Saturday, April 13, 2013

Christopher G. Moore's Introduction to the "Bangkok Noir" Anthology

Behind the Thai smile and the gracefully executed wai, in the near distance is another realm: the geography of conflict, personal grudges, anger, revenge, disappearances and violence. Where loss of face, personal rivalry and competition for power often have fatal consequences. The risk of danger, like an irregular heartbeat, is unpredictable. Most of the time the danger is out of sight, out of mind. But when it unexpectedly explodes, the victim goes down hard and doesn't get up.

Glide along the daylight surface of Bangkok, and the gritty world of noir often seems light years away. The surface is polite, pleasurable and fun-sanuk. But dig deeper below the sanuk layer, and the tropical paradise reveals a far colder, damp darkness of lost souls-souls stranded, battered and estranged. Writers are often among the first to kick over that noir rock, and their readers watch as the spiders, scorpions and cockroaches scatter in all directions.

The dozen authors in Bangkok Noir lever their collective boot to that stone in the heart of the City of Angels. Hints of noir appear like blimps on the Bangkok radar screen. The members of local charities who cruise around in vans to collect the dead and injured are called body snatchers. Newspapers announce the latest official crackdowns, which in the past have been directed at bar closing hours, abortion clinics, car thieves, hired gunmen, speeders and underground lotteries. And whispers posted on the social networks speak of unofficial shakedowns. At every turn there is a new noir-like incident, such as the Bangkok temple morgue, found to contain two thousand aborted fetuses. Art follows such dark spaces of human activity.

Already a horror movie about the morgue is in the works for 2011, titled 2002 Baby Ghosts. Noir in Bangkok happens fast. The subject of noir is often taken from the latest headlines of the Bangkok Post or The Nation. And of course the noir history of past coups looms, casting a long black shadow that feeds the fear of future coups.

The potential list of subjects is long, but the stories in this collection will give more than a few insights into the Thai noir world. The idea of the national sport, Muay Thai-a combination of ballet, boxing, kicking and kneeing-is pure noir. That's the idea of sanuk dipped in bruises and blood. Muay Thai may be closer to assassination than normal boxing. Whatever it is (or isn't), Muay Thai is the sport of noir. With ancient rituals and music the fighters perform before a huge, cigar smoking, game fixing, betting crowd, where gangsters, fraudsters, boiler room operators, bar owners and crooked cops and officials, wearing gold chains and amulets, gather. The kind of men who know each other's birthdays and what's expected in terms of keeping the wheels greased. Men and women with advance knowledge of who is going to win before the fight starts.

There is no consensus on the definition of "noir" that covers all cultures. Writers don't agree on one version of noir, and photographers and painters translate noir into their own image of darkness. Slowly, a general idea of noir in Bangkok has emerged over the last ten years.

The foreign and Thai artistic noir movement has been growing during this period. Ralf Tooten, an award-winning photographer, has captured Bangkok noir in his photographs (one of which graces the cover of this book).

The artist Chris Coles has painted the faces of men and women who move through the Bangkok underworld.

The authors represented in this anthology, foreigners and Thais, have contributed stories that create powerful images, bringing the Bangkok noir movement another step forward. Thais and foreigners live together inside the world of noir. These stories record their experience of Bangkok's dark side.

Bangkok Noir contains twelve short stories by professional authors who have developed an international reputation for their writing about life in Asia. Not all of the writers in this collection are crime writers or even, normally, writers of fiction. What unites them is their knowledge of Bangkok, their depth of cultural understanding and their love of storytelling. As a group they are professional authors whose books are published in many countries and languages. You will find a diversity of original voices and perceptions of noir as well as various approaches to tone, structure and characterization-in these deeply felt, insightful and thought-provoking tales. This volume is special for another reason: it is the first time that foreign and Thai professional writers have combined their visions of Bangkok within a single volume.

I opened this introduction with a comment about the ambiguity of noir as a concept. It is worth noting some basic background. "Noir" is the French word for black or dark. The French used the term to describe certain dark films portraying characters doomed by the hand of fate. Appropriated years ago by Anglo-Saxon critics and authors, the word "noir" in English has been used to describe a certain category of crime fiction. American authors like Thompson, Willeford, Goodis and Cain made a reputation selling a bleak, nihilistic vision of life. The contemporary notion of noir, traceable to the original French idea, is based on an existential space where the characters find themselves caught without the possibility of redemption.

