[Epigram Books; 2020]
Last September, the student council of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest postsecondary school, called for a reckoning with the persecution of a graduate whose violent death made him a martyr to many of his fellow citizens. In a statement released to coincide with what would’ve been Chit Phumisak’s 90th birthday, the students apologized to the late progressive activist, saying the school was wrong when it suspended him, ostensibly for his political views, in 1953. The penalty was the first in a series of official censures levied against the man sometimes called Thailand’s Che Guevara. From afar, the student council’s position might seem noncontroversial. But a statement of this kind is not without risk. Phumisak openly questioned the legitimacy of the country’s monarchy, and today those accused of doing the same are frequently arrested. As recently as February, the United Nations admonished Thailand, which is governed by a leader who took power in a 2014 military coup, for the “increasingly harsh application” of its lese majeste, or royal defamation, laws.
In 1965 (or ‘66, according to some sources), Phumisak was shot to death in eastern Thailand’s verdant countryside. Though the details of the crime remain obscure, Paul M. Handley’s The King Never Smiles, a widely praised 2006 biography of Thailand’s longtime monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, says Phumisak “was arrested and summarily executed by government officials.” By then, Handley writes, Phumisak was noted for scholarship that “directly challenged royal culture and history.” In recent years, Phumisak has been invoked by pro-democracy protesters who’ve assembled in Bangkok and other cities. A half-century after his murder, he’s still a powerful presence in the country’s political landscape, a stature that figures to be enhanced by his prominent role in Sunisa Manning’s impressive first novel.
An eventful coming-of-age tale that straddles several genres — its narrative arc features a steamy love story, an ode to samizdat texts, and a rousing portrayal of valor in the face of state brutality — A Good True Thai is at once entertaining and insightful. Though the action takes place nearly a half-century in the past, the novel’s core theme — resistance to entrenched power — could hardly be more relevant. The backdrop — the Thai democracy movement of the 1970s — is a fertile one, and in Manning’s hands it has yielded a brisk, vivid portrait of a crucial moment in the country’s history.
The story centers on three friends whose fluid political commitments fundamentally change their lives. The first of Manning’s triumvirate to make an appearance is Det, a son of enormous privilege. Kongkwan, his recently deceased mother, was the granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn, a monarch revered by some for his skillful diplomacy. The monarch “kept the country free,” Det’s father Udom explains, “by playing the English, French and Dutch off each other. Whoever claimed Siam” — as Thailand was known until 1939 — “would commit an act of aggression against the rest.” Det, who gets around Bangkok in chauffeured German sportscars, mistakenly believes he’ll inherit his mother’s regal status. His father knows better. Udom was born “a commoner,” and if Det intends to maintain his cossetted lifestyle, he’ll need to marry a woman descended from royalty.
While Det enjoys outrageous domestic comforts — the stairs in his palatial home are lined by “curved white elephant tusks” — his friend Chang lives in a small house with a “wavy tin” door. His family shares meals from a “wok rest(ing) on a wooden plank laid across two sawhorses.” Det and Chang attend “Chula,” Chit Phumisak’s old school, but they took different paths to get there. Chang had to ace a competitive entrance exam. As the great-grandson of the king for whom the university is named, Det’s spot was guaranteed. Chang balances his studies with a growing role in grassroots politics, encouraging his mother and other factory workers to unionize and seek more humane workplaces. Thai dictator Thanom Kittikachorn — another real-life figure — has recently imprisoned a group of student-activists, and Chang is among those who view this as a rallying cry. In the days ahead, he and thousands of others will protest in big numbers on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a wide, a scenic roadway that leads to a royal gathering hall.
Lek, the third member of the trio, is a Chinese immigrant who’s also a Chula student. She’s dating Det but has known Chang much longer. Lek and Chang became friends “in high school, where they shared an obsession with the writings of the murdered dissident Chit Phumisak.” (At the time — and perhaps still today — some believed the CIA had a hand in killing Phumisak, not an outlandish hypothesis given the horrifying tactics the American government used in its unsuccessful campaign to tamp down communism in Asia.) Like Chang, Lek devotes much of her free time to reforming a political system run by a despot and the monarchy that enables him. Chang’s measured approach yields incremental victories; Lek opts for riskier tactics. She’s an editor of the school yearbook, and when it’s time to pick a cover image, she proposes an archival image of a laborer who built a statue of the king for whom the university is named. This, to some readers, might seem like no big deal, but to Thai authorities, it verges on royal defamation, an unauthorized celebration of a worker at the expense of a monarch. Phumisak had tried to put the same photo on the cover of the Chula yearbook in the 1950s, and for the rest of his life, his writing was suppressed by the government. Twenty years later, Lek’s editorial decisions — she also plans to publish Phumisak’s essays, and there’s talk of a full-scale biography — have landed her in serious trouble with the school and possibly the state.
