A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
The characters range from a medical missionary in the mid-19th century to a divorced socialite and her drifter son, Samart, aka Sammy; from a girl caught up in the 1976 student massacre to fashion-conscious teens desperate to change their nose shapes and as-yet-unborn, water-savvy kids who take tourists out in longtail boats to gaze down at the drowned city.
The common thread between these diverse characters is a Sino-colonial house, which like so many other plots of land in Bangkok is developed into a towering condominium in the 1970s. At some stage each of the characters lives in or visits the house or condos, and the scenes often jump a decade or two to pick up with the next generation. This restlessness is also reflected in scenes that take place in London, Stockholm, Yokohama and New England as the Bangkokian diaspora scatter around the globe.
What makes this book stand out apart from its epic time scale is the sense of place, and anyone who has lived in or visited the Big Mango is likely to feel a resonance in Sudbanthad’s detailed descriptions, particularly of food. “Fish came at him, silvery and whole, bathed in plum sauce and ginger. Grilled prawns the size of men’s hands oozed with orange roe, and bowls of curry the color of flames formed a volcanic ring around the table. He kept eating, teary-eyed, until suffering melted into a mode of pleasure.”
The main theme of the story, the gradual submersion of Bangkok, is also portrayed vividly: “Everyone in Krungthep was watching the TV screens that covered the approaching flood day and night. Somewhere upcountry the water was lapping on the steps of thousand-year old temples and forcing saffron-robed monks to camp on highway ramps. Produce markets turned into shimmering, rectangular pools. Entire industrial complexes seemingly went undersea. Airports closed due to submerged runways.”
While the lyrical prose is enough to keep readers turning pages, the novel has its shortcomings. It is divided neatly into four parts, with one-word titles for each sub-section, such as Outpour, Impasse and Netherworld. Yet there is no connection between each sub-section and the next, so it reads like a disjointed set of independent short stories.
The writer begins many sections by stating ‘He did this’, or ‘She did that’, and it is only several pages later that the reader learns, either by deduction or by being told, who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ is. While there is a stylistic cleverness to such a technique, it doesn’t always work.
For example, the ‘she’ of the opening section, Visitations, is never identified, though the setting is clearly contemporary. After this the narrative jumps back to the mid-19th century to describe the frustrations of a medical missionary in the steamy, disease-ridden city that was less than a century old.
It’s also debatable whether the work is intended as a dystopia. While the threat of rising waters creates a menacing backdrop to events, there are no descriptions of mass suffering or bloated bodies floating on the water as one might expect in such an aquatic disaster. Instead, Sudbanthad turns his attention to technological innovations that might await us, such as the option of ‘afterbodying’ for well-heeled oldies, a form of eternal life by which they can choose their appearance, time and location at will.
Despite its limitations, Bangkok Wakes to Rain evokes a city that can appear either a heaven or a hell to those who pass through it or live there, and following it through from its early days to its imminent submergence, albeit in an erratic time frame, makes for a thought-provoking experience. Read it before the deluge washes the city away.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.