Thailand: watching the watchers

Chart Korbjitti caught my eye on Wikipedia’s list of Thai writers. Not only is he a two-time recipient of the Southeast Asian Write award, but he was named a National Artist in Literature in 2004. He made his career through self-publishing his work and is one of that hardy breed of full-time writers who commit to doing nothing but waking up and spinning stories all day long. I also like his glasses.

This is fitting because, as it turns out, vision is a central theme in the book I chose to read. Set in a theatre, the novel records the reactions of a 62-year-old filmmaker as he watches a show dubbed ‘the most boring play of the year’ by Thailand’s drama critics. As the action unfolds in an old people’s home, the protagonist finds himself drawn into the slow drift of events, pausing now and again to imagine how he would represent the action if he were portraying it in a film. Distanced from his everyday routine by the strange suspension of reality the theatre affords, he reflects on the sad events of his life and in the end takes a great deal from the drama playing out in front of him – although whether what he infers is what the play’s director intends remains a mystery.

The novel is one of the most structurally innovative books I’ve read. Jumping between the action on stage, the protagonist’s interior monologue and his imagined shooting script for the scenes he witnesses, the narrative tests the limits of the written medium while exploring the visual arena of stage and screen. The filmmaker’s watching and commenting makes even the most mundane of onstage actions – washing, feeding and entertaining the frail and largely bedridden inhabitants of the home – come alive.

This is particularly true when what he sees encourages the protagonist (if that is the right word for someone who is essentially watching the actions of others) to look for parallels in his own experience. These reflections range from pettish and sometimes funny reflections on the selling of lottery tickets through social issues such as child labour to admissions of his own fears and loneliness. Indeed, the narrative is frequently startling in its stark reflections on ‘the pain of being left alone in the world’. ‘To tell you frankly, when I see something like this, I’m scared. Scared to have to lie on a bed like this. I’m thinking of my wife –’ says the narrator, striking a balance of honesty and reticence that means the narrative never tips over into wallowing.

Yet Korbjitti pushes the boundaries even beyond the trope of a man sitting in an auditorium watching a play. As the show progresses, we find the thoughts of the characters on stage beginning to spill into the narrative, forcing us to question where these recollections and preoccupations come from. In addition, the nagging smell of urine that irritates the filmmaker throughout the show invites us to wonder exactly where the boundary between the real and the imagined lies.

The result is a masterful dissection of the experience of consuming art. At times, I had to stop myself from turning round to see Korbjitti watching me read, constructing a story about a blogger reading a book about a filmmaker watching a play. But perhaps he’s already written it…

Time: a Thai Novel by Chart Korbjitti, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thai Fiction Publishing, 2010)