Thursday, June 26, 2003

Jonathan Yardley

p. C02.

From A To Zen, A thriller to savor
'Bangkok 8' by John Burdett

By John Burdett
Knopf. 318 pp. $24

"Bangkok 8" meets the thriller genre's requirements — it's set in an exotic locale; its dramatis personae are in various measures violent, beautiful and mysterious; its plot is labyrinthine and surprising; its ending is ambiguous and ironic — except one: It is not what reviewers insist on calling a "page-turner." Quite to the contrary. You make your way slowly, painstakingly through "Bangkok 8," because you don't want to miss a thing — not because of the plot's twists and turns, though you do have to pay attention, but because John Burdett is purely and simply a wonderful writer, a genuine grown-up at work in a genre mostly populated by arrested adolescents.

He is the author of two previous books with inviting titles — "The Last Six Million Seconds" and "A Personal History of Thirst" — neither of which I have read, but after spending a full, rewarding day with "Bangkok 8" I have every intention of doing so. The brief biography provided by his publisher — "John Burdett is a nonpracticing lawyer who worked in Hong Kong for a British firm until he found his true vocation as a writer. Since then he has lived in France and Spain, and is now back in Hong Kong" — suggests that he is one of those Brits infected with what in an earlier day might have been called Colonial Fever: drawn irresistibly to distant, dangerous parts of the world, in love with people and places that are as resolutely unlike Britain as God is capable of making them.

This fever dates back at least to Rudyard Kipling and has produced some of the best fiction of the past century, written by the likes of Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and William Boyd, not to mention those two distinctly sui generis cases, Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul. Burdett needs to log a few more miles before he can be mentioned in such company, and perhaps he will never get there, but in "Bangkok 8" he has given himself one hell of a running start.

It is a first-person narrative told by a Bangkok policeman named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, "a half-caste Third World cop who speaks English and French," the offspring of the coupling of a Thai whore and an American soldier, a wholly anomalous man yet Thai to the core, passionately Buddhist yet ironically worldly. He is one of the most interesting fictional characters of recent vintage — every bit as interesting as, albeit wholly different from, Logan Mountstuart of William Boyd's "Any Human Heart" — not merely because of his own innate qualities but because Burdett makes him so completely believable. If there is a false note anywhere in this portrait, I didn't hear it.

In that sense "Bangkok 8" is a tour de force: a British novelist creating an Asian protagonist who is, or seems to be, as real as real can be. This is rare in the extreme. Most of the fiction written by those under the spell of Colonial Fever usually has a Brit as its central character. A novelist takes a huge risk when he or she tries to get into the skin of someone completely different — as William Styron found out to his dismay after the publication of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" — so most simply decline to take up the challenge. Burdett gets an A for audacity, if nothing else.

But there's lots more to "Bangkok 8." For starters, it has a splendid array of characters in addition to Sonchai: William Bradley, a large, powerfully impressive black U.S. Marine whose bizarre murder initiates the complex events; the Colonel, head of Police District 8, in which Sonchai works, a man of surpassing cynicism and amused resignation to life's inevitable corruptions; Fatima, a stunning woman who is "a combination of Pol Pot, Father Christmas and a Hindu death goddess"; Sylvester Warren, an American jeweler who is, to put it mildly, "a very well-connected man"; Kimberley Jones, a fetching FBI agent who develops a thing for Sonchai; and, by no means least, Sonchai's mother, Nong, who "is fifty now, and has not lost her effortless talent for projecting sex."

Indeed it is sex — not murder, not undercover betrayals, not even Bangkok or Thailand — that is the real subject of this alluring novel. Though there's scarcely an explicit sexual encounter, the entire novel is suffused with the "great game" of sexual attraction, enticement and conquest. Burdett describes the scene just past midnight in a bar where foreigners — farangs — have gathered to choose among the prostitutes:

"Shy men who have been saying no all night find their wills sapped by drink and the ceaseless attention of near-naked young women; all of a sudden the prospect of going back to the hotel alone is more appalling — and somehow more amoral, a crime against life, even — than congress with a prostitute. Skillfully, the girls build a dream world of fantasy in the Western mind, a world which is mysteriously difficult to let go of. And the girls, too, have their fantasies: of finding the farang who would support them for life, or failing that, take them to the West and relieve them, for a year or two, of this living hand to mouth, not to mention the indignity of their trade. The bar is packed."

It is one of the more considerable accomplishments of this novel that Burdett manages to contrast the "indignity" of the prostitutes' trade with the dignity of many of those who practice it. Nong is a truly remarkable character: smart, resourceful, indomitable, worldly, irreverent. In unlikely alliance with the Colonel, she establishes what she calls the Old Man's Club, founded on the proposition that in the age of Viagra a fellow is never too old or decrepit to have a little fun, that "if sex is Thailand's biggest industry, we ought to set about modernizing and regularizing it, giving the girls a better deal, a new career after compulsory retirement at age twenty-eight, compulsory profit sharing."

That's at the end of "Bangkok 8." The path that leads there is long, twisted and full of surprises. Many people turn out to be not at all what we had thought at first they were, and on almost every page we have little choice except to contemplate — and ultimately to savor — "moral ambiguity." If the novel is steeped in sex, it is also steeped in Buddhism, in which "compassion is an obligation, even if corruption is inevitable."

Sonchai is just about the only incorruptible person in these pages, but he accepts the corruption of others as normal and inevitable even as he rages against the senseless killing of "my soul brother," his fellow detective Pichai Apiradee. As he says about the country he loves:

"Taking into account that the police are generally facilitating someone else's scam, it begins to look as if 61 million people are engaged in a successful criminal enterprise of one sort or another. No wonder my people smile a lot."

No wonder the reader smiles a lot, too. "Bangkok 8" is a gas.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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