Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Four): Rama VII

In this post, the fourth in a series reviewing Four Reigns a translation of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj's classic work, Si Phaendin, we cover King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), who succeeded King Vajiravudh.

Thai postage stamp (10 Satangs) issued during the reign of King Prajadhipok, from the collection of Paul Trafford

The pace of change continues to quicken and Phloi’s sense of disorientation increases; Prem is affected adversely too, losing much of his vitality, in his case deeply grieving at the loss of King Vajiravudh. His level of devotion is remarkable, but not implausible for the king’s personal attendant, Chao Khun Naratana (Chao Khun Nor), recorded similar grief and led to his lifelong ordination as a monk for the sake of the king (details of his life are scarcely recorded, but accounts of his time as a monkg are remarkable for quality of practice.)

As the world experiences economic depression, the new king seeks to reduce expenditure resulting in further changes to the Palace, particularly the Royal Page Corps, which leads to Prem's resignation and then anxiety and boredom. It might have been too much to bear if it were not for Ot’s return from England, basically the same person, good-humoured, uttering his usual quips. As ever, there's banter to lighten the situation, though for modern readers it sometimes descends into the absurd. Among the proposed solutions to Prem’s listlessness comes a suggestion from Phor Phoem, Phloi's brother, for Prem to acquire young ladies as Mia Noi (minor wives). Phloi is open to raising this possibility as a devoted wife (apparently this was not considered so absurd!), though she won’t go as far as arranging it. Having minor wives has long been a facet of Thai society and was still legal at that time, but, at least to modern sensitivities, it's likely to be regarded as an embarrassment or anathema; now that Thai law stipulates monogamy, following the Buddha's teachings would suggest the wisdom of compliance with one spouse only.

Phloi also has to contend with her thoroughly modern daughter, Praphai, but the most difficult experience of all is the sudden death of Prem due to an accident, perhaps a deliberate device in the plot to indicate that his disquiet could not be resolved by the changes in society following the passing of King Rama VI. It create a vacuum into which is filled the arrival of a new reality, in a single word kanmuang (“politics”) and the remainder of the book is filled with increasing sense of tension. The relative peace and harmony in the household (and by implication the whole country) is seemingly disturbed forever.

Politics and the New Constitution

A sense of being driven on restlessly to a new political reality is manifest especially in An. He is now the focus of attention; the narrative casts only shadows, mentioning his long absences with his companions without making explicit quite what's going on. It is clear, however, that he's an activist for the vision he had caught in Europe, “We’ve got men with little competence but lots of family influence together with old men with obsolete ideas running the country for us.” (p.401). It's somewhat paradoxical then that he becomes estranged with Lucille, his French wife, leading eventually to her permanent return to France. She is a casualty of a situation where the tension builds steadily. It comes to prominence after Prem’s death, as Ot starts to probe An, not as casually as it might sound: “Who are these people who are engineering the changes to come?” (p.412).

The prospect of drastic change gains momentum as Phloi recalls a prophecy about the Chakri dynasty’s power ending after 150 years of the Ratanakosin Era followed by rumours of a coup, with An implicated. It’s enough to spark a rare emotional outburst from Phloi and she interrogates her son to assure herself that he remains loyal to the king.

The narrative depicts a complicated and confused situation with the suggestion of manoeuvring behind the scenes until the eruption, the coup of June 1932, and the arrival of Khana Ratsadon (the People’s Party) demanding a constitution. Characteristically, M.R. Kukrit dissolves some of the seriousness (and credibility?) of the intentions by allowing Phoem to enunciate in heavily accented tones, khon-sati-tu-chan, similarly repeated by Ot, but when the coup actually follows the atmosphere is deadly serious — Phloi is even filled with rage on learning that An is indeed involved. Domestic relations are on a knife edge; the skilful and astute narrative conveys very well these tantalising moments in falterings words and half-finished sentences, accompanied by tacit glances.

