Jasmine Nights

Jasmine Nights

A novel not easily defined by genre, S.P. Somtow’s 1994-published Jasmine Nights is at its heart a rollicking, irreverent coming-of-age tale set in upper-class Thai society in the 1960s. It tells the story of English-educated Justin, or Little Frog, mysteriously left by his parents with his extended family in a sprawling compound in Bangkok.

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Through 12-year-old Justin’s laugh-out-loud exploits, Somtow sometimes cleverly, and sometimes uncomfortably, but always with a light hand, explores issues of race, identity, class and gender.

At the book’s opening, Justin has been left largely to his own devices to spend his days in the compound with his pet chameleon. An erudite child who speaks only English and eats only English food, he’s well educated in the Western classics. His three maiden (but not celibate!) aunts, whom he refers to as the three Fates, are hi-so Thais who are well educated in US popular culture—both in terms of music and clothes—allowing for an entertaining meld of cultures in his household:

“The three Fates are seated at the teak-and-glass-topped table in descending order of age, left to right. They are all, of course, still in mourning for my anonymous relative. Their black dresses are all a-spangle with lace flowers, rhinestones and sequins… The portable phonograph has been moved to the side buffet, and we hear Neil Sedaka crooning in the background.”

Justin soon meets Virgil, the son of a black American colonel in Thailand in the lead up to the Vietnam War, and the two develop a friendship very much complicated by race as they grow into adolescence; at one point Virgil tells him: “How can I ’spect you to understand? You just a banana—yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”

Class is a simmering theme, too: “Virgil’s bedroom is not at all like mine. The floor is a no-man’s land, strewn with Lego, toy cars, plastic soldiers of every epoch, bits of wire and metal, slabs of balsa wood for model building, and dirty clothes. This, I reflect, is how it is to have no servants! America must be a squalid country, for I see now that toys and clothes cannot put themselves away.”

One wealthy character meanwhile says: “Those unfortunate creatures would spend what little they had and squander their winnings on liquor and loose women if they were allowed to gamble! That law’s not for us, you know." To which Justin’s grandfather, who could very well be speaking in Thailand today, replies: “Not many laws are.”

In the background is Justin’s relationship with his great-grandmother, who is close to death but insists she’ll stay alive long enough to dance the limbo. Throw in a little magical realism—but not too much, as magical realism is often, well, realism in Thailand—and S.P. Somtow has written a wonderfully imaginative book that instructs, informs and delights snappy chapter after chapter.

There is plenty to discover about Thai culture here, but also plenty to shatter any preconceptions one might have about Thailand in the 1960s, with its traditions poised to be transformed as it enters the global economy. At least among the richer classes, US pop music could just as easily have been playing on the phonograph at drunken, kinda-wild parties as classical Thai music could be; sex education might have been awkward—to say the least—but sex was certainly on the minds of adults, who didn’t shy away from affairs and scandal. Perhaps the politics was conservative, but society certainly was not. The endless drama can be a little exhausting as a reader, but the final result is still an achievement.

S.P. Somtow was himself born in Bangkok, and was educated in Eton and Cambridge. He became a composer, combining Thai and Western instruments in progressive ways and then moved to the United States and turned to novel-writing (he’s published an astounding 53 books, and moved back to Thailand in the early aughties to return to opera writing). His website describes Jasmine Nights as semi-autobiographical, and we were interested to hear a teenage friend of ours, who grew up in Bali but recently move back to Australia, say that she thought the novel described well the life of so-called third culture kids.

Somtow is a compelling writer, and we love how he crafts his characters—the doctor with his “what, what, what” speech tic is particularly memorable). His crisp prose springs from the page and paints a vivid portrait of the Bangkok of 1963, from the funky parties to the dive bars—this is probably the only bar scene in a Bangkok-set novel we’ve ever actually enjoyed reading.

Plenty about Bangkok in the 1960s remains very similar to today’s Bangkok, too:

“We are stuck in traffic for about half an hour at the railway tracks where Sukhumvit becomes Ploenchit. The policeman whose job it is to regulate the traffic light appears to have fallen asleep, and a bevy of angry motorists, leaving their cars parked in the middle of the road, have converged on his booth to prod him awake. Children with sponges have swabbed our windscreen and are thrusting garlands of jasmine in our faces, while a water buffalo is licking the hood ornament of our Studebaker.”

If only there were more young Thai writers to follow in Somtow’s footsteps today writing in (or being translated into) English. Somtow is the kind of writer that a country like Thailand deserves, able to write equally revealingly about the chimerical and the all-too-real. Recommended—there’s really no other book set in Thailand quite like this one.

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