All off the books in John Burdett’s four- part detective series set in Thailand and featuring the Buddhist detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep are fascinating reads. Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts and the Godfather of Kathmandu are an unusual blend of detective thriller, Buddhist meditation, and love affair with Thailand. The rich characters and lurid plot twist entwine with astute cultural analysis of both The west and The East, Grace and brutality co-exist with equal force, because, frankly, that is the truth of this life. Burdett’s Novels have the extremely rare effect of being writing of the very highest order, resonating with pop culture, and being rollicking good yarns. I asked him many questions regarding the spiritual influence and impetus behind his characters, purposely from a “western “ perspective to gain some insight into the mind and character of the protagonist/hero Sonchai. The latest novel “The Godfather of Kathmandu” takes the surgical exploration of the spiritual “conflict” between perceived Eastern and Western values to an even weirder place, with a sort of “unholy” guru or holy man as a central character. This character brings Sonchai’s quest for righteousness and enlightenment into stark relief against his elemental humanity in a way that is a perfect culmination to this series. If you have not read the books and you love great stories featuring characters of emotional depth and resonance, Read these books. Enough said. Burdett’s careful, revealing and surprising portrayals of Thai Prostitutes goes against type concerning the examination of prostitution in any culture, and gives one pause concerning the clichéd manner in which we process this avenue of human commerce.
PH John, the character of Sonchai Jitpleecheep might be described as a conflicted one, by some, but you have painted a picture of a man who is so integrated and embracing of his path, his process, that the word seems ill-suited to his state. What, or who was the inspiration for the creation of this strong character?
JB I think the manner in which we represent ourselves in the modern Western tradition is quite misleading. Family entertainment has created the illusion that there is a “non-conflicted norm” of human beings and the conflicted ones must be therefore different. During a legal career that spanned the spectrum of societies in the U.K. and Hong Kong, I have concluded that the only non-conflicted human beings are those born without a capacity for thought. Nevertheless, people find paths in life and often pursue them to a satisfactory end, worrying, lamenting, fearing and often laughing on the way. To me, this is what is heroic about our species. Sonchai is a kind of Everyman.
PH I share your love for Thailand, and Bangkok is a character in all four of your Jitpleecheep novels. It’s visceral presence and grimy beauty is an ever-present harmony to the physical characters. Please tell me about your obvious love affair with the city. How did it start? Will it ever end?
JB I think you are referring to a kind of Asian magic many of us feel who have spent time in the East. I first experienced it in Hong Kong, a sense that the underlying vitality of a city is much more important than what it looks like. We learn to put up with the impossible traffic, the pollution – and a lot of other things – because there is something that feeds us on a deeper level in these unplanned Oriental mega-cities. Bangkok has the added attraction of a Buddhist population and an ancient culture which is still very much alive.
PH It’s all too common for a certain type of westerner to idolize Buddhism and Buddhists. “Mindfulness” and “the breath” and “the present moment” have become part of a leftist-enlightened sub-cultural lexicon. You present a Buddhism that is smeared with flies and shit, as well as flowers. You touch the edges of a conflicted way that embraces the dichotomies inherent in say a Chogyam Trungpa. The character of Jitpleecheep’s Tibetan guru is reminiscent of this. Why have you made such an effort to show this humanized Buddhism not stripped of ego and yearning?
JB Once more you seem to imply a non-conflicted norm, I suppose represented by extraordinarily learned Western academics who have studied Sanskrit and can quote the Abhidharma word for word. There is a place for them in Buddhism, but they are not the real thing. Buddhism grew out of conflict, the agony of a truth-seeking genius who found himself born into a deluded species. The first Noble Truth is: There is suffering. Your Western converts often play this down and try to excuse it, which is to debase the teaching. Sonchai knows there is suffering, can see there is a way out, but he is no Buddha – he is a man like any other, who is aware of the competing demons of attraction and aversion that crowd his skull – and everyone else’s. He is a detective who often gets distracted by a quest for truth.