When An eventually arrives back home, the narrative gradually unfolds the situation as dramatic theatre, with the home the centre stage. The delicate balance shifts in various dialogues; Choi reports the terror felt in the Inner Court, whilst Ot, as usual, runs rings around An with his repartee. Initially, it’s good-humoured, with An inviting Ot to join him in the new administration, but that doesn’t last long. With An recognised as one of the leaders of change, almost the entire household starts to distance themselves from him, until the arrival of On. Soon An, On, and Ot are all together round the table and there is an explosion that barely escapes fisticuffs ... there descends an eerie silence apart from On’s sobbing, the household’s unity shattered. Again, the author is skilful in his use of dialogue and gestures, it’s as though it was taken directly from a stage play.

Thus the reality of politics and from now on the narrative makes abundantly clear that it’s a hard slog for all concerned. I find particularly instructive Ot’s fresh view of what politics is all about — here in the UK we take a parliamentary democracy for granted along with all the debating in the two Houses.

Addressing his mother, he tries to explain simply as follows:

“Before politics, Phi On was doing his soldiering and Phi An his law, each in his own special field, not interfering with each other’s line of business, not called upon to do so. Enter politics, and they find themselves thrown together, for politics is one huge all-embracing fields; politics widens horizons, pulls down walls and invites everybody in. A solider and a lawyer can meet here to work for the common good of our country — our muang — or to disagree as to what that common good might be and fight to the death for what they think is right. Politics gives everybody the right to differ, the right to his own conviction, be he soldier or lawyer, prince or commoner.

Politics is progress, is civilization, is justice and therefore marvellous, some say; politics is a dirty business, others will tell you. You can put up arguments for or against either side. Politics enobles, politics corrupts. Politics inspires you with high ideals, gives you the freedom and the opportunity to fulfil yourself, to enjoy the satisfaction of being the master of your own destiny rather than having masters to arrange your life for you. Politics also sets brothers against brothers, even sons against fathers. Murders have been committed in its name and in its name great and glorious deeds for mankind have been achieved. Enduring friendships have been forged through politics and through it you can lose all your friends, your money, your liberty, your wife.”

He follows it with an image of a pond filling with fish, many of whom then get caught by fishermen.

Politics duly pervades the conversations. There’s no escape, to the extent that Phloi felt there was “too much freedom for her peace of mind.” M.R. Kukrit applies his own political background to pick out particular terms around which he shares many pointed and canny observations such as patiwat (revolution), indicating the deleterious effects on society; even reporting temple boys rising up against monks who were looking after them. Sanuk (fun) is in short supply.

The royalist Boworadet rebellion follows, but fails, and On ends up in prison. Phoem is also in prison for a short while, in bizarre circumstances. The author comments, though, that most Thais were not personally affected. The narrative continues to convincingly add to the spectrum of emotions with deep pathos as Phloi desperately implores An to do something to help, “like a drowning victim clutching at any twig floating by”. There’s also underlying sinisterness — An seemingly can’t help because he is being watched and he cautions his mother from visiting On in prison. The author captures the drama; there is a sense of performance beyond mere narrative, which I think comes from his background in theatre — all the world’s a stage.

[In 1932 my maternal grandfather was a captain in the army and a couple of years before had received the title of Luang Sarayutpitag (referred to as a lowly rank in Four Reigns!). His regiment was involved in suppressing the Boworadet Rebellion and a year later he obtained a ‘Saving the Constitution’ medal. Perhaps he could have advanced his career in the new constitutional setup, but he chose instead to transfer to the Ministry of the Interior and prison services, eventually becoming a tax inspector! He preferred a quiet and peaceful life.]

The influence of politics weighs heavily on Phloi on her family. The narrative dwells on On’s predicament: he is sentenced to execution, but it’s commuted (and eventually he is released). It’s also an occasion for Phloi to reflect on the realities of life they have thrown up, on the growing divisions within the family and the fickle nature of some friendships. She has to experience some humiliation as she visits On in prison, travelling up the Chao Phraya by boat, and to add to the gloom she observes the diminished status of princely homes, many now pale shadows of their former glory.

King Prajadhipok leaves for Europe, never to return, eventually abdicating in March 1935, as he was unable to come to an agreement with the new government. Ot comments that democracy has lost “one of its staunchest champions”. By consistently making Ot the voice of reason, the author has effectively made a strong statement about the nature of the transition to democracy and it’s not very complimentary!

In fact in his brief abdication statement, the king declared:

I am willing to surrender the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.

A king abdicating was unprecedented, a prelude to yet more high drama in the next reign...

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