Thursday, March 16, 2017

Behind the Painting and Other Stories by Siburapha, translated by David Smyth

Behind the Painting and Other Stories
Siburapha (Kulap Saipradit), 1905-1974
Translated by David Smyth (Thai)
Translation first published 1995, I read 2000 Silkworm edition
160 pages, psychological drama, romance, plight of the poor

Many thanks to Silkworm Books for providing a review copy of this book. 

Behind the Painting is Siburapha’s most acclaimed novel, a tale of the repressed romantic feelings between a young Thai student studying in Japan and an older, married Thai woman on holiday there. According to the introduction, this novel is the best example of  Siburapha’s early writing: romantic stories based on the upper classes of Thai society during the interwar period.

His later stories, however, draw upon his Communist politics to portray the plight of the poor and working classes. The three short stories in this collection provide a sample of his later work, which contrasts with the novel in almost every way. Because of these differences, I will review the novel and the stories individually.

Behind the Painting (serialized 1937-1938)

When an elderly member of the Thai nobility contacts him, the young Thai student Nopphon agrees to arrange their travels in Japan, where he is studying. The elderly man is accompanied by his younger wife, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and Nopphon’s quick friendship with her soon blossoms into love. When he reveals this to her, she refuses to respond in kind and requests that he hide his feelings. However, it is evident that her actions are bound by her difficult circumstances - and therein lies the essential tragedy of this short novel.

There are several important cultural insights that can be gleaned from this beautifully written novel. First, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is stuck between a rock and a hard place: she feels like she must preserve her looks to be liked in the society; at the same time, she is prevented from going out into society because of her rank as a member of the nobility. At this time, nobles were required to act in specified ways that marked their difference from the peasantry - they were not allowed to pursue certain careers, interact with certain lower-class people, travel to certain places or in certain ways, and so on. (I will discuss this further in my forthcoming review of Many Lives by Kukrit Pramoj.) These restrictions and enforced isolation from society prevent her from living as she desires, and prevent her from even looking for love. This leads her to agree to marry a man who is significantly older than her, whom she does not love and who does not love her.