Immersing himself in a city of sin
John Burdett goes native in 'Bangkok Tattoo'
By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In his monologue "Swimming to Cambodia," the late Spalding Gray described an American expatriate gone native in "Thailand, the Pure Land."
This seems an almost sardonic moniker for a country with an infamous sex trade, political corruption and other crime-related ills. But the dichotomy offers plenty of color for an author willing to jump into Thai society.
John Burdett has done just that, first with his 2003 novel "Bangkok 8" and now with its follow-up, "Bangkok Tattoo" (Knopf).
Burdett is a Caucasian (in Thai, farang) who doesn't scrimp on Bangkok's seedy side. "Bangkok Tattoo" is a carnivale grotesque of prostitutes and mutilations, told with a decidedly anti-American sneer.
Burdett, an English transplant to Hong Kong, did not want to be misconstrued as an America basher.
The book's somewhat antagonistic attitude is "the standard view of America seen from overseas, since Iraq," he told CNN. "It would be unrealistic to create a non-American character [the protagonist, Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep] who admired recent American foreign policy.
"However," he added, "I would not characterize this as anti-American. The sentiment often takes the form of deep regret that American foreign policy seems to have plunged into hypocrisy and incompetence. You could almost say it is a form of nostalgia for the 'old' America."
Life among the sex workers
The novel opens with a hideous murder in Sonchai's brothel, after which the detective and his boss, the venerable gangster Colonel Vikorn, inadvertently open an investigation (while trying their best to cover it up).
The inquiry descends into a mess of intrigue involving the CIA, Muslim militants, drugs, the Bangkok police force, the Thai army, ranks of underworld gangsters from Thailand, China, and Japan, a gaggle of giggling Thai whores, and a rampaging mob of geriatric American sex tourists swollen with Viagra, all seen through Burdett's slightly skewed lens.
Consider, for instance, Burdett's depiction of Thailand's notorious sex trade. He almost makes it sound noble.
"What these girls are actually doing is subsidizing agriculture in order to preserve a way of life to which they are committed and to which they intend to return as soon as they have achieved some degree of financial security," he said. "Most claim to dislike Bangkok. Almost all of them come from agricultural communities, especially in the northeast, where even subsistence farmers cannot make a profit due to the subsidizing of agriculture by the G7 nations."
Indeed, many have become sex workers because they've known someone else who's done well financially, said Burdett.
"The girls ... have made an informed choice. Every one I have spoken to was introduced to the profession not by men or older women, but by friends and colleagues of their own age who were already working in the bars. I have not met a single girl who was coerced. On the contrary, the girls move from bar to bar in the search for improved business and come and go as they please."
However, he was quick to point out, "On the other hand, I must emphasize that my research is limited to the Thai/farang trade in Bangkok where there are few, if any, pimps. I am told things are very different in the Thai/Thai sex trade, which despite being closed to foreigners amounts to 95 percent of Thailand's sex trade."
Burdett adds a dollop of mysticism to his Thai books through his rendition of Therevada Buddhism, "popularly regarded as the evangelical arm of Hinduism in much of Asia," he said.
Burdett brings out this spiritualism through Sonchai, who regularly communes with ghosts and demons, and sees all the past lives of everyone he meets, even identifying extraterrestrials amongst us.
Therevada Buddism, also called "Southern Buddhism" to distinguish itself from the Mahayana Buddhism ("Northern Buddhism") prevalent in Japan, Korea and China, is laced with such superstition and sorcery, said Burdett, with an obsessive emphasis on reincarnation and the eternal haunting of karma.
"Those who follow Theravada Buddhism point out that it is the most pure expression of what the Buddha actually taught. Those who follow Mahayana Buddhism point out that the Buddha never intended his teaching to be preserved in aspic, but intended for it to develop like any living creation," he observed.
Meanwhile, Burdett does his own haunting: of Thai streets, shops and other public places.
"I never stop reading, watching and listening," he said. "I am learning Thai as quickly as I can and even attempting the alphabet which consists of 73 letters, not including the accents."
The research does have its drawbacks, he conceded.
"I spend a lot of time in the local bars," he said, "and have something of a beer gut as a consequence."