Archive - Jun 9, 2006 - Blog entry


Bangkok 8

about a month ago i read a novel by John Burdett called Bangkok 8. I really liked it a lot. Before I tell you about it I'll tell you what interests and concerns in my life recently are probably what made me like it, and you can decide if you have enough similar interests to also enjoy the book. Lately I've been thinking a lot about: buddhism, karma, fate, ethics, sex and love. I've also always had an interest in travelling, in other cultures, in the culture of the far east and its interaction with the west, and in sex work, the morality of sex work, and the sex industry of southeast asia. I've also always liked, as a guilty pleasure, the mystery novel, but usually not exceedingly so unless a book really plays with and experiments with that genre.

Bangkok 8 has and does all those things. It's really an unusual story. It follows a detective named Sonchai in Bangkok who is the son of a Thai prostitute and a western man who is unknown to him. He and his partner are devout buddhists who were sent to the city by the head of their monastery who ordered them to become cops to balance their karma. They're the only non-corrupt cops in the whole city. The book starts with an American marine who they're investigating being murdered in a very unusual way, and Sonchai's partner is killed too. With the help of the American Embassy and the FBI, he goes about trying to investigate the crime and seek vengence for his partner.

That sets the stage. But along the way of solving the mystery, the book is full of deeply profound and also cleverly humorous commentary on all the subjects I mentioned above and more. The main character is a deeply wise but also jaded and streetwise and cynical character. He calls his partner an "arhat" which is a buddhist word for someone who is enlightened, but chooses to stay in the material world to help others instead of floating off into nirvana. He has the interesting supernatural power of being able to see someone's past incarnations, which helps him solve the crime at several points and also relate to various people he meets along the way, like the horny female FBI agent Kimberly Jones who is assigned to help him. As the story progresses one learns that Sonchai himself may be just shy of being an arhat, held back by issues from his past and present. Burdett uses the noir murder mystery form to adroitly explore a variety of contemporary and age old topics. Meanwhile the style of the writing is totally entertaining, hard-boiled, noirish, and witty.

A few favorite quotes:

The Lord Buddha taught 2500 years ago that there is no impunity. In more elegant language than I can muster he warned that you always pay for pussy, one way or the other. For example, if we go back to Jones' room at the Hilton, one of 2 things could happen: She could enjoy it more than I or I could enjoy it more than she. The keener one immediately becomes the slave of the other, with disasterous consequences for both.

Understand that I'm not quoting that because I believe it or think it's particularly wise. It just demonstrates the sort of collisions of worlds and ideas that Burdett explores. Sonchai thinks he's so wise, and in a way he is, but as his wisdom smashes against his own feelings and hang-ups we see he's still learning and figuring important stuff out.

and there's this, where a Russian pimp and drug dealer is talking about Buddhism to Sonchai and Kimberly, who answers (in the second paragraph):

Guatama Buddha was the greatest salesman in history... he was selling nothing. That's what nirvana means: nothing. As a cure for the great cosmic disaster most of us call life, he prescribed a riguorous course of meditation and perfect living over any number of lifetimes, with nothing as its final reward. D'you think anyone on Madison Avenue could sell that? But the whole Indian subcontinent bought it at the time. Today there are more than 300 million Buddhists in the world and growing.

...but there's a play on words here, isn't there? He was only selling nothing if you understand nothing in a certain sense. Nothing to a Buddhist is also everything, since only nothing has any reality.

The other thing that makes me like the book is that I found it totally randomly. it was just sitting in a cafe and i had nothing to read while i sat there so i looked at it and it looked awesome so i took it. Was it fate?