A review of 'Comrade Aeon's Field Guide to Bangkok'
There are plenty of guidebooks to Bangkok; I’ve even written one myself--Top Ten Bangkok, published by Dorling Kindersley (DK) Books. The problem is, they’ve all become obsolete since the arrival of Covid, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s no demand for guidebooks as nobody’s travelling. Secondly, they’re out-of-date because most of the hotels, restaurants and attractions that they recommend have closed during the pandemic. And thirdly, researchers can’t travel to update their guides.
Yet fear not, for a recently published novel tells you all you need to know about Bangkok. Perhaps it’s fitting that in this topsy-turvy, ‘new normal’ world, we should eschew works of non-fiction and look to the world of fiction for insight into the Big Mango.
The Bangkok-based author of Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok goes by the name of Emma Larkin, and a glance at previous titles explains why a pseudonym is necessary. Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster under Burma’s Military Rule is unlikely to be on the essential reading list of the current rulers of Myanmar, though Ms Larkin must surely be on their black list.
But back to Bangkok. While the plot, set in 2009 around a search for missing bodies from the 1976 and 1992 military massacres, is daring enough, the great achievement of this novel lies in slicing clean through the multiple strata of hierarchical Thai society and giving penetrating glimpses into how each level thinks and acts.
Main characters include a property developer looking for a cheap plot of land that will make his fortune, and his wife, a former movie star and current scriptwriter of soap operas. It’s interesting to note that a fascination with these soap operas is the only common link in this book between all levels of Thai society.
A significant but absent persona is Win, their son. Win disappeared during Black May 1992, when soldiers opened fire on protesters in Bangkok. Even 17 years later, his parents half-expect him to reappear, and he floats through the background like a ghost.
Then there’s the bored expat housewife, who spends the entire book contemplating suicide by jumping from their 27th floor apartment. Her husband’s busy having an affair with her best friend while her teenage son is lost in his phone.
Down in the bottom tier of society are the inhabitants of the Slum of Bountiful Pleasantness. Among them, the matriarch Yai Sunan from Isaan (Thailand’s impoverished northeast) is the main source of gossip and kind-heartedness. Ice and Toon are a couple of layabouts always looking for a lucky break.
Most intriguing of all is the elusive, indeed almost invisible, Comrade Aeon, a survivor of a student massacre at Thammasat University in 1976. After hiding with Communists in the jungles of the northeast for a few years, he slipped back into Bangkok, built himself a lean-to in an overgrown corner of this slum, and lined the walls with volumes of his Field Guide to Bangkok, which covers every topic imaginable from building subsidence to the constituent smells of the reeking canals and the rise to fame of his movie-star idol.
Sadly this field guide is no longer available as Comrade Aeon’s lean-to was burned down as part of a cover-up of the discovery of a mass grave. Yet as he wanders the streets of the city, searching for increasingly difficult-to-find patches of overgrown greenery in which to hide, Comrade Aeon is still scrawling cryptic messages on walls, pavements and electricity boxes, using spray cans, charcoal and ink markers, “so that if someone were to catalogue them and arrange the pieces in the right order they would be able to reassemble the lost memories that the city has tried to forget.”
Those familiar with Bangkok will no doubt read this novel with a wry smile, recognising many of the archetypes and quirks that create this vertical city’s unique character. Yet Emma Larkin’s caustic look at Thai society might just make those who have never set foot in Sin City think twice before doing so.
Set in Venezuela, California and Thailand
I’ve now posted the remaining stories from my collection titled In Transit, presented as part requirement for a Master’s in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University back in 1983.
Two stories are set in Venezuela (sadly much changed since those days) and another in California. I’ve also added one more, set in North Thailand, which was not part of the original collection but seems to ‘explore the responses of various characters to fundamental changes in their personal world’ as the abstract for these stories claims.
Happy reading—I’m eager for your comments.
A collection of short stories
Back in the 1980s, I studied an M.A in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University. As part of the requirement for the degree, I wrote a collection of short stories called In Transit.
I recently pulled out a copy of this long-forgotten work, dusted off its yellowing pages, and have decided to share these stories on my website. They are mostly based on my own experiences and observations in Africa, South America and the USA, mixed with a heavy dose of imagination to be able to call it fiction. You’ll find these stories in a new section of my website called Short Stories, which I’ll be adding to as I dictate/transcribe the stories. I have begun with four stories, all set in Africa, and below is the first one--Beyond the End of the Road. I’ll be glad of any feedback that you would care to give. Happy reading!
Lost and found in the Sahara
I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.