Noir fiction chronicles a world where a person's fate is sealed by a larger and more powerful karma, one from which, despite all efforts, they can't break free. The stories in this collection are in the tradition of past noir authors who were masters at leading characters onto the platform, slipping the noose around their necks and springing open the trap door.

What Westerners call a fatalistic vision of life, in Asia often passes as karma. All of those good and bad deeds from your past life work themselves out in the streets, bars and back alleys of this life, and there's not much room for free will inside this concept of a universe where payback awaits in the next life.

With this anthology this group of authors, known for their writings about Thailand, have put their creative talent to the task of showing that noir is geographically unbounded. If noir is looking a little tired in the West, in Thailand it has all the energy and courage of a kid from upcountry who thinks the Khmer tattoos on his body will stop bullets. Dark stories, like a good som tum, need the right number of red hot peppers to press the pain and pleasure buttons, and when a noir writer runs short of hot peppers, he throws in a Thai dame (she may be a ghost), knowing she can drive any man to ruin with the flash of her smile.

What makes Bangkok Noir different from, say, American, English or Canadian noir?  There's no easy answer.  But a stab in the heart of noir darkness suggests that while many Thais embrace the materialistic aspects of modern Western life, the spiritual and sacred side draws upon Thai myth, legends and customs, and remains resistant to the imported mythology structure of the West.  In the tension between the show of gold, the Benz, the foreign trips and designer clothes, and the underlying belief system creates an atmosphere that stretches people between opposite poles.  I like to thing of noir as the by-product of the contradictions and the delusions that condemn people to live without hope of resolving the contradictions.  No matter how hard they struggle, they can never break free.

Take a late night walk through some poor neighborhoods in Bangkok.  Hear the soi dogs howling as the angry ghosts launch themselves through the night, and observe that modern possessions don't stop the owners from making offerings to such spirits.  In the slums life is short and cheap, and it's a tough life filled with uncertainty and doubt.  But noir isn't just about the poor or dispossessed.  The rich occupy their expensive condos and drive their luxury cars, sheltering inside the circles of influence and power, only they, too, like the poor, can find their world overturned by an accident of fate, stripping them of their safety and exposing them to terror and loss.

No one is going to provide a definition of "noir" that satisfies eeryone.  Critics and writers try to distinguish hard-boiled fiction from noir fiction.  Strip away the fancy stuff and it comes down to nothing more than this: the difference between hard-boiled and noir is the difference between hemorrhoids and cancer.  Hard-boiled stories make for uncomfortable reading, but you know somehow there's the possibility of hope at the end (no puns are allowed in noir).  Noir is black in the way certain death is black.  No redemption, no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel.

Tough guys, players, losers, the tormented and lost souls all appear in Bangkok Noir.  But the heart of Bangkok Noir is the existential doubts that haunt the characters.  Many of them are expatriates washed up like pilot whales on the shore, thinking that someone is going to save them.  Instead they get rolled over, sliced up and processed as another part of the food chain.  The heat, the corruption, the lies and double crosses, the bars and the short-time hotels conspire to lull, entrap, encircle and finish off anyone who betrays the system.

In Bangkok there is an old trail that leads through a thicket of historical noir cases told by Thai storytellers of the past.  Books and TV shows have created a mini-industry around the likes of See Ouey, the Chinese-Thai cannibal executed in the 1950's for murdering a half a dozen young children.  His preserved body is exhibited like a ghoulish alien creature inside a see-through display case at the Forensic Museum.  Another noir celebrity is the ill-fated Jim Thompson, not the noir writer, but the American (rumored to be a CIA agent) who reintroduced silk-making into Thailand and who mysteriously disappeared on a walk in the Malaysian jungle.  His body was never found.

This anthology of contemporary stories weaves a pattern of intrigue and mystery where the living and the dead occupy the same space.  Crooked lawyers, crooked cops, transsexuals, minor wives, killers and ghosts take you along for a tour that unlocks the secret doors and invites you to enter into the space where Thais and foreigners work, live, play and die together.  The only mystery not uncovered by the writers in this collection is why it has taken so long for a volume of Bangkok Noir to appear.

Chrstopher G. Moore
February, 2011

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