The title in Thai is a play on words: Mueang Tai Thao is literally ‘The city underfoot’, but Tai Thao means ‘Your Highness’, ‘Your Honour’, and gives a different, and very apposite, twist to the title. The English title also on the cover, Mission Underground, is no match, and quite misleading.
The novel was a finalist for the 2006 Nai In Award but was only published in March last year, by Praew Publishing.
As is fashionable these days, I must declare an interest: the author, Chaigon Hanfaifa, worked for wanakam.com a few years back as a contributing translator from the English. Hello, Anthakarn! We met a couple of times. He gave me a copy of an early collection of short stories of his, Under Construction, of which two seemed to me quite good. I also read, and didn’t quite like, his first, gauche novel, Anthakarn.
In town, thirtyish Khun Chaigon is a professional architect – and, as a writer, finds his themes or backgrounds in architecture under its many forms and practices. He also has a pastime beyond his literary vocation: photography.
This novel I bought at the end of last year (for its catchy cover and feel-good craftsmanship and, yes, because of the author’s name too), but it’s only in the past two weeks that I’ve been able to read it by nightly instalments that have really messed up my sleeping pattern. A gripping yarn, then, although I was at first taken aback by his mixing lots of English sand with his no-nonsense Thai cement – a painful read, given the unavoidably awkward transliterations.
In just pages 10 and 11, we have joystick, pointer, dropdown menu, click, replay, computer, Smart Simulator program, graphic, sci-fi, jackpot, computer work station, program, mouse, pointer, click, Google Earth website, UTM, click, zoom, scale – and more on the next pages.
My first thought was, Oh, translating this will be a lark!
Then I wished someone would write a thesis about Thai literature’s current schizophrenia, that has to jump into another language to make sense; but then, it isn’t just the literature that is infected: the whole urban modern-day professional world has to make do with concepts way beyond the earthly experience of generations.
Let’s say that Chaigon is laying it on a bit thick on purpose, and in this way claiming status as the modern Mai Mueang Derm or Manat Jan-yong of cyber-age.
But to the story.
It preludes with a zest of sci-fi: a meteorite is due to strike the earth somewhere in Thailand, promising Armageddon within a few years. The honourable professor who reveals this to Prime Minister Wasan soon has to go into hiding abroad, fearing for his life. Why?
The real start is a horrid accident two years later: an underground train goes off the rails in the heart of Bangkok. Among the wounded is the wife of the man in charge of the underground structure. What went wrong?
How these two elements come to match will take the whole novel to figure out.
Short chapters keep shifting between the main protagonists, and as often as not end on cliff-hangers: the unofficial meteor watchers; the inquiry into the underground disaster; the team of dedicated TV reporters tackling head on the by-now former Prime minister and his underhanded tactics; and then the whole network of clandestine ‘safe houses’ of Safe City growing underfoot.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the novel is the fun the author is having with the powers that be of today’s Thailand. Imagine – just imagine, okay? – that still very much influential former prime minister Wasan is none other than Thaksin, complete with his wondrous if shady background, but a transmogrified Thaksin, in this that he has somehow inherited the ageing features of General Prem, but a General Prem with a thirty-year-old politician son (or are the models Nai Chai and son Newin?), and, without red or yellow or blue or pink shirts, you have a prescient novel in your hands that many a knowledgeable watcher of Thai politics will want to read and laugh out loud with.
Of course, the gist of the plot is not hard to guess once the main actors are in house, nor is the outcome very much in doubt. The main characters could have been better fleshed out, their world made more convincing with less black or white.
One thing is sure, though: from now on, readers of Mueang Tai Thao, whenever they venture near the Cultural Centre, will be sounding the pavement for hollows underfoot, not to say forsaking the MRT altogether.