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The Spirit of Cities

Leanne Ogasawara

Bangkok Wakes to Rain, by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Riverhead Books, 368 pp, ISBN: 978-0525534778

Cities are smells, says poet Mahmoud Dawish. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment …

That cities are smells seems obvious. But how about cities as novels? After all, some of the greatest novels ever written have been stories of place more than stories of people. If Joyce’s Ulysses is Dublin, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is Moscow, and Tanizaki’s Makioka Sisters is Osaka, then with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain we have Bangkok. Bangkok, at last!

Bangkok Wakes to Rain is redolent of the “city of angels”: of food-stall noodles, sizzling meats, and spicy fish soup; of golden spires, smouldering incense sticks and barefoot, saffron-robed monks; of traffic that never stops; of mould, snakes, and music; and of “rubies and thousands of years of rain”. Bangkok wakes to rain. And Bangkok sleeps to rain. As anyone who has ever been there knows: Bangkok is a watery world. A city of humid air so thick it’s wet. It’s perspiration and smog, relentless rains and a great river that runs through it.

Sudbanthad writes one evocative and gorgeous sentence after the next. His novel paints a picture of the spirit of the great capital. A palimpsest, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, stories that stretch across centuries, revolve loosely around a house built in the centre of the endlessly sprawling city. The novel begins, also like Cloud Atlas, in the Victorian Age, when an American missionary doctor finds himself in the Siam of old. Stories unfold through time. There is the tale of two sisters and then of two friends. There is a self-exiled jazz musician from America and a prodigal son who refuses to return home for good. And before the story ends, we find ourselves in a future Bangkok of climate change and minds being uploaded to the cloud.

Not surprisingly, many readers are comparing the novel to Cloud Atlas. And indeed, the similarities abound. But where Cloud Atlas has a logical sequence to the interwoven stories, Subanthad’s novel is more random in structure. The stories blink in and out. This makes it harder to follow, but the lack of a sequence provides for more of a wild ride. And before I forget to say it: the writing is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. I listened to the Audible version and found myself racing upstairs to grab the book so I could savour it again slowly, reading aloud to myself. 

A debut novel that is a stunning tour de force, it is not a translation and was written in English. The author, who was born in Bangkok, spent much of his childhood overseas, in Saudi Arabia and the US. Perhaps because of this early displacement, his sensitivity to place and home are particularly acute. That cities have their own distinct and discrete smells, weather, feeling, music and mood is something immediately discernible to anyone who travels around continental Europe, where despite their close proximity the cultures/spirits/aurae/airs/colours are so beautifully distinctive. Cityscapes ‑ like landscapes ‑ develop rich and complex atmospheres to which those who live there become attuned. Philosophers invoke “place” to describe the way human beings are embedded in their urban surroundings. finding meaning “there” through shared values and shared mood. It is this spirit which enables people to say that great cities have emergent, lasting characters that are more than the sum of their buildings, streets, weather, and current occupants. Think, for example, about how the citizens of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic war begged the Romans to spare their city:

Spare the city which has done you no harm, but, if you please, kill us, whom you have ordered to move away. In this way you will seem to vent your wrath upon men, not upon temples, gods, tombs and an innocent city.

In much the same way, while the characters come and go, Bangkok endures.

This brings up a question, though. We know the city will continue to exist without us. But what of our lives? Are they without any ultimate meaning then? Does anything remain from the hazy contours of our lives? The great Christian existentialist thinker Gabriel Marcel once wrote about human beings as Homo Particepts, becoming real only in their mode of participation. I think this comes to bear in the novel. In particular, it is in their life choices that the characters become eternal ‑ in the eternal reverberation of these acts, as one of the characters remarks: “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” One of the main characters, named Nee, wonders. “Can the dead ever forgive? What do they remember of their old lives? It’s only a hunch, but she’s come to suspect that nothing true ever dies.”

