Kukrit Pramoj: His Wit and Wisdom
A Child of the Northeast
Letters from Thailand
The octogenarian Thai scholar and statesman Kukrit Pramoj once gave this advice on how to behave in his country:
There are certain institutions which a Thai respects…. They are his religion, which is mostly Buddhist, his King and his parents. If you say to a Thai that his politicians are rotten he will kiss you on both cheeks. If you tell him that he is a crook, he will deny it with great good humor and will not take offense. If you call his wife a bitch he will agree with you completely and ask you to have a drink to that. But as for those three institutions which I have already mentioned, I would advise you to leave well alone…since according to police statistics, the percentage of premeditated murders in this country is very low; most murders are committed in sudden passion.
(From an address to the Pacific Area Travel Agents Conference on January 31, 1969. Quoted in Kukrit Pramoj: His Wit and Wisdom.)
This was a characteristic sally from Kukrit, who is famous even among the local Westerners, or farang, as a journalist, wit, connoisseur of the arts, and, for much of his life, a politician, and once the prime minister. It was not until recently, when an English translation appeared of his epic novel Four Reigns, written in 1950, that I, at any rate, understood that Kukrit is also a world-class writer, equipped with imagination, humor, narrative skill, and keen understanding of human nature.
Like the best epic novels, Four Reigns is enjoyable at many levels. It is on the surface a saga of aristocratic life, centered on one woman, Ploi, from her childhood during the 1880s down to her death in 1946. It is a pageant of Thailand’s history during a period when the Chakri dynasty changed from absolute monarchs, the “Lords of Life,” into constitutional rulers, having to arbitrate between squabbling politicians and generals. This was also a time of social change and Westernization, in which the canals of Bangkok, the “Venice of the Orient,” were paved in the interest of the motor car.
Although Kukrit never preaches, or even intrudes a personal view, Four Reigns is clearly meant to explain and extol to a new generation of Thais the customs and faith of their ancestors. His heroine, Ploi, embodies the Thai ideal of respect and honor to king, religion, and parents. Westerners may regard this as old-fashioned or even reactionary. So it is. Almost all Thais look to tradition rather than newfangled isms and ideologies. They do not partake of our Western obsession and grievance on matters like class, race, sexual orientation, human rights, and social justice. What we call individualism they regard as selfishness. In Four Reigns, as in the other novels under review set in a northeast village and in the Bangkok Chinatown, it is the family that is paramount. This partly explains why Thai women especially love Four Reigns.
The first of the four reigns referred to in Kukrit …