[17 February 2010]
“All lust is grief”—Buddhist proverb
Paul Fussell, the astute cultural and literary historian, is the author of the contemporary classic The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford Press, 1975), as well as a delightful study called Aboard: British Literary Traveling between the Wars. (Oxford Press, 1980). One of Aboard‘s main arguments is that the inter-war years was when some of the best travel writing in English was ever produced. In fact, many writers and critics alike often proclaim the period as the ‘golden age’ of travel writing compared to travel writing today.
Travel writing went into a slump at the start of the Second World War and was forgotten by the book buying public and ignored as a form by most writers until the publication in 1980 of The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux’s entertaining account of traveling across Asia by rail.To everyone’s surprise, including Theroux, the book proved to be immensely popular.
Ever since the success of Theroux’s book, travel writing seems to have advanced until it blossomed into a full Renaissance and is a well-respected genre of non-fiction. Travel books have been written about almost every part of the globe and it’s getting harder and harder to travel and write about places no one has ever visited. This point is one of the themes of Lawrence Osborne’s last travel book, The Naked Tourist: In search of Adventure and Beauty in the age of the airport mall, (North Point Press, 2007).
The reasons why travel writing fits so well with our current après post-modern condition lies in the structure and form of the travel book. As a form or container, a travel book is remarkably flexible and can ‘hold’ almost every conceivable form of narrative prose short of poetry. You can describe local architecture, art, food, dress, and custom. History past and present can be conjured up and discussed, not to mention that the past can be transposed onto the present and vice-versa.
Then there are the nefarious characters, either fellow travelers or locals, one meets or observes. Part of the appeal and so much of the strength of the travel book also depends on the character and idiosyncratic voice of the travel writer himself. The eye/I of the writer and his personal feeling, observation, experiences, and reactions and even his past and present reading habits are all part of the entertainment. The writer as personality and character is as important as the journey itself. Often the more miserable the writer is or his journey difficult, the more memorable and interesting is the writing. Happy journeys, like happy families, do not make for the best drama or reading.
Lawrence Osborne remarkably achieves all of the above. Bangkok Days is a wonderful pastiche of local color, food, and the decaying smells of certain neighborhoods such as Amarin, where oddly, Osborne finds the odor of decay sexual stimulating and liberating. “In Bangkok, one can decay freely.” And like any writer of import, Osborne knows how to write about light and how light and shadow can transform a city’s atmosphere, its look and feel, day and night creating almost two different Bangkoks.
Guided by a ceaseless curiosity and delight in discovery for its own sake, Osborne is an interesting narrator, his voice is by turns sardonic, witty, urban and thoughtful, and insightful about the past and present political and religious currents in Thai culture. He also has a great eye for the surface texture of the city.
Osborne meets and befriends a series of foreigners or ‘farangs’, curiously mostly former military men, on the lam in Bangkok. Men like McGinnis, for example, an ex- British paratrooper, ex-mercenary from the former wars in West Africa, who enjoys scorpion vodka (vodka bottled with a venom free scorpion at the bottom of the bottle; it supposed to be an aphrodisiac) and who admits to having slept with “…somewhere in the vicinity of a thousand three hundred (women), something like that.”
McGinnis convinces Osborne to join him on a night out to the Eden Club. Up until this point Osborne has been scrupulous about doing anything that is vulgar, which is not to say he does not enjoy exotic Thai food such as boiled Red Ant soup… or carnal pleasure. Early in his sojourn Osborne struck up an informal relationship with Porntip, (her working name), a young university bound Thai woman who for Osborne “ …was a bearer of sanuk,” the Thai idea of enjoying life to the fullest. He falls for Porntip and remarks in an acidic yet tenderly considered aside, one of the many to be found in this book, “We are told ceaselessly that sex and love are two different things and merge only within monogamy… it is categorically untrue. With a quick, mysterious tropism one loves every woman one fucks.”
The evening out with McGinnis turns into merry chaos, and is in keeping with Osborne’s failed attempt at being a gigolo earlier in his sojourn. The image of Osborne quickly scampering out of the Peninsula Hotel to escape the clutches of a middle-aged Japanese woman who he has just robbed while she was showering in preparation for their night of bliss is hilarious. It must have been a younger Osborne.
Indeed, it is money—or a lack of money—that originally brings Osborne to Bangkok, not sex or Thai food. Osborne needs to get this teeth fixed and apparently he calculated the cost of airfare and room and board and food and decided it was cheaper and better to have his teeth done in the East rather than on the East side of New York City. There was no doubt the added appeal of being in an exotic location as well as living cheap.
The book, however, is constructed around a number of visits over several years and the incidents and characters he meets are telescoped into a series of anecdotal stories and experiences. The story, for example, of Osborne contracting epiglottises (a major throat infection) at the center of the book and his subsequent ten-day stay in a Thai hospital takes places two years after his initial visit for dental work. It’s in the private upscale Bumrungrad Hospital that Osborne meets the educated German rascal known as Fritzy.
Fritzy is wildly hedonist to the bitter end. At one point Osborne and Fritzy leave the hospital and maneuver themselves and their IV drips into the Portofino Tarattoria bar where Fritzy is a regular. Here in the faux Italian/Tuscan decorated bar, packed with other dying and ailing men, they order drinks and Fritzy smokes Alain Delon, Cambodian cigarettes.
Osborne’s friendships with dislocated foreigners, often with dodgy pasts, are what essentially forms half of his story. The other half of his story is about his relationship to the city of Bangkok. We rarely meet Thai people. They instead tend to hover in the background or are served up as part of the local color, for example, the transsexuals known as kathoey.
Sometimes they merely appear as hostesses or serving staff, as in the bizarre restaurant called No Hands where you are not only served your food but you are also fed plate to mouth by a cute waitress. In the end, Bangkok through Osborne’s telling, appears to be a strange and sexually tolerant place, desperately embracing Western architecture and materialism, but filtered through the prism of Buddhism.