Shadowed Country by Pira Canning Sudham
Thailand's Leading English Language Writer
"Monsoon Country" and its sequel "The Force of Karma" have been revised and brought together by Pira Canning Sudham in one volume. A big book for a big subject!
Shadowed Country is undeniably Pira Canning Sudham's acme in his literary endeavour. Since his early years of reading English literature in universities in New Zealand and Australia, Sudham has been craftily practising his art, employing the English language to impart vital messages in People of Esarn, Tales of Thailand and Monsoon Country. The latter is the first book of Shadowed Country. Much is tacitly done, of course, while he courageously covers actual occurrences. He seems to say: "The marked men, who have been able to get away even with murders, must not escape."Widely he casts his punitive net. He also draws from personal experiences so that the reality fuses with imagination, making it appear that Shadowed Country is the author's biography in disguise.
He goes so far as to use photos with appropriate captions for illustrations, seemingly saying: "See? These happenings are real." But for some fully treated characters, Pira Canning Sudham cunningly reassembles mixed parts of the netted people whom he vivisects for this purpose. What make them so convincingly real derives from Sudham's well-earned artistic skills.
On the other hand, if exploiting recent historical facts is a taboo, Sudham absolutely commits himself to honesty. In Shadowed Country, he puts words in the protagonist Prem Surin's mouth: "I have put my life on the line".
Sudham, the self-proclaimed David of Thailand, must fight Goliath alone. But the shadowed country has far more than one formidable giant. To combat these omnipotent 'dark lords', he keeps them strategically far apart in order to face them one at a time. However there is a seam that runs through Shadowed Country. It is an education system employed as 'an apparatus to stunt and maim the mind of the young so as to turn them into silent, subservient and unthinking citizens'. According to Sudham, subservience and mindlessness permit corruption to progress steadily, enabling the all-powerful Dark Lord 'to expand greatly and govern ruthlessly without challenge, without trammels'.
Prem Surin's fight against this particular Goliath begins when he returns to his home village towards the end of Shadowed Country. In Napo, he builds a school to teach the village children and 'to counter the age-old authoritarian teaching and rote learning with a devotion to nurturing the growing minds and so help the eager students become thinking individuals'. He determines that their formative minds must not be stunted or deformed as his had been. He believes that'a wholesome and well-developed mind is a wonderful gift one can give to another human being.'
It is obvious that Sudham sorely regrets his own 'crippled mind', making Prem Surin vow in Monsoon Country to remain unwedded so that his flesh and blood would not go through the mind-maiming education system. But then, in the second book, The Force of Karma, a descendant was purposely conceived. Lady Pamela Archisson (formerly Elizabeth Durham), wife of Lord Archisson, carries this conception and gives birth to Prem's son, not only to inherit his massive family fortune in England but also to be far away from the grip of the Dark Lord that has a stranglehold on the shadowed country. As a British subject, Priam Archisson is to grow up in the U.K. so as to gain a mental development of which the biological father was unfortunately deprived.
Despite Prem Surin's comment that he would not write about English society for 'it is not his subject matter, his aim', Sudham could not help make remarks at certain aspects of British life, using Charles Keith Tregonning's business activities and the past of the Marquess of Wealden as his springboard. The UK's on-going tensions caused by asylum seekers and illegal refugees and racial conflicts, for instant, do not escape his pen. He also makes a wide swing at the Americans' war efforts in Vietnam and in the Middle East in pertaining to the force of karma.
Obviously Shadowed Country is a product of 45 years of using English to deliver fascinating accounts of both blessed and unfortunate lives being conducted in the East as well as in the West. It is remarkable that Sudham's use of crisp, clear English is subtly imbued with poetic qualities, sounding like a gentle flow of a cool clear mountain stream. It is a good, open texture of language that paints vivid and long-retained images in our minds, that carries his messages best of all. Yet, in closer study, Sudham's style of writing seems deceptive; it hides complexity behind spurious simplicity. Seemingly he takes English in easy stride.
