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Sunday, March 14, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

The Siamese revolution through the eyes of an 'impartial' Jesuit


HISTORY OF SIAM IN 1688, by S.J. Marcel Le Blanc, translated and edited by Michael Smithies. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004, 212 pp., 625 baht (paper).

This volume is the most recent in the "Treasures from the Past" series published by Silkworm Books Co., a series that deserves credit for bringing to life many episodes of Southeast Asian history -- especially 17th-century Siam (now known as Thailand). Michael Smithies has done an important service for the English-speaking readership -- translating the original texts (generally in French), which themselves are difficult to find.

S.J. Marcel Le Blanc's testimony is particularly interesting and valuable, as he happened to be an eyewitness to the cataclysmic events of the 1688 Revolution in Siam and its aftermath. As a Jesuit invited by King Narai to promote the study of mathematics and astrology, he, of course, sees through Jesuit lenses, but was not so much directly involved in the unfolding of the drama as some of his colleagues were.

The back cover of this edition questions Le Blanc's impartiality: It objects to his expression of horror at the overthrow of King Narai and finds Le Blanc nurturing some contempt regarding the other group of Catholics in Siam at the time, namely the French missionaries. Nevertheless, at the end, it recognizes that Le Blanc's narrative is an "important historical document."

Indeed, particularly in the case of Narai, the feelings of Le Blanc seem amply justified. In the chronicles of Siamese royalty, Narai is recognized as having been one of the ablest and wisest rulers with more foresight than others. His immediate successors, usurpers themselves, paled in comparison.

From the very first page, Le Blanc assures us of his position as a "disinterested person" and of his presence at all that he relates. His style is easy to follow, and the reader gets the impression that the description of events, conversations and situations is accurate and adequately documented. His way of expression is simple, straightforward, informed, balanced and deprived of a deep personal agenda.

Of course, when it comes to the description of the role of Buddhist monkhood -- the Talapoins -- the Jesuit succumbs to all the arrogance and misconceptions of many other Christian missionaries across time and shows an inability to understand an exotic religion full of extravagances. But this was then the general trend, and Le Blanc's interpretations do not affect his credibility otherwise.

Any skepticism regarding this present edition is therefore not related to the Jesuit author but to his modern editor. Although the translation itself is not questioned, the editorial and commentarial approach could be.

For example, even at the beginning of his short introduction, Smithies reiterates his loathing for Mr. Constance, the adventurer known as Phaulkon, calling him a "Levantine arriviste." This criticism of Phaulkon, something that Smithies is well known for among the scholarly community in Thailand, is a standard position taken by Constance's detractors -- of which there have been many indeed through the ages. The truth is not so monolithic; nothing can be merely black or white in the appraisal of such a dynamic and controversial personality. Phaulkon inspired both enmity and hagiography.

Both characteristics, "Levantine" and "arriviste," may also be questioned. Levantine is used here in an implicit deprecating undertone: Phaulkon was in fact half Greek, half Italian and, anyway, raised from the tender age of around 12 against the British background of the East India Company. As for arriviste -- this describes an adventurer typical of many other Europeans of his time, mostly British, who prospered in Asia after gaining the trust of local potentates.

Smithies marvels at why Le Blanc did not specifically name Phaulkon's "nation," and he clarifies in a footnote that the adventurer was "a Greek from the island of Cephalonia." This is at least a welcome step in historical understanding on the editor's part as he, in a different text some time ago, had questioned the "greekness" of the Hellenic geographical space that was under a foreign yoke. "Greece was but a geographical expression in the seventeenth century," Smithies claimed in the Bangkok Post, Sept. 1, 1999.

When Le Blanc confirms Phaulkon's eagerness to attend Mass and to find time for devotional readings, Smithies is quick to dismiss it: "Le Blanc is anxious to show a saintly side in Phaulkon which was far from reality." Yet no one has claimed that the minister was a saint, and some religious yearnings cannot be automatically dismissed, even among adventurers. From the reader's perspective, who carries more weight -- today's biased editor or an eyewitness who preceded him by 300 years?

Relations between Phaulkon and his wife may have been, as Smithies writes in a footnote, "less than smooth" (despite Le Blanc's opposite assertion), but this is not worthy of the vivisection Smithies gives it as it is historically irrelevant.

Smithies invites readers seeking further bibliographical sources to consult D. van der Cruysses' work "Siam and the West," translated into English by Smithies. This lengthy study contains a lot of bibliographical materials, but it is not the only such source.

Having raised the above objections, I am of course respectful of the right of any editor to question the veracity of the author he presents. Translating and annotating an author does not mean that an editor automatically owes total intellectual allegiance.

In this case, however, remarks refer to preconceived personal verdicts concerning some of the main protagonists of the drama and the author as well. Readers interested in this type of narrative should hear the voice of an authentic eyewitness of the time rather than a present-day subjective interpretation. The whole chapter of 1688 is so full of controversies and so lacking in firsthand Siamese sources that the reader is doomed to navigate through the available evidence of various conflicting Western voices. The reader should hear them, one by one, and be able to ponder on their messages to draw self-conclusions. The complexity of the issues points to the need to seek some stable middle ground.

Modern editors of similar texts have to view them not only through philological, but also historical lenses. And a historian's first quality is, obviously, impartiality.

George Sioris is a former ambassador of Greece to India, Thailand and Japan, is a contributing adviser to The Japan Times.


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