Interview With the Author

The Naga’s Journey

A Novel

by
Tew Bunnag

2007. 270 pp., 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-102-4 $16.95
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-102-2




CHRONICLE OF A FLOOD FORETOLD

Interviewed by Ezra Kyrill Erker
(Bangkok Post 04 December 2011)


A novel published in 2007 predicted the Bangkok floods with startling detail and accuracy. ‘Brunch’ tracked down its author, Tew Bunnag, to ask how the disaster could have been averted and what’s next for the capital as it begins to rebuild

   According to the official reports, the level of sea water was going to be at its highest on October 14th. From the beginning of the month the atmosphere in the city was tense and the talk was of nothing else. Despite the continuing reassurances from the authorities, which seemed increasingly irrelevant, many of the inhabitants living on the banks of the main river and along the canals were already piling up sandbags and unblocking whatever drainage system they had. In the stores and markets people were noticeably buying more tin food and other essentials than they could store. Bottled drinking water was already running out. The airport and the bus stations were crowded with those who had decided to leave; the rich to Europe or Australia for a family holiday and the poor to their villages. But most of the inhabitants of Bangkok had no choice but to wait for what now looked like an inevitable disaster. Much of Ayutthaya was already under a metre and there was no sign that the tactic to deviate the flow would work that year.

According to the official reports, the level of sea water was going to be at its highest on October 14th. From the beginning of the month the atmosphere in the city was tense and the talk was of nothing else. Despite the continuing reassurances from the authorities, which seemed increasingly irrelevant, many of the inhabitants living on the banks of the main river and along the canals were already piling up sandbags and unblocking whatever drainage system they had. In the stores and markets people were noticeably buying more tin food and other essentials than they could store. Bottled drinking water was already running out. The airport and the bus stations were crowded with those who had decided to leave; the rich to Europe or Australia for a family holiday and the poor to their villages. But most of the inhabitants of Bangkok had no choice but to wait for what now looked like an inevitable disaster. Much of Ayutthaya was already under a metre and there was no sign that the tactic to deviate the flow would work that year.

   This is an excerpt from Tew Bunnag’s novel The Naga’s Journey, published in 2007. With startling detail and prescience, the narrative goes on to describe the flood as it moves into the city, government impotence to avert it and the tactics of residents to survive it in scenes that could have been first-person accounts of how the drama has unfolded in Bangkok over the past two months.
   The flooding of the capital serves as a backdrop for the interweaving stories of three protagonists—a washed-up actress whose origins and rise to fame involved a carefully fabricated lie; a once-reckless youth, protected by his status, who turned spiritual; and a disillusioned artist.
   Their lives are connected through their common tie to a gangster and massage-parlour tycoon, but the stories move as if along the back of the naga, the sometimes-serpentine, often-ambiguous water force that can be benign or malevolent but unleashes its vengeance over the last few chapters.
   The author comes from one of Thailand’s most prominent and influential families. Tew studied at Cambridge University and in 1975 he helped establish a spiritual therapeutic centre outside Cambridge that combined Eastern and Western approaches.
   In Bangkok he has worked at an Aids hospice in Klong Toey, and has written several books on tai chi ch’uan and meditation, as well as two short story collections, After the Wave and Fragile Days.
   Brunch tracked down Tew, currently living near Barcelona in Spain, to ask about the warnings in The Naga’s Journey, and if there is still hope for Bangkok.

Why do you write in English rather than Thai—how do the languages compare?

Thai is a wonderful language with which to tell stories verbally. It is for speaking and sharing directly because it has a playful richness in the way that you can rhyme not just with the syllables but also with the tones and you can say two seemingly contradictory things in the same sentence and still appear to make sense. On the other hand I find that it doesn’t really work for me as a literary language. To take a simple example, English along with other European languages has the past conditional tense, which allows you to explore what might have been. Literary Thai does not do this very well.

Where do you live now, and what are you working on?

In the past few years I have been spending most of the year in Spain, the reason being that I have a family there and a 16 year old to drive to school every morning. I still manage to be in Bangkok for up to four months a year. I wish it could be a little more. I have finished a novel recently called Curtain of Rain, about Bangkok again. But my next novel will be set in Europe.

What is the naga’s journey, and why did it turn destructive? How should we approach it?