Being a gifted wordsmith as he is, one is certain that such achievement does not come easily to the Isan buffalo-boy. The road that takes him to become a master of the English language and to be a thinking man as well as an artist has undoubtedly exacted from him a great sacrifice. It has also cost him thirty years of odyssey in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Even now he spends six months a year of self-imposed exile in England 'to read more, hear more and to reflect from afar'.
This saga pertains to the report that in 2004 two magnificent stately homes in southern county of England worth over 30 million pounds had become properties of Prem Surin, a son of impoverished Isan peasants. Having inherited the two English country houses, the 'wild man' from the morass of Siam told a journalist: "Ashdown Hall has been our family seat for centuries. I am destined to return and protect it from falling into the wrong hands. It is beyond me to save Siam from the take-over but the family seat must not go the same way while it is within my power to protect it. As for Warleigh Manor, the previous owner, Charles Keith Tregonning, pinched my silver when he was my butler in the other life. In this life, he merely gave back what had been mine plus interest at the rate of 13 per cent APR – whatever that is – of which the Lord has kept account from an actual time of pilferage up to now which should be 135 years."
Having whetted our curiosity and, at the same time, challenged our concept of reincarnation, Sudham starts the epic with a prologue that portrays in sequences the life of an English peer, the 5th Marquess, who lay dying in the State Bedroom of Ashdown Hall.
Sudham suggests there is a link between the demise of the Marquess and the ignoble birth of an infant in a poor and remote Isan village. "Where else in the world, if it is not Isan? There, the tormented soul of the peer of the realm, who had been held responsible for the massacre of hundred of natives in Ayodaya, in northern India, during the British Raj era, must continue to undergo further retribution due to his karma.It has to be in Isan where, not only the body would be malnourished, prone to diseases and brutal treatments, but also the mind could be deprived and tortured and crippled by a mind-maiming education system," said Sudham.
From the 'morass of Siam', the 'seething base of the hierarchy', the author opportunely exposes the social condition that subjugates and impoverishes the powerless population on the one hand and the authoritative education system that enforces rote learning and suppression to stunt formative minds in order to turn the young into submissive, silent and mindless mass on the other.
But before Prem Surin (the 5th Marquess of Wealden in the previous life) could reclaim Ashdown Hall and inherit Warleigh Manor in this life, Pira Canning Sudham leads us to explore penurious Prem's torturous childhood in his home village. There, on the Korat Plateau, Prem takes care of the family's herd of buffaloes, suffering malnutrition, brutality and abuse.
Among numerous heart-rending episodes, a startling scene in which a sodomite, Peng Pakpoom, forces Prem Surin to be on his knees so as to be 'wounded', is seared and forever branded upon our hearts.Prem undergoes bullies, brutal treatments, rejections, vilification, misunderstanding, rote learning as retribution for his bad karma committed in the previous life. We follow the maligned boy to Bangkok and later as a student on a scholarship to London and Munich and eventually his return to Napo to our delight, sorrow and fascination as the soul of the born again to suffer the force of karma Marquess of Wealden's reincarnated life goes through the karmic cycle in the form of a poverty-stricken Isan peasant.
Pira Canning Sudham cunningly exploits a belief in the force of karma and harsh social condition to reveal the horror and magnitude of injustice and corruption in the society that is 'rotten at the core, to fall eventually on its own accord'. He seems to say: "Come with me. Together we'll explore dark caverns, mysterious avenues and perilous highways and byways that lead to the take-over not only of England's treasure troves but also of the shadowed country named 'Siam'.
The book leaves little room for us to guess what 'the fall' is and what cause brings about that fall and who make the take-over.
The exploration yields plenty. The rewards include the blow-by-blow account of the massacres of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Bangkok, the murders of numerous idealistic schoolteachers and environmental activists, graft, sex trade, drug trafficking, money laundering, a pernicious plot code-named DDT, corruptive forces and various forms of corruption.
Pira Canning Sudham admirably deals with such stark, gross or painful subject matters with a poetic narrative that has become one of the most remarkable writings of modern literature. "I want to turn pain and sorrow into art," he said. Shadowed Country stands to prove that Sudham has succeeded.
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