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Sunday, April 13, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Siam's Greek Faulcon


FALCON: At the Court of Siam, by John Hoskin. Bangkok, Asia Books, 2002, 275 pp., 425 Baht (paper)

Constantine Phaulkon, a famous Greek adventurer of the 17th century, who had a meteoric rise in King Narai's Siam (former name of Thailand) and an equally dramatic end, seems to continue attracting the interest of historians and writers of various nationalities. The story is so appealing that it can be, and has been, told from many angles -- with negative bias, with hagiographic exaggerations or with a concern for objectivity.

The most recent entry is the 275-page book "Falcon" by John Hoskin, published in Bangkok by Asia Books. Unlike many other writers, Hoskin's approach to Phaulkon's rise from an ordinary Greek man to King Narai's favorite courtier achieves something original and different.

Hoskins' sources that are given due acknowledgment at the end of the book are worthy of scrutiny, as works of this nature are bound to reflect the merits or demerits of their basic sources. In "Falcon" we find no fault with what is mentioned but perhaps with what is left out.

There is no mention, for instance, of the first biography of Phaulkon by William Dalton (1862), which romanticized in the spirit of that time but offered a pretty close analysis of the hero's complex personality from the psychological point of view. There is no mention of the series of earlier French writers or the later Siamese, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Greek writers -- all have dealt with the topic, even if sometimes within a larger context. There is also no mention of the existence of a similar account of Phaulkon by Axel Aylwen (1988), which in two volumes constitutes a vivid and captivating romanticized biography. The impression is that Hoskin's work draws from a limited amount of sources, something rather questionable for an author who sets out to write more history than romantic biography.

Despite the above, Hoskin's text itself is quite smooth, balanced and not too far from what are generally perceived as true portraits of the personalities involved in Phaulkon's story. We should also praise Hoskin's innovative use of alternating brief "historical" chapters with equally brief sections where Phaulkon himself becomes the narrator. "Narrative and fictionalized journal," we are told, are the means to convey the character of the hero and the pulse of his times.

Unfortunately, although the concept is praiseworthy, the hero's voice lacks the expected vibrancy. It resonates as the continuation of the correct, but flat historical exposes of the writer himself, making it become a narrative in the first person singular.

With such a structure, one wonders how much Hoskin is experimenting with history and how much with romanticized biography. We may interpret the attempt as a hybrid between the two: correct history but deprived of the vividness of an inspired biographical talent. Dialogues are also not only limited, but lifeless.

Consequently, the final impression of Hoskins is a biographer who is constrained by historical material. His concern not to depart from it, prevents his work from breathing with emotion and vibrancy. The outcome is a pleasant historic narrative which inspires mainly through the dynamics of its own theme and less through what the author himself achieves to bring forth.

Despite all these remarks, "Falcon" can be added positively to the ever-increasing bibliography on Phaulkon. It can be considered as a good introduction to the remarkable Greek hero, as it stays a balanced course, avoiding unlimited praise and biased vilifications of the man (the latter, a phenomenon among some researchers who contemptuously loathe the triumphs of "the Greek").

George Sioris, a former ambassador of Greece to Japan, is president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan. He is affiliated with several academic institutions in Japan and elsewhere in Asia and is a contributing adviser to The Japan Times.


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