Friday, September 28, 2012

Breathing Water, by Timothy Hallinan

Though it's been many years now, I've been to Bangkok. My sister was interested in Southeast Asian dance, and as I was free (ie, unemployed) and had a little cash, I went along. We traveled around Southeast Asia for about six weeks, but Bangkok was the first place we landed, and the place we came back to midway. I took to it right away, in all its golden gaudiness, and perhaps, given the right circumstances, might have stayed there longer.

Nevertheless, there were aspects of the city even then that I knew we, as young American women, were not participating in, and that we were skating right over the surface of an old and complicated culture and also the more recent American involvement there. I found a confirmation of this in Hallinan's description of the relation of the farang, or foreigners to Bangkok:

Most farang pass through the  gravitational Gordian knot of Bangkok unscathed, like long-haul comets for whom our solar system is just something else to shoulder their way past. Farang have no formal status here.  They come and go. They dimple the surface of the city's spacetime like water-striding insects, staying for a few months at a stretch and then flitting elsewhere. They don't have enough mass to draw the gaze of the individuals around whom the orbits wheel.

But Rafferty is being gazed at. And he knows all the way to the pit of his stomach that this is the worst thing thing that can happen to him.

Poke Rafferty is a journalist, living in Bangkok with his Thai wife and daughter. Breathing Water is several books into the series, and so possibly not the best place to start, but I have to say that I didn't find my comprehension suffering by coming late to the story, and Hallinan is good at communicating enough of what's gone before to fill in the blanks. The story opens with a high stakes poker game, which leads Rafferty into a curious bargain. He's to use his journalistic skills to tell the story of a Bangkok big wig, and immediately finds himself pincered between those who want the story told and those who want the story never, ever to get out. Trying to figure out who wants what is only part of Rafferty's problem.

The secondary story is that of a young girl who when given the choice, opts to be a beggar on Bangkok's hot streets rather than become a prostitute. Eventually, of course, her story and Rafferty's come together.

Hallinan treats dark subjects with a humorous touch, which serves his purposes better than a more downbeat voice. For the typical uninformed Westerner (such as myself) he is very good at elucidating the Thai power structure, in which ethnically Chinese Thais inhabit the rarified upper echelons, and the  native Thai Isaan from the northeastern part of the country are typically among the impoverished lower classes. Oh, yeah--skin color matters.

This is an entertaining suspenseful tale, but you will absorb quite a bit about the Thai culture without even really trying. I even learned a bit more about the previously incomprehensible riots in Bangkok a few years back, in which the red shirts and the yellow shirts were duking it out. Turns out it wasn't about the shirt color. It was about power--who had it, and who was going to have it in the fuure.

I think that after reading this book, you'll at least know a little bit more about who you'd like to win...

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