While several of Manning’s characters are renegades, her approach to the historical novel isn’t revolutionary. Her timeline is linear; her narrator is wholly reliable; she never loses sight of her unabashedly conventional objective: to craft a thought-provoking narrative that also entertains, and to explore her characters’ moves and motivations within a framework that remains faithful to the developments that shaped Thailand in the 1970s. In this way, Manning places no impediments between her readers and their understanding of the events she recounts. Given that so many of us know so little about the political climate in Bangkok a half-century ago, this is among the novel’s more gratifying features. Another is its command of the particulars. Manning has a firm hold on the regional dynamics that influenced the country’s foreign policy — simultaneous wars in neighboring Cambodia and nearby Vietnam made dictatorship all the more attractive to some influential Thais — and she knows the minute details of insurgent life. What did rebel troops carry in the packs they lugged across dense jungles? “A hammock and seven cartridges with 140 bullets each,” she writes. Precision matters, and Manning isn’t a writer who fudges the specifics.
In her Bangkok Post interview, Manning said the three characters “began as aspects of myself. Lek shares my passion, Chang my idealism, Det my sensitivity.” A more cynical writer might’ve used Det, a staunch royalist who grudgingly joins the modern world, as a kind of rhetorical punching bag, lampooning his tradition-bound worldview and his materialism. And while Manning’s politics are probably closer to Lek and Chang’s than they are to Det’s, she treats each character with respect. Writing in close third person, she channels Det’s frustration with what he considers his friends’ unproductive fixation on politics. “They don’t seem to realise how much the King is the real heart of the country,” he thinks. Whether the government leaders are “dictators or elected officials, it almost doesn’t matter. Many men come into power during a reign; it’s the one who sits on the throne that brings stability.”
This, of course, is sexist elitism, the ruminations of a spoiled “princeling” who can’t imagine that a woman might be a head of state. But Manning’s job description doesn’t include a requirement that she endorse all of her characters’ thoughts. Political novelists who write books bereft of meaningful ideological clashes run the risk of having their work interpreted as propaganda, and though there are surely readers who only want their beliefs reflected back to them, I’m guessing — or at least hoping — that most of us, when we turn to fiction, want to encounter at least a few unfamiliar viewpoints. Uniformity is the death of art. Manning understands this, and the finesse with which she portrays her characters’ fluid ideas — the admirable and the abhorrent alike — is the mark of a mature artist. Unfailingly likable characters are plenty useful — they can provide a reader with a sense of stability, someone to hang on to as a narrative finds its footing — but it’s the conflicted characters that make a novel go. As Manning’s narrative tracks the trio’s movements from Bangkok to a militant training camp that will test their political beliefs in dangerous new ways, Chang, Lek, and Det are by turns misinformed, incisive, relatable, and maddening. In short, they never seem inauthentic. Their selfishness, their gallantry, their many contradictory impulses — these are among the traits that serve Manning well when she maneuvers her characters into a precarious love triangle. Is this an opportunistic plot device intended to hook readers who prefer bodice-rippers to tales of leftist insurgencies? Not at all. In fact, it’s very much in keeping with the historical record. Virtually every revolutionary group in recent memory, from Italy’s Red Brigades to Germany’s Baader Meinhof Group, has been divided by conflicts that started in the bedroom.
In her Bangkok Post interview, Manning said her favorite character in the book might be a young revolutionary named Dao. Indeed, Dao is impressive, a daring, perceptive rebel leader. But she’s less a leading character than a supporting player whose strengths reveal themselves closer to the end of the novel than the beginning — a person of poise, to be sure, though not one whom the reader accompanies across a span of years. Manning herself concedes as much, describing Dao as her book’s “late-breaking heroine.” But my vote for favorite character is Lek. Lek is in the mix from the start. As a convincing fictional character, she’s every bit Dao’s peer, a woman intent on transcending the double-edged bigotry she encounters as a working-class Chinese immigrant, determined to fill a gap in the nation’s intellectual history. At Chula she attends classes in buildings named for a monarch who “decreed that Chinese couldn’t live in the centre of the city.” During an argument with Det, he derides her as “cheap” and “common.” Lek’s parents left a country where they were impoverished farmers, and when she reads Phumisak’s potent farming metaphor about affluence — it’s “ploughed on the backs of the people” — she identifies immediately. In time, she risks everything to resurrect Phumisak’s writing, which the Thai establishment has effectively chucked down the memory hole. In the 2020s, when political debate often seems dominated by the loudest and the dumbest, it’s bracing to encounter a person — fictional or otherwise — who believes in the power of the scrupulous argument. Fueled by a sense of moral urgency, Lek is a memorable presence at the heart of an estimable novel.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.