Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book 102, Thailand: "The Story of Phra Abhai Mani" by Sunthorn Phu

The real Phra Abhai Mani is a 30,000-line epic poem that took 20 years to write: this is only a 111-page prose translation (available online!) that ends with suspicious abruptness. I shouldn't be doing it, really - I've tried to steer myself away from abridged texts, mostly because they don't feel real.

On the other hand, this translation was done by a Thai Prince, Prem Burachat, in 1952. My copy of the book was even printed in Thailand. So it's definitely authentically Thai, more so than stuff by recent emigres and expats. And it feels important to incorporate something pre-modern into my Southeast Asian reading list: something that shows that we had a culture even before the imported invention of the novel.

And by golly gosh, I'm glad I decided to read this. This story is trippy, no doubt about it. It's set in a magical timeless fantasy world wherein our princely hero Phra Abhai Mani, wanders from island to island, falling ridiculously in love with various hot women (a sea giantess, a mermaid and two warrior princesses, one of whom also does a stint as a nun).

He's armed only with his handsomeness and his magical ability to make everyone fall asleep when he plays his flute. (Don't pour scorn on this skill; it's extremely useful against invading armies.) He's also assisted by his two prodigious sons, Sin Samudr and Sud Sakorn, of giantess and mermaid stock respectively. They're pictured as ten year-old boys each with the strength of ten men: Sud Sakorn actually rides a magical beast with the face and tail of a dragon and the body of a horse, upon which he slays giant man-eating butterflies. Ripping stuff!

The crazy thing is, this book isn't from an antique age: it was composed from the 1820s to the 1840s, same time as Europe was colonising our part of the world and undergoing an Industrial Revolution and Byron was writing mock-epics like Don Juan and Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein. Should we consider this extended court poem as a work of modern fantastika?

There's evidence of the modern in the text: the island of castaways includes "Chinese, Brahmins, Indians, Thai, Javanese, Englishmen, Hollanders and other Europeans", and even the princess Suvarnamali is threatened by an English pirate named Surang. Then there's all this interest in sciences and skills and cunning which allows the heroes to triumph over their enemies - no bloody duke-em-out battles here, as in The Iliad or Fengshen Bang. (Or is that modern? Plenty of sailing around and outsmarting people in The Odyssey and The Seven Voyages of Sindbad, too.)

But quibbling aside, here's what gets up my hackles: if this book is so good, so good that there are monuments and movies and comics and waxwork exhibitions and beach megaliths to commemorate it, then why isn't there a full-length English translation of the work yet? And why isn't the work more widely known outside Thailand? The country's full of people who speak English well; why can't they follow in the learned prince's footsteps and disseminate their culture to the world of earnest world literature junkies like myself?

I suppose the reason is the scale of the work - The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen (which I believe Sunthorn contributed to) was translated two years ago, and that book's 984 pages long! That baby deserves a place on my reading list too, I suppose. Lord have mercy.

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Representative quote: Once more, the hermit came to the aid of his ward. There was a deafening sound. Sud Sakorn looked up and saw the old man descending astride a rainbow. Gathering the bruised body of the boy up in his arms, the hermit took him aloft and gently laid him ont he mountain top. He then proceeded to teach the boy thus: "Put not your trust in any mortal, for their wiles are immeasurable. Even the most tortuous creepers round the hoariest tree are not as crooked as a man's heart. True love among mortals is only to be found in the love of a father or mother. The only support you can rely upon is yourself. So you must be careful and wise, my boy. There is no better armour than knowledge. Now you must go and recover your magic stick." As soon as he had said this, the hermit vanished from sight.

Next book: A Samad Said's The Morning Post, from Malaysia.

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