Online Edition: Fall 2007

Thailand & Ghosts:

an interview with John Burdett


photo by Jerry Bauer

Born in England and educated at Warwick University, John Burdett practiced law in England and Hong Kong before deciding on a career in writing. After honing his narrative chops with the intriguing thrillers A Personal History of Thirst and The Last Six Million Seconds, he went on to write three arresting novels featuring the unforgettable detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep: Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and most recently, Bangkok Haunts (Knopf, $24.95). Sonchai, the son of a Thai prostitute and an American father he has never seen, is perhaps the only moral cop in the Bangkok police force, though he still helps his mother run her brothel. Besides the increasingly complex character of Sonchai, Bangkok Haunts revolves around the fascinating figure of Damrong, a prostitute who has been killed in a snuff film, yet whose presence permeates the novel in the form of video, dreams, and ghosts.

Burdett, who now lives in Bangkok himself, offers a novelist’s perspective about Thailand and its unique culture in the following interview.

 by Wipanan Chaichanta

Wipanan Chaichanta: Your main character is half-Thai and half-American, the son of a Thai whore and a devout Buddhist. How did you develop a character whose ethnic and moral background offers polarizing views of Thailand and the West?

John Burdett: Sonchai evolved very slowly. I took more than a year before I bit the bullet and wrote in the first person as a Bangkok cop. I knew negative voices would cry “Arrogant Farang!” or words to that effect, but narratively it was the only way to go. It was only after I had taken this step that the other elements fell into place—his Buddhism, his mother’s profession, his perfect English and imperfect French, his rich education in both Asia and the West.

WC: How did you transition from law to writing?

JB: I always wanted to write, but I graduated from Warwick University when the U.K. was in cultural and economic gridlock. I read law in order to get a job. Quite soon after qualifying, I responded to a request for English lawyers to work for the Hong Kong government. I applied and was accepted and my life changed.

WC: What were your impressions and experiences when you first visited Thailand? Is it any different now that you live there?

JB: I first stayed at the Oriental, which was all about orchids and nostalgia and full-blown Asian luxury. Sure, the rest of Bangkok is not like that, there is a lot of poverty, pollution, corruption and inefficiency. But the Thai character is very welcoming and, once you know the city, you can have a good time almost anywhere.

WC: Your novels partially revolve around prostitution; you stated at a recent reading that you think prostitutes are “kind of heroic.” What do you mean by this?

JB: We have always to distinguish between different “markets.” I don’t like to use this word, but in a capitalist society it seems the most appropriate. There is a very great deal of prostitution in Thailand, and more than ninety percent is Thai to Thai. Only about five percent involves the farang or Western market. It is this last which I have focused on. In this limited market, I have talked to hundreds of girls, almost all of whom tell a similar story. There was no direct pressure for them to sell their bodies and they do not work for pimps. They decided on their careers for a number of reasons. The first is poverty, but there is also the degrading and depressing factor of very poorly paid manual work, which is the only alternative available to them. Some working girls enjoy the “game,” others dislike it, most are pretty indifferent, but everyone agrees it’s better than a factory or a building site. I find the girls heroic because they do this work cheerfully, usually manage to get some fun out of it, and share a huge percentage of their earnings with their family. Often such girls are the only protection families have against financial disaster. “Family” here includes extended family, so often a girl will be paying the medical and educational expenses of a number of nephews and nieces.

WC: At one point in Bangkok Haunts, you have a character exclaim: “Cultural conflict? You mean between a Western man with his pathetic need for a safe womb to crawl into and a Thai whore looking for a gold mine to exploit?” What is the essential cultural conflict between Thais and farangs? What are the greatest misconceptions of Thailand and her people?

JB: We Westerners have no folk memory of extreme poverty. Generally, we don’t know anything about how it molds peoples’ minds. From the luxury of a high standard of living, we evolve all kinds of romantic notions, often to disguise the fragmentation in our society. In rural Thailand, where the majority of the girls come from, love has little to do with romance or even sex; it has to do with supporting someone and her family unselfishly for life. Sure, there is a lot of cultural conflict between a romantic fifty-something farang and his young Isaan bride. Generally, though, the farang will get everything he dreams of in terms of love, respect, influence, so long as he takes care of her and her dependants. Often, however, the farang will see this attitude as evidence of a mercenary and therefore “impure” love.

WC: The central character, other than Sonchai, is essentially the prostitute Damrong, who is killed at the beginning of the novel in a snuff film—her character subsumes the novel, not as a living person, but on film, in dreams, and as a ghost.

JB: There are many ways to feature a character in narrative. In Macbeth, Banquo influences the action long after his death. A similar technique is used in the case of Hamlet’s father and stepfather. In using the ghost technique, I was able to bring Damrong’s full nature into the story without having too many flashbacks.

WC: You stated during your reading that ghosts are a big part of Thai culture. Can you explain for the uninformed Westerner both the superstition and power that ghosts exert over the minds of Southeast Asians?

