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Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2000

Captivating fragments of Southeast Asia

THE TRUTH ABOUT ANNA . . . and Other Stories, by William Warren. Archipelago Press, Singapore, 2000, 224 pp., unpriced.

Most of these essays by William Warren, who has lived in Bangkok for 40 years, concern aspects of life in Thailand, about which the author has written copiously. There are also glimpses of other countries in the region.

Warren begins with a demolition of Anna Leonowens, the heroine of the book and then the film "Anna and the King of Siam" and the hugely successful musical "The King and I," which to the displeasure of the Thais has recently been remade as a film.

The Thais revere King Mongkut (the monarch in "Anna"), who reigned from 1851 until 1868 and put Thailand on the path toward modernization. It seems that Anna's history was inaccurate.

In many ways, she was a fraud, inventing myths about her own background and fabrications about the king, whom she presented in her book, "The Romance of the Haren," as a sadistic, lustful tyrant.

In "The Romance of Asian Travel," Warren gives flash impressions of the cities in the region: "Even Tokyo," he writes, "that sprawling phoenix of a city that has risen again and again from fire and earthquake never fails to delight us with the odd juxtapositions: the garish pachinko parlors next to lantern-lit courtyards, the kimono-clad ladies in the supermarkets, the television set on the tatami mat."

"Murder on the Verandah" treats the true murder on which Somerset Maugham based his story "The Letter." Those in Kuala Lumpur who were acquainted with the facts knew that Maugham had culled the events from the defendant's counsel with whom he had stayed, and were furious with him. They felt he'd let down the British community in Malaya.

There is an amusing description of Warren's introduction to Thai soup laced with chilies, and another of him trying stewed cobra preceded by a "cocktail" of the snake's blood and bile marinated in warm rice wine. He takes one sip and one spoonful of the stew. He remarks, "cobra meat tastes hot and slightly fishy."

"A Laotian Interlude" describes the situation in Vientiane in 1969, when the Pathet Lao (communist) forces were in control of the eastern half on the country, while the government army controlled the west. Warren dines with a British diplomat, who allows deer to stroll into his drawing-room and to nibble at pre-prandial tidbits.

Life in the Laotian capital was surprisingly carefree; the civil war seemed remote; it would suddenly flare up and die down again while the politicians engaged in meaningless deliberations.

The two essays on the "mad charm" of Bangkok are entertaining. Warren agrees that Bangkok is not a lovely city, but it has attractions that some deplore and others find irresistible.

This book is a joy. After reading it one can understand why Warren has been captivated by Thailand, the Thais and the region, and remains so in spite of the inevitable changes, not all of them beneficial, that have occurred over the years.

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