This is the story of a young man who took as his wife a widow who was slightly deranged. (The story would probably have ended there had the widow not been his father’s wife.) And as the affair happened to take place in a small community, it grew into a major scandal which shook the morals of nearly everyone in the village and set one and all gossiping and passing judgment on the basis of whatever opinion each had formed about this abnormal relationship.
Rumor had it that, less than a month after his father died Fak had taken his stepmother as his wife. Some went so far as to claim that the two of them had cuckolded Old Foo even before his body had been laid to rest in his coffin.
This extract from the beginning of the Prologue is a good summary of the premise of this novel. It is a relationship considered scandalous and provokes the very mean treatment dealt out in the narrow-minded world of a village. The judgement of the title is that of the kangaroo court of public opinion. “The Widow Somsong” turns out to be a slightly mentally retarded Mrs Robinson to the weak but good Pak, who is like a leaf blown around by those around him. Korbjitti is a great writer and brilliantly captures the claustrophobic dictatorship of the commons. In the person of the villagers he is so cruel to his protagonist that I felt almost physical pain for him.
Many thanks to my friend Por for introducing me to this powerful book.
Chart Korbjitti: The Judgment, translated from the Thai by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-Kit & Marcel Barang, Howling Books, Nakhon Rachasima, 2007, ISBN 974-91491-5-7
(First published in Thai 1981).
If you would like a longer but lighter and more pleasant read from Thailand, try:
Four Reigns = สี่แผ่นดิน (Si Phaendin) by Kukrit Pramoj
Former Prime Minister Pramoj wrote this historical novel much loved by the Thais. It follows the lives of Phloi (who became a role model for Thai women) and her family over the reigns of Kings Rama V to VIII (unfortunately, including nothing about the mysterious and controversial death of the latter). It follows how Thais adapted, sometimes with bewilderment, to the extremely rapid changes that modernisation brought during this period.
China (English) – Journey to the West /Monkey = Xi You Ji 《西游记》
by (WU Cheng’en) (吴承恩)
The old man was at the same time delighted by Sanzang’s fine appearance and alarmed by Pig’s and Friar Sand’s remarkable ugliness. Inviting them in, he told the younger members of the family to bring tea and cook a meal. Hearing all this Sanzang rose to his feet to thank the old man and ask, “Could you tell me, sir, why it has turned so hot again although it is autumn now?” “These are the Fiery Mountains, the old man replied. “We don’t have springs or autumns here. It’s hot all the year round.” “Where are the mountains?” Sanzang asked. “Do they block the way to the west?” “It’s impossible to get to the west,” the old man replied. “The mountains are about twenty miles from here. You have to cross them to get to the west, but they’re over 250 miles of flame. Not a blade of grass can grow anywhere around. Even if you had a skull of bronze and a body of iron you would melt trying to cross them.” This answer made Sanzang turn pale with horror; he dared not to ask any more questions.
Probably the greatest of the ancient Chinese classics is the Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, amongst other alternative titles). Since I had already read it, I chose another classic to kick off this project, the Xi You Ji.
This is a mythologised Ming version of the (Tang Dynasty) pilgrimage to India by one of my heroes, the monk Xuanzang, to bring back the true versions of the Buddhist scriptures (which had become corrupted in China, due to distance from the source and difficulties in translation into a very different language). It is one of the great classics of my beloved Silk Road. When I was in Xi’an I was excited to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta) where Xuanzang spent years translating them to Chinese, and also the Flaming Mountains (Huozhou Shan) near Turpan in far western Xinjiang where he had one of his adventures. The Xi You Ji is a send-up, and its Xuanzang (called Sanzang in this edition) bears no resemblance to the historical figure! He is accompanied by some mythological animals, Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand and the poor pilgrim is just a figure of fun who wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for Monkey (who is like Sancho Panza to Cervantes’ Don Quijote). It’s such a shame that while the Xi You Ji is well known to Chinese people, the account by the real Xuanzang, who deserves to be as well-known as Marco Polo, both by them and the outside world, is almost forgotten nowadays. Even so, the fairy tale is a good romp!
Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500 – c. 1580): Journey to the West, translated by W.J.F. Jenner, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2008 (originally published 16th Century), 3 vols., ISBN 7-119-01663-6
Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley, London: Penguin Classics, 1994, 1942, ISBN 9780140441116