Author: Kukrit Pramoj.
Translator: Meredith Borthwick.
Publisher: Silkworm Books.
A translation of a Thai classic, Many Lives (1999) is a short story collection that explores Thai society from religion, the aristocracy, class distinctions, the family, to many other social issues.
The book begins on a boat headed for Bangkok during a storm. Amidst the horrific conditions, the boat capsizes, and from there a dozen of the passengers’ lives are explored; from their childhoods to the moments leading up to the boating accident.
Each section concerns itself with a particular passenger and are in their own way self-contained stories written to suit specific genres, e.g. romance, crime, horror, etc. The stand out pieces for me are “Loi- The Bandit” and “Phanni – The Prostitute.” The former follows Loi, a troubled boy who grows up to be involved in rural criminal activity, while the latter explores poverty in rural and urban Thailand in the context of the sex trade. Kukrit Pramoj does not hesitate to tackle these social issues, and his commentary is still relevant to contemporary Thailand.
The writing is largely influenced by Buddhism, which is quite prominent in Thailand. The translator, Meredith Borthwick, uses the term “karma” throughout to explain the philosophies behind Buddhism wherein which good deeds return to individuals later in life. These ideological beliefs were interesting and gave an insight into certain eastern philosophies and mentalities. At times, however, the writing felt overly preachy. It may, of course, be as a result of the translation; the original text will undoubtedly be more authentic. But personally, I think the issue was that the characters seemed to lack their own free will and were all destined by the idea that their actions and lineage pre-determined their future. The stories are parabolic, but I think more realism would have made greater impact.