PH The series has been described as a detective series, but I see it as more of a type of spiritual quest, with Sonchai being drawn deeper into a confrontation with his spiritual limits in each successive novel. How would you describe the genre of the work?
JB I don’t know. I’ve often tried to find a buzz word or sound byte, but nothing seems to quite fit.
PH Colonel Vikorn seems to be a character that is equal parts Colonel Kurtz and Wallace Shawn….I know that is a strange juxtaposition, but that’s how he comes across to me. How did you come to visualize and actualize this bizarre, megalomaniacal, loyal, and utterly pragmatic character?
JB I think there were many influences, some of them Chinese, some of them men from Isaan. I think we Westerners have lost the sense of what it is like to struggle in a human jungle without resources or help. In Thailand I’ve met a great many people who have had to somehow find survival and dignity without the benefit of an education – using nothing but wits and ruthlessness, in fact. I realized that a person can be forced to fight to the death for survival, without necessarily losing all humanity. Once I allowed my mind to play on that for a while, Colonel Vikorn appeared.
PH Much has been said of your use of prostitution in your novels, as well as the sex trade in Thailand, which is much smaller that the one in the U.S. How do you answer those that say that your depiction of these rural Thai women is cartoonish, and possibly even misogynist?
JB I am not aware of the “cartoonish” criticism, and do not really see how it could apply. I more often have to answer the question from women readers: Are these women really as strong as you paint them? The answer is yes, by and large only the strongest women survive that way of life, in my experience. All I have done is show how they survive, accurate to the best of my knowledge. As for misogyny, I think anyone who thinks that must be reacting from some politically correct fantasy world. More perceptive readers have observed that I seem to adore women in general and Asian women in particular. Only a fanatic would see that as misogyny.
PH How do you fuel the process of writing? What and who inspires you? What past and modern writers do you appreciate?
JB I’m a fan of Greene and Cruz Smith in particular, but I read everything. I’m constantly adding to my Buddhist library, and I’m also constantly talking to bar girls and other Isaan immigrants. Somehow the whole thing just keeps cooking in my head.
PH Your novels seem to have at their center an ontological impetus. You are dissecting issues of being. Sonchai struggling with his racial/cultural bifurcation. Thailand acclimating to the world market culture while keeping it’s Buddhists roots, the women of Isaan adopting a role of generational provider via selling their bodies…..was this purposeful, or did it develop as you developed the stories and characterizations?
JB it does emerge from the Buddhist perspective to a degree, as I’ve suggested above. Certainly, with its emphasis on constant change Buddhism prepares the mind for reality and thereby makes us interested in issues our culture tends to brush under the carpet, but I think we are also talking about modern life which propels many of us to look for ontological answers. I certainly feel driven to look at the nature of being if only as a way of obtaining perspective on a deeply conflicted world.
PH How did you secure your first book deal? What is your experience inside the world of the business of being a writer?
JB it was pure luck.
PH There are some scenes in the novels that are extremely garish, comically macabre and well to me anyway, titillating. Pichai’s death is one of those scenes. How do you manufacture this strange stuff? Is there any basis in researched reality?
JB I am so tired of Hollywood-style representations of sex and violence, I find myself looking at radically different perspectives. I agree there is a certain taste for the weird, which I think originated in an innocent desire to find a fresh way of doing certain kinds of scenes. Then I realized that the macabre was a very common denominator amongst readers which was fun to explore.
PH There has been talk of a film treatment of Bangkok 8 for quite some time. Is this project going to happen?
JB The Bangkok books have been under option since the start, by various film companies. There are various difficulties, the most serious being finding an available star to play Sonchai. The search goes on.
PH “Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine — but let’s talk about it later,” This is the opening of “The Godfather of Kathmandu”. What is the forced psychosis of the Thai and the “farang” that you speak of?
JB As Louis Armstrong once replied to a similar question about jazz: If you have to ask you’ll never know.