTube, complete with typical Thai adverts — it’s in Thai, but having read the novel you can get the gist and it’s nice for the photography alone).

Irrespective of social and educational background, the story was initially intended only for a Thai audience and so certain cultural aspects are taken as given. It was almost three decades later when Four Reigns emerged, translated by Tulachandra, first published by Editions Duang Kamol, almost 30 years after it originally appeared in Thai in 1981. M.R. Kukrit must have wondered how it might be received or even whether it was possible to convey the essence in another language and culture. I’ll revisit the question of the quality of translation later, but for now I note the remarks he provides in his preface to the first edition. Here he makes clear that he’s not after an exact verbatim translation, but rather a somewhat looser and more authentic rendering that communicates something at a deeper level. In this respect, he is evidently pleased at the result, indicating that Tulachandra has done an excellent job and expressing immense gratitude to her.

Indeed having finished the book, I have found the approach has allowed the text to flow naturally, further aided by parenthetical remarks that helpfully explain some of the customs. A pronunciation guide and a glossary add to the orientation. But who is Tulachandra? There is no translator’s introduction, though the copyright notice indicates Chaemchand Bunnag, a relative on his mother’s side (of Iranian descent, probably traceable to highly successful merchants who arrived in Siam in the early 17th century.) Then I read from Marcel Barang's blog that Tulachandra is the pen name of a husband and wife team: Tulaya and Chaemchand.

Furthermore, we have the benefit of M.R. Kukrit’s reflection on the work’s rationale. In the preface to Four Reigns, he writes: “There comes a time in a man’s life when he feels the urge to set down in writing the modes and mores of a disappearing age, of which he was a part, however small.” Despite claiming that he had no plan, it’s evident that he did retain the sense of propaganda in the original meaning of the word (literally ‘things to be propagated’), namely cultural heritage relating to monarchical rule. His reference sources were relatives and friends from the Royal Palace, so the accounts are authoritative. Yet whilst the book is a hefty tome at almost 600 pages, inevitably choices have to be made as it would be practically impossible to cover every angle.

The scenes depicted would surely have resonated with my mother and the rest of the family household in Wong Wien Yai - her parents were born in the 1890s and could recall King Chulalongkorn’s reign. When the series was published my mother, Fuengsilapa (literally, “she who flourishes in the liberal arts”), would have been preparing for entrance to the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University and may well have read it then since M.R. Kukrit was already highly regarded for his cultural and literary expertise. And, not least, since as a child she would spend hours rapt in attention listening to an aristocratic lady, who had been a member of the royal household, describe the people, their manner of dress and cultivated habits, and so on.


The story revolves around Phloi, born in 1882, whose family have long-standing connections with the royal family as minor courtiers. Her father is a Chao Khun, (formal title Chao Phraya), an aristocrat of senior rank, according to the Thai feudal system of nobility. They live in the spacious family compound, a traditional setup in which generations and branches of family live in close proximity.

Yet, within this lofty set of circumstances, Phloi’s mother (Mae Chaem) is a “minor wife” and so she lives not in the main building, but in an outlying residence. Phloi’s visits to the grand residence of Chao Khun with its hallowed spaces are pervaded with trepidation on account a fierce half-sister; there is considerable tension in the atmosphere until it bursts with her mother’s abrupt departure, taking her daughter with her. This seems to set a tone of humility for her life, of not taking things for granted, albeit a life that is never wont for material comfort.

Then from relatively simple domestic beginnings, which we are given only a few tantalising glimpses of her home (“best-tasting mango tree”), her play (“Let’s cook rice and curry in the shade”) and the Chao Phraya river, we see Phloi as a 10 year old girl enter the Inner Court of the Grand Palace to be trained as a lady-in-waiting to Sadet, a princess and distant relative. (The Inner Court was the exclusive residence of the king and his queens and royal consorts; it was in effect a small town run by women because apart from the young sons of the king, men were not allowed there except for specific reasons, such as medical treatment.)

As the story unfolds with a broad spectrum of emotion: on the one hand, a lot of humour, sometimes caustic, but usually simple and fun, the author using the characters to poke fun at contrived customs, whilst on the other hand there are many passages with poignant descriptions of loss. The author also gives voice to trusted servants and their strong opinions, so much of the chat is colloquial, earthy and direct, easy to follow. The presentation is generally conventional with descriptions, narrative and dialogue, supplemented by occasional thought bubbles (in italics), allowing the reader access to Phloi’s internal thoughts. Although a novel, there are various techniques used, drawn naturally from the many literary disciplines with which the author is conversant, all helping to make this book so engaging.

So having set the scene, in the next post I shall take a look at what happens during the first reign (Rama V).

No comments: