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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1999

Thailand's hard journey into modernity

FOUR REIGNS, by Kukrit Pramoj, English version by Ms. Tulachandra. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1996, 663 pp.

Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995), politician, writer, classical dancer and film actor ("The Ugly American") wrote this book in 1953. The first English translation appeared in 1981.

In the preface, Kukrit writes, "It is a novel of a life my ancestors and myself have lived rather fully." He was anxious to preserve a record of the Thai traditional way of life.

The story begins in the reign of Rama V (1868-1910) -- better known as King Chulalongkorn -- and closes in 1946 at the death of Rama VIII, Ananda Mahidol, brother of the present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX).

Phloi, the protagonist, is the daughter of a wealthy nobleman, who inhabits a large compound of dwellings designed for himself and his entourage. In 1892, at the age of 10, Phloi is sent to the Grand Palace to serve in the inner court, an enclosure for women presided over by Princess Sadet, the king's sister.

Life in the inner court is a series of traditional ceremonies and customs. One of Phloi's duties is to follow the princess carrying her betel-nut box.

After a failed love affair, Phloi marries a rich landowner and lives in style. She deeply reveres the king. Seeing his majesty, "she felt an upsurge of joy and an overwhelming sense of awe." She is a simple soul, beautiful but artless, only educated in court etiquette.

Her two sons, An and Ot, are sent to school in Europe, while her stepson, On, joins the army. Her daughter stays home until she marries a greedy racketeer. Her elder brother is a wastrel, her younger one is content with a minor job in the government.

Kukrit allows his female characters to indulge in long conversations. This is a weakness and holds up the story, which meanders until outside events shake it into action.

One of these is World War I, when Thailand joins the Allies; another is a plot to overthrow the king; and a third, in October 1933, is a threat of civil war. The king, who has agreed to a constitution, abdicates and flees as the military does not want democracy. A 10-year-old prince, Ananda Mahidol, ascends the throne but stays at school in Switzerland.

The slow insinuation of Western influence, insidious, perhaps baneful, is well described.

Prem, Phloi's husband, gives up chewing betel nut and smokes "farang" (Western) cigarettes and drinks whiskey. Phloi abandons the betel, cleans her teeth and lets her hair grow. Prem buys a car and has a Malay driver. He becomes an important government official, as does his eldest son, An. Ot, the second son, stays at home after his return from Europe, and On, the stepson, is imprisoned for being on the king's side in the civil war.

World War II breaks out, Thailand is occupied by the Japanese and declares war on the Allies.

Throughout the story, Phloi sheds many tears: tears of grief over the deaths of her husband, her aunt, her sister and over Ot; tears of joy when An, after her complaining that she has no grandchildren, takes her to see his secret wife and two offspring, and when On is released and becomes a monk.

The king returns from Switzerland and is greeted with wild enthusiasm, but a few months later he dies mysteriously and is succeeded by his brother, the present king. Shortly afterward, Phloi dies.

With this work, Kukrit Pramoj, himself an aristocrat, provided a valuable chapter in the history of Thailand.

The story traces with authority the gradual and sometimes turbulent journey of the country into the modern era.

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