JB: Once again, we must be careful not to fall into a patronizing attitude here. Sure, many Thais seem to believe in ghosts, but it’s not without irony. Girls in particular are given to using “ghosts” as a slightly flippant excuse of universal application, for example to be used to avoid work, or visiting an inconvenient location, or to express menstrual tension. But I would say Asians in general live closer to the human subconscious. They are more willing to express themselves by reference to the folklore, which includes ghosts. They also tend to interpret what we Westerners might call psychological events as supernatural ones. This enables them to seek support from various shamanic personalities, including clairvoyant monks and seers, where in the West we might seek a chemical solution. On the other hand, we must not discount the continuing tradition of ancestor worship, especially amongst the Chinese and Indonesians. In this tradition, the ancestors, i.e. the ghosts, have great power and influence over the present and need to be treated with respect and gratitude. There is some of this influence at work even amongst urban Thais, but with regard to “up country” people and in particular the hill tribes, we find very often that the ancestors form the core of the community identity.

WC: There is a scene after Damrong’s death in the snuff film where Sonchai “sees” Damrong (or is it her ghost?) in a supermarket—it haunts the reader into thinking that Damrong might still be alive.

JB: It is in the nature of real ghosts, as opposed to the comic opera type, that they manifest as perfectly ordinary people. When I practiced law in South London, I found this to be a fairly common theme amongst the urban poor, including some Anglo-Saxon tribes.

WC: The novel also features a great conversation in which Sonchai’s boss, the corrupt Colonel Vikorn, “interrogates” the criminal Tanakan using an extended hypothetical analogy. Why do both men speak euphemistically about Tanakan’s culpability in Damrong’s death?

JB: Vikorn is doing his job as he sees it. Certainly, he is blackmailing Tanakan, but that is because Tanakan, as he knows himself, has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. To Vikorn, this is no different than a traffic cop taking a bribe from a motorist whom he has caught speeding. Tanakan is thus fair game, but remains, as Vikorn well understands, a pillar of the system. He must therefore be treated with great respect, and Vikorn must at all times be careful not to step over the line of “opportunity” which Tanakan’s transgression has created. Vikorn therefore talks in symbolic terms in order to avoid the crassly literal. At the end of the day, if Vikorn does not play the feudal game in accordance with the rules, Tanakan will snuff him.

WC: Describe the differences between the legal systems in Thailand and the United States.

JB: In Thailand, the system can be bent by anyone with money or influence. In the U.S., you need both!

WC: Are there really “invisible men” like Tanakan, wealthy psychos who have no moral values? Can anything be done to limit the exploitation of Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese?

JB: Certainly, there are plenty of characters of this kind, not only in Thailand but all over the world. Wealth does not make people moral, and very often it has the opposite effect: people think God has made them rich because they deserve it and have a right to indulge themselves. It is a tradition that goes back to Nero. However, in this instance, I have made use of urban myths rather than restrict myself to any known cases. There is a school of thought to the effect that snuff movies do not really exist, but that does not matter in the realm of fiction, where myth is often more powerful than fact.

I do not want to put myself forward as someone who has a solution to any of these problems, but it does seem to me that a good start would be to abolish agricultural subsidies in the West so that subsistence farmers in the Third World have some kind of level playing field to work from. At the moment, a great many depend on their children participating in the drug and sex trades in order to make ends meet.

WC: You describe Damrong being sold into prostitution at age fourteen by her parents. The contract was for one year in Malaysia, sixteen hours a day, servicing a minimum of twenty men each day. Damong returned to Bangkok as “Totally efficient. Totally cold.” No wonder she was responsible for her father’s death and demanding gatdanyu (a type of obligation or blood debt) from her brother Gamon. In some ways her character seems comparable to Richard III or Milton’s Satan.

JB: Those are grand comparisons! I practiced criminal law for a short time in the U.K. and was involved with a few criminal cases in Hong Kong. The fact is that the environment for a child is one of the prime factors that determine if she or he will grow up into a monster or a responsible human being. Damrong has all the natural gifts and needs of a young woman, but her background has twisted her so that she can only express herself in an apocalyptic—and indeed criminal—manner. This is not at all unusual amongst poor young people. I think the debate is blurred at the moment by Islamic fundamentalism, which makes us believe that something in radical Islam produces a destructive and suicidal mentality. Actually, this is a universal reflex to poverty and defeat which we have seen all over the world, from the ghost dances of Native Americans a hundred years ago to the extreme violence of many African communities today. Indeed, I learned from the History Channel a few nights ago that the Anglo-Saxons formed themselves into apocalyptic suicide squads at one time in order to fight the Romans, who could not be otherwise defeated because of their superior technology. And, of course, we have the example of kamikazi from Japan in WWII. Damrong is simply an apocalyptic character within the limits of her background. She is courageous, larger than life, skillful, smart, and loves destruction for its own sake. I would say that fits with quite a lot of criminals I have met in my work.

WC: Damrong exerts her revenge from beyond the grave against those who wronged her. Not only is there an element of sorcery, but there is a strange transition in which Gamon looks like “Damrong in every movement”; you even refer to Gamon as “she.” Can you comment on how this passage coalesced in your mind?

JB: I was stuck for an ending. I was lying on my bed, wracking my brains. Then Damrong appeared before me and explained exactly how the ending had to be. I simply followed instructions, like a secretary, on condition she never haunt me again.

WC: What can we expect in your fourth Bangkok novel, and is there the possibility of a movie based on one of your novels?

JB: Movie option is more or less tied up for Bangkok 8. If they actually make the thing, and it works, I guess they’ll want to do more of the Sonchai books. I’m halfway through the fourth one, which is provisionally entitled The Godfather of Siam.

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