For me, the naga is the spirit of the water element, the power of nature that we cannot tame. It also represents the underlying spiritual forces that are embedded not only in Thailand but the whole of Southeast Asia. Its journey is mysterious and unpredictable. As well as being life-giving, it is always potentially destructive. We should approach it with deep respect, which we have not done. Instead through ignorance and greed we have polluted our rivers, the canals in our cities, the sea. It is a desecration that has been destroying our lifeblood.

Did you write the book with that moral message in mind?

If you mean was I trying to give out some moral message, then no. I try to avoid being didactic. But of course the book, as with most of what I write, has to do with morality. What is a good way to live in our confusing times? How do you maintain your integrity in a corrupt environment? How do we find redemption after doing something harmful? And so on. I chose to deal with these issues through fiction because it allows me to stay with the questions, rather than trying to dish out the answers.

Did you base the characters on real people? They seem very vivid and true to life—even the massage parlour tycoon seems familiar.

They’re all based on real people, but not on any one in particular. I might put several people together, or combine stories I’ve come across. That’s the way writers do it in general, isn’t it? The challenge is then to make the characters authentic. But yes, there are also specific people I’ve referred to in my writing. Fortunately my books aren’t read very widely so the models for my characters don’t get offended, simply because they’ve not come across themselves in print. Besides, they might choose not to recognise themselves if they did.

There have been flood warnings for years, but there has been a marked lack of preparation. Rainfall was some 40% higher than normal this rainy season—any higher and the scenes you describe, of torrents of water sweeping people away and 15,000 people drowning, would have been realised.

I am glad that the scenario I described in Naga’s Journey did not play out in that dramatic way. Still I think the consequences are going to last for some time to come. To say that the cause was the higher than usual rainfall is only part of the answer. We should also look to the destruction of the environment, the disappearance of the forests and the natural water tables, the mindless construction in Bangkok, the usefulness or not of the dams system.
   I don’t want to be a prophet of doom but there does seem to be something drastic happening to our global environment. Thailand is not exempt. I think there are many other aspects that have been revealed by this year’s disaster; unpreparedness is one of them. And I don’t think that saving Bangkok’s inner city at the expense of the rest of the city will go down well next time round.

How do we rebuild and protect the capital, built on a mangrove swamp, from floods?

I tend to agree with an idea that’s being floated around… of moving the capital, perhaps to Nakhon Nayok. Bangkok, as it is, frightens me. We’ve seen how dysfunctional it’s been for the past three decades. We know that it is sinking and that the population of the city has risen rapidly with no infrastructure to accommodate it. We can see every day that there is not enough road space for the new cars. What else do we need to know before common sense tells us it is no longer a sustainable environment? When I’m in Bangkok I spend a lot of time in Klong Toey where I work. Forget the floods. After 10 minutes of rain the black water seeps up through the sewers and into the lanes and people’s houses. The old waterways became blocked up long ago. Once it was a place built on mangrove swamp. Now it’s a city that’s sitting on stagnant filth that is deadly. There’s an epidemic waiting to explode, flood or no flood.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic by nature? How do we address the moral degeneracy the book highlights, such as official corruption?

One of the things my mother used to say was: ‘Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.’ I’ve gone along with that all my life. I guess that either makes me a cautious optimist or an expectant pessimist. I think the only way to address the moral degeneracy as you put it, is in our personal and professional lives, to try to put into practice what we know is right, to try to hold onto our integrity and to dare speak up to be guided by common good rather than personal profit.

Does a lack of spirituality compound problems?

I think that the problems in modern Thai society are rooted certainly in the way that material values have come to dominate—with them greed, the obsession to accumulate and so on. I don’t see a lack of spirituality as such—there are still a lot of people going to temples, praying and practising meditation. But what disturbs me is that the spirituality is so tainted nowadays again by those same materialistic ambitions. So people go to the temple to pray for a lottery number or for some kind of material gain. But there is still plenty of goodness and genuine kindness to go round. During these floods there have been many moments of generosity and sacrifice. I saw the same thing in the South after the tsunami. Disasters often bring out the best, though of course they can also bring out the worst. I witness basic kindness every day when I am in Klong Toey, among the poorest in Bangkok, and it always inspires me. So I think that it’s a matter of nourishing those life-enhancing values and at the same time seeing the beauty in living by them. For me it’s a question of going through these complicated times to a new, simpler spirituality which is about celebrating our small place in the sacred scheme of things. All that materialism, the hankering after things that don’t make us any happier, is such a headache in the end.

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