And what of the Bangkok of the future? Friends tell me that I won’t recognise the city these days. I’ve visited half a dozen times ‑ but all those trips occurred before the Sky Train opened for business in 1999. Before colonies of construction cranes dotted the skyline and before towers began to rise up into the sky. The Bangkok I knew was one of the world’s great vibrant cities. Sure, there was traffic and flooding back then. The icy air of Aircons going full blast and the best food anywhere in the world. But I believe my friends who tell me I would not recognise the place. Not a lot of cities have transformed themselves like Bangkok. Shock and awe shopping malls with new apartment towers going up at breakneck speed.  

The house that is the main character of the novel began as a traditional teak building, constructed a century ago by a man who became rich. By contemporary times, the traditional wooden house had been swallowed by one of the towers. What a nice touch, the investors think: to have the entrance floor of their futuristic apartment building incorporate the historic house? Potential buyers will love the authenticity. And they do.

But what of the future, when Bangkok is under water? You can imagine that the building will come to appear like ruins in a tropical jungle.

More and more writers are tackling a future of rising sea waters and climate disaster. Not surprisingly, the image of Venice is employed again and again. For example, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 from 2017, New York is depicted as a drowning city, like Venice. It is a future world of climate disaster, with the “First Pulse” seeing the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, leading to a ten-foot rise in global sea-levels. This was followed by further melting at the Aurora Basin in East Antarctica, causing cascading melting around the world’s ice sheets, leading to a further forty-feet rise in sea water. Forty feet!

In this not-so-futuristic world, morning commuters board crosstown vaporetti after rising waters have turned Manhattan into a waterlogged city of endless canals. And unlike in Venice, the waters freeze over ‑ totally stopping traffic ‑ in winter. Just like now, New York City 2140 suffers staggering inequality. Hedge-fund millionaires weave in and out of shipping lanes in their private speedboats, as kids who can’t read ferry people around a half-submerged Chelsea in their gondolas. The New York City of the novel is described as a “Super Venice”.

In Karen Russell’s short story “Gondoliers”, three teenage sisters ‑ who also can’t read ‑ ply the poisoned waters of the Florida Keys to shuttle paying passengers around in a flooded and environmentally destroyed Florida. The water is so toxic it is considered deadly. And the sisters really shouldn’t be living there, floating around in their “gondolas”.

This is the world we find in Sudbanthad’s novel. For centuries, Bangkok was called the Venice of the East, because of its intricate system of canals. But the future Bangkok sees rising sea waters breaching the banks of the Chao Praya river causing the surrounding land to become marshy and uninhabitable. Not surprisingly, the rich head to higher ground. Toward the end of the novel, when a doctor is making a house call, she travels to the place by gondola. Two boys row for pennies. The doctor thinks “it would be nice to bring back a photo” before she returns to “New Krungthep”. The boys warn her off since the area is now:

… a dense valley of buildings in different stages of decrepitude. Some are leaning, some have crumbled. Wriggly vines often cover them, erasing telltale floors, so that from a distance they look like ancient cliffs risen out of the sea. The light shines strangely there, passing through gouged floors and the remnants of glass facades. Not the most hospitable part of Krung Nak, if you ask us. The only ones who go there are the swifts’ nest harvesters, who are secretive about their sites and not very friendly. They sometimes shoot before warning.

The doctor heeds the boys’ warning and returns to dry land.

Such is Bangkok in the future. Like Venice, though, for centuries Bangkok has been a watery world of rains and flooding. As recently as 2011, the flooding was so bad it shut down the airports and saw entire neighbourhoods turn into marshland. Recoiling from the rising waters, the urge to build higher and higher towers continues unabated. In the watery world of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, we see our future. Sudbanthad challenges us to take a hard look at our world today and what we value in it, because our ongoing survival may cost us those very things as the water reaches up to wash away the smells of the noodles, tiger balm, mangoes, teak and tuk-tuk exhaust and replace it with a city of less texture and a very different life.

1/10/2020

Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film.

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