A Child of the Northeast, Anthology of ASEAN Literatures, Anthology of ASEAN Literatures Vol IIIa, Asian literature, Binlah Sonkalagiri, fiction, Four Reigns, Kampoon Boontawee, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, Paul Adirex, Phra Aphai Mani, Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall Library, Sunthorn Phu, Thai literature, Thailand, The Birth of Bangkok, The Shark That Lost His Teeth
Before entering the library at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall in Bangkok, I asked the student-aged woman behind the desk if they had books in English. She hesitated, and then nodded, almost imperceptibly. I asked again, “There are books in English?” Yes, she replied, with a little more confidence. So I paid my 20 baht, received a locker key so I could stow my backpack, and went in.
The library does have books in English, but not a lot. Most are about Thai history, architecture, and culture, including several lovely coffee table books with bright glossy photos. But I am more interested in literature. The literature and fiction section comprised about two square meters of shelving. I carefully thumbed through the volumes, and found exactly five titles in English.
I will list them here, because finding Asian literature in English is no easy task. Knowing that a book exists, what it’s about, and that it’s been translated is half the battle for aficionados like me. There are probaby others out there who might appreciate this information, so here it goes:
A Child of the Northeast, by Kampoon Boontawee, translated by Suan Fulop Kepner − A book about life in a 1930’s Isan village (Isan is a still largely rural area in northeast Thailand). I believe A Child is classified as fiction, although some comments I found on the web describe the work as “quasi-autobiographical.” It appears to be a modern-day classic in Thai literature, but not that well known in English. It won the 1979 S.E.A. (Southeast Asia) Write Award and “Best Novel of the Year 1976” (I assume of Thailand).
First published in 1976. The English version was published in 1987 by Pouyzian Publisher, Bangbuathong Nonthabury 11110, Thailand. ISBN 974-92815-8-6.
Four Reigns, by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, translated by Chancham Bunnag − Historical fiction that follows the family of one character, Phloi, through four Chakri Kings: Rama V through VIII (1868 − 1946). From the back cover: “Over a span of four reigns, we see the lives of minor courtiers under the absolute monarchy and watch the huge social and political changes that Thailand experienced as it opened itself up to international contact.” These changes include the 1932 revolution (in which Thailand shifted from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy), the Japanese presence in Thailand, World War II, and the Allied bombing raids on Bangkok.
Four Reigns was first published as a serial in 1953. The English translation was published in 1981 by Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, ISBN 978-984-7100-66-2. Note that the translation I found at the library under this ISBN seems to be out of print, but Silkworm Books has a 1998 translation by someone named Tulachandra under ISBN 978-974-7100-66-5.
Rattanakosin: The Birth of Bangkok, by Paul Adirex − Historical fiction in which the character Christopher Milton, First Secretary at the U.S. Embassy, happens to visit the National Museum during a bicentennial celebration honoring Krom Pra Ratchawang Bovoru Maha Surasinghamart, a national hero and younger brother to King Rama I. Milton converses with a monk who relays the story of the Burmese siege of Ayutthaya, Siam’s (Thailand’s) capital from c. 1350 to 1767, and the battles and doings of three heroes — Praya Taksin, Bunma, and his brother Thongduang — as and after the capital falls. The story follows Taksin, Bunma, and Thongduang through the rise of Taksin to king and the establishment of Thonburi as the capital, the rise of Thongduang as King Rama I, who would found Rattanakosin with the aim reestablishing the “glory of Ayutthaya,” and Bunma’s own rise to the rank of Front Palace of Rattanakosin and his tragic end.
Rattanakosin was published in 2004 by Aries Books Co., Ltd, Bangkok, ISBN 974-92606-6-X.
The Shark That Lost His Teeth, by Binlah Sonkalagiri, translated by Oraya Sutabutr. This bilingual volume appears to be a children’s book, but more, with marvelous lines such as “Everyone knows that the sea can sing,” and “On any sunny day, the sea is in the best mood.” A 2005 S.E.A. Write Award winner. The book also includes color illustrations.
The Shark was first published by Matichon Weekly in 1998. The bilingual version was published in 2008 by Post Books, Bangkok. I was not able to find an ISBN. Unfortunately, according to online retailer DCO Thai, Post Books has closed. This might be a particularly hard title to find.
Anthology of ASEAN Literatures, Vol. IIIa: Thai Literary Works of the Thonburi and Rattanakosin Periods. This was published as part of the Project on the Anthology of ASEAN Literature, established by the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information (COCI) in the fall of 1981. I’ve learned more about the project and will hopefully blog about it in the future, as it has resulted in the publication of important ASEAN country literary works in English.
Thai Literary Works Vol. IIIa contains the following works in Thai and English, with various translators:
- Poems in Tribute to King Taksin of Thonburi, by Nai Suan, the Page
- Phleng Yao Nirat Fighting the Burmese at the Dindaeng, by King Rama I the Great
- The Ramakian* (King Rama II Version): The Floating Maiden (Nang Loy)
- Inao, A Dance Drama by King Rama II: Being Captivated by the Portrait, and Carried off by a Whirlwind (Lom Hob)
- An Epic: Khun Chang – Khun Phaen: Phlai Kaew’s Wedding, by King Rama II
- Phra Aphai Mani by Sunthon Phu: Wali Pledge Her Service, The Birth of Sudsakhon, and The Extraordinary Adventure
The volume also includes a useful appendix, “A Brief Survey of Thai Literature.”
Thai Literary Works Vol. IIIa was published by ASEAN in 2000, ISBN 974-272-293-5. It was printed by Amarin Printing and Publishing Public Company Limited, (662) 882-1010, http://www.amarin.co.th.
If you’re interested in any of these titles, happy hunting. Many do seem to be available through secondary markets, although it may be that the only way to read some of them is to fly to Bangkok, visit the library at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, sit on their comfy floor cushions, and read them there. If I had more time in Bangkok, that’s exactly what I’d do.
*The Ramakian, often romanized as The Ramakien, is the Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana.