Friday, February 02, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Two): Rama V

This is the second of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. My first post provided some background (and why I’m particularly interested in this work).

Thai postage stamp (8 Atts) issued during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, from the collection of Paul Trafford

Here I focus on the part of the story that took place during the reign of King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) from the 1880s through to his passing in 1910. I’ll start by listing some of the characters. Fortunately, it’s not a cast of thousands and most characters have more than a few lines to say, so I found it fairly easy to remember who’s who. I’ll include a few names in Thai for those who can read the language; you can’t readily guess the sound because the Romanized phonetics are not actually in accordance with any formal standard and there’s no indication of tones! I’ll also add some page numbers (as found in the Silkworm Books edition). For a non-Thai speaker wishing to read some Thai, particularly social media comments, I recommend over Google as it generally conveys a better sense of the meaning.

The story starts with Phloi (Thai: พลอย), the main character, and her family in Khlong Bang Luang, where she has spent the first years of her childhood. As is typical of a middle- or high- class household, the family is extended and occupies a plot of land with a number of houses, the main one for the most senior members without outlying buildings for other members. Phloi's father is 
Phraya Piphit (Thai: พระยา พิพิธ), a nobleman of senior rank who initially comes over as somewhat remote and constrained by formality as Phloi doesn't live in the main house, whereas Mae Chaem (Thai: แช่ม), Phloi’s mother, is with her constantly and far more approachable. We are also introduced to Phor Phoem (Thai: เพิ่ม), Phloi’s brother and other siblings who share the same father but have a different mother, who left a long time ago. Although the novel barely touches on Phloi’s early life there, it’s fleeting appearance passing somewhat in a blurred vision, the family members continue to feature throughout the narrative.

Entering the Inner Court of the Grand Palace

There’s a natural nostalgia for the earliest experiences in our lives and this is especially so for Phloi with her years in the Grand Palace. Life in the Inner Court is a close-knit community, where Phloi is nourished with loving support. Once the rules are understood, exploring its extensive spaces becomes a wonderful adventure, full of vitality, with interesting places and characters. We witness curious noises, exquisite food, exciting cultural events, technological innovation, and, of course, plenty of sanuk (fun), all described in intimate detail. Some of the ceremonies, such as Loy Krathong, are well-known, but here they are unparalleled in grandeur.

Within the well-established patterns of the palace, under the benevolent custodianship of Sadet, Phloi adopts a strict dress code, wearing different-coloured fabrics (phalai) for each day; she studies and learns various duties and handicrafts as befits her station. She cultivates qualities of virtue; the values of respect and service emerge strongly, with the king, Nai Luang, at the heart. Using Phloi as the eyes onto this world has the effect of making it seem that everything really revolves around Phra Chao Yu Hua (His Majesty), “our Lord of Life”, as though it is his grace that bestows everything that matters. This kind of language, which sounds almost theological, is characteristic of the way the king is viewed as divine. Even his trips abroad and the resulting novelties are framed within a sense of overall continuity, steadily building up a picture of constancy and ‘rightness’. Whether or not intentional, it’s evidently an effective device to inculcate krap (respect and reverence), a practice generally encouraged towards teachers.

But part of M.R. Kukrit’s skill is bringing in levity where tradition and formality might stifle a free-flowing narrative. Accordingly, there to guide and accompany her are the housekeeper, Aunt Sai, and Choi, a girl of her own age, kind-hearted but rumbustious, a natural foil for the more refined nature of Phloi; they get along easily and soon become best friends, forming a lifelong relationship. The sense of humanity is further enriched as the author relates how even to a child it’s not all sweetness and light, as Phloi hears about ambition and rivalry, particularly among minor royals and their entourages.

And Phoi’s world continues to expand with trips to other homes in other parts of the city. These are opportunities for the author to gently extol desirable qualities; Choi’s family is “a house where children found in their parents not only respected elders but loving friends and genial companions, and where servants, treated with sympathetic fairness, had become part of the family.” There are also special occasions outside the palace, especially the idyllic Bang Pa-In (known also as the Summer Palace), which remains to this day a popular visitor attraction. These outings are typically occasions that invite earthy humour and comical scenes, usually tied to food, sometimes accompanied by music, frequently involving a piphat ensemble. This is a tradition that still exists today, see, for example, a performance by an orchestra at the Siam Society (note that it is missing a wind instrument, the pi nai, a kind of oboe — see another ensemble that it includes it). There is also a variant that includes a female singer, of which there’s old archive footage.

