Monday, September 08, 1997

Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow

It is not surprising that I want to talk to you again this morning about a coming of age novel, but it is surprising that this one was written by a man. Generally, I find an almost unbelievable emotional flatness in men’s accounts of their growing up. Indeed, I was amazed at the stir caused by Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life, and though I agreed that it was much better than most autobiographical accounts of young men coming of age, meaning that it did have some attempt at emotional introspection and honesty, it seemed emotionally monotone; there have been dozens of much more emotionally intelligent coming of age novels written by women.

At any rate, today I want to talk to you about a wonderfully rich and entertaining novel by a man whom I am almost sure most of you will not have heard of; his name is S.P. Somtow, and the book to which I am referring is Jasmine Nights. One reviewer called Somtow the J.D. Salinger of Siam, but in my opinion Catcher in the Rye is a pale reflection of the honesty and intelligence displayed in this book. The book is about a twelve year old Thai boy, but one who has had a most unusual past. Though the book takes up with him in Thailand, in the care of three aunts, a great-great-grandmother and an old uncle, he speaks no Thai and at least pretends not to understand a word of his ‘native’ tongue. One has to read deep into the book to discover that his parents, either official or unofficial diplomats, have raised him in England and are now mysteriously abroad. The boy lives on a large and deteriorating estate surrounded by servants and his incredibly lazy aunts. Let me have him introduce himself:

It is January of the year 1963 and I am a creature of two worlds. In one of these worlds I am a child. The world is circumscribed by high stucco walls topped with broken glass. By day the sun streams down and the mangoes glisten in the orchard behind the blue Gothic mansion with its faux Corinthian columns, the houses of my three grandmothers and of our familial patriarch. Evenings, the jasmine bushes bloom, and the night air sweats the choking sensuality of their fragrance. Three other houses stand on the estate: my bachelor uncle’s, uncompromisingly Californian in its split-level ranch style and adobe brick walls; the wooden house of my three maiden aunts, whom I call the three Fates, with its pointed eaves, backing out on to a pavilion above the pond, where I live among intimate strangers; and last, the ruined house, which is the entrance to my other world.

In my other world I am not a child. I am what I choose to be. I speak the language of the wind. I have synthesized this world out of images in history books and story books and books of poetry and from half-remembered scenes of England. There is a room with as many books as there are stars. There is an attic where I have fought the Trojan War a thousand times over, fine-tuning the outcome with my fellow Olympians. There are more rooms in the ruined house than I have ever counted. I have lived inside the walled universe for almost three years. Travel in and out of the universe is accomplished by means of a silver-green Studebaker driven by a man in a khaki uniform, whose name I have still not learned. I am an alien here. I sweat like a pig all the time. I forget to bathe. I have never uttered a word of the language; my tongue will not form the words, even though over the years I have begun to grasp their meaning. My numerous relations do not know I understand them, and they address me in a stilted Victorian English which I refer to as ‘eaughing’, since it so frequently makes use of the phoneme ‘eaugh’. Some of the servants have begun to realize I am not deaf; they regard my refusal to speak Thai as an eccentricity, one of the many inscrutabilities of the privileged. They call me Master Little Frog.

This remarkable boy narrates his own story in a high-blown British English that is sophisticated and erudite almost beyond belief, and yet he is very believable. In an incredibly clever manner, Somtow allows us as readers to discover along with this boy the horrible injustices of class and the laughable incompetence of those served compared to those who serve them. The only good and enlightened character among this useless aristocracy is his ancient great-great-grandmother, and though she is almost always offstage, it is through her skillful maneuvering that the boy comes to see his own privilege and the damage it can (and does) do to those around him. First, she engineers a meeting with a black american boy who is trespassing on the estate and who has befriended Piak, a lowly servant boy who acts essentially as footstool to Master Little Frog. Justin, Little Frog, discovers that in order to be friends with this mysterious “colored” boy, Virgil, (the first black person he has seen) he must befriend and treat as an equal Piak also. Virgil, whose father (like Justin’s parents) is always mysteriously away, a high-ranking military officer off on a secret mission—this Virgil insists on educating Justin to the racism he has learned at home in the U.S., and to point out unfailingly just how Justin’s supercilious treatment of Piak is an instance of a classism intimately related to racism. And indeed, even a minor altercation between Piak and Justin leads to the firing not only of poor Piak, but of his father as well while all Justin can do is watch in horror the consequences of his own actions. Virgil’s mother, an educated and wise social scientist, extends Justin’s education, but in a much kinder and more tolerant manner than her angry and resentful son. And Virgil’s sister, older than the boys by a few years, begins to educate him also to the sweet labyrinths of sexuality.

The three boys together go through a set of deliciously wonderful and forbidden adventures, allowing Justin to see the dark side of his city, to see the poverty that is the flip-side of his privilege, and to catch glimpses of the powers of the local Shaman. I think that we as a culture, alarmed at the way that young people are often victims of adult sexuality, tend in reaction to deny the sexuality of the young. This book, on the contrary, is a richly sensuous and amusing glimpse at just how powerful and mysterious sex is for adolescents. Not only did I love reading it, but I was reminded again and again of my own growing up and of the innocent but richly exciting intimations of sexuality that adolescence can hold.

I will not be giving away too much if I tell you that Virgil’s absent military father and Justin’s absent diplomat parents are both caught up in the early stages of the Vietnam War, perhaps I should say in the American intrusion into a colonial war that had been waged for some time before America’s brutal and fiery intervention. Always, however, even in the discussion of Virgil’s father’s advisory status in Vietnam, Somtow manages to view everything through the eyes of the twelve year old Justin—who is both incredibly sophisticated for his age and laughably naive.

I found this book to be one of the most delightful I read last summer, and by far the best of its kind written by a man that I have read in a decade or more. The book’s cover tells us that this book is a radical departure for Somtow whose previous work has included avant-garde musical compositions and genre novels, along with a punk version of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream. It is as fine a dance between two cultures and as insightful and subtle a condemnation of racism and classism as I have read. I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. I must add that although only published in ‘95, this book may be out of print. Look for it at Powell’s, and/or complain to St. Martin’s Press. [Amazon Link] [Alibris Link]

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite all time books. It's a magical story, thoughtful and fun.