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 Secondly, they’re out-of-date because most of the hotels, restaurants and attractions that they recommend have closed during the pandemic.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.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.