A Historical Perspective

Four Reigns is valuable simply as a historical guide, introducing many of the refined modes of behaviour in the palace — in some respects the accounts of the Inner Court are like touring an exhibition of fine art, highbrow and informative. We also learn about literary traditions, such as the phleng yao, a form of ode that was in particular used for some prophecies uttered centuries earlier. Furthermore, it’s all artistically presented in a rich tapestry of imagery — like a leisurely cruise along the Chao Phraya river, the reader should just go with the flow to enjoy the rich experience. This resonates with my mother’s experience: as a child she would accompany her father to visit his boss’s family, spending hours rapt in attention listening to an aristocratic lady, who had been a member of the royal household, as she described the people, their manner of dress, and other cultivated customs and habits. Although the reign of Rama V fills far more pages than any other reign, many of these pages contribute relatively little to the plot. The pace is quite slow, perhaps deliberately so, allowing readers time to linger on details, absorbing scenes of yesteryear.

Phloi experiences her first serious romance with Nuang, Choi’s brother, but it’s not destined to be. Against the ambitions of some royals and aristocrats, M. R. Kukrit often slips in something of a leveller, be it an incident back at the family home, the popular observance of folk beliefs, or even by putting thoughts into Phloi’s head such as the following kind consideration of Nuang and his father, Khun Luang: “it seemed to her that their lack of ambition might well be what had made them so happy, and not only happy in themselves, but able to dispense so much happiness to others.” (p. 116). Nuang subsequently proves weak-willed and ends up obliged to marry a local girl in Nakhon Sawan. It’s at this stage that Phloi’s character grows in the narrative; in her response, she shows extraordinary compassion, “There’s enough suffering in this world and we shouldn’t add to it, Choi.” It moves the angry Choi to krab Phloi.

Gradually we are introduced to the sense of external worlds, with reference to farang (Western/European) cultural influences with the occasional mention of European heads of state; and later, the arrival of European technology and industry together with their strange modes of behaviour and dress. These propel elements of modernisation, generally light at first, for changes during this reign feel more like a subtle inflection rather than being pronounced or having major impact. They include Western medicine, but when such foreign items become scarce, we see the Thais returning to their traditional means — they’re not lost, just waiting to be restored so that once again the local doctor is in demand for administering local medicines; this need for fallback to local practice is a theme that recurs throughout the story.

European input to industrial development included the invention of the bicycle and the supply of trains for the new railways, which started in the 1890s. There are accounts of the king’s travel by train from Hua Lamphong; the subsequent descriptions of the journey show similar responses among passengers to those first passengers in England in early 19C — a mixture of awe and trepidation at the breathtaking speeds! The platforms offered ample occasion for neat rows of military and other officials (and in fact they’re still lining up for vintage steam trains today).

But against this backdrop of industrial progress, there are various echoes of the past, including encounters with ghosts (preta), particularly at Dusit Palace and Vimanmek (‘Abode in the Clouds’), where the king demonstrates his camaraderie by meeting village friends from ‘up country’ in a traditional wooden house, to foster sharing on an equal level. And there are quite a few opportunities to poke fun; farang are not exempted — whether by imitating their swimming style or royals becoming feverish and uttering “disjointed phrases in the farang language”.

The latter part of the reign features Phloi maturing as she gets married to Prem, a royal page who has been patiently courting her for a long time, not put off by her initial lack of interest. It's an arranged marriage, not Phloi's choice, but she consents dutifully and does her best to make the marriage a success.

Her adulthood really seems to begin in earnest as she has her first child and then accelerate at the death of her father and then the king. Phloi joins large crowds paying their last respects in the streets of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, showing a strong connection between the monarchy and members of the public. (My grandparents used to have a house there, but they weren’t rich: my aunts used to study with the aid of street lamps or else by candle light; then with a growing family, shortly after my mother was born, they moved across to the other side of the river to Thonburi, where land was more affordable.)

In the next post, I'll reflect on developments during the reign of King Rama VI.

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