“The Story of Jan Darra”

A scene from the movie Jan Dara

After I wrote my last blog about “Letters from Thailand”, I received numerous excellent suggestions from other bloggers here for expanding my own shelf of Thai lit – a pretty sparse shelf indeed as it housed only the one book which was threatening to topple over at any time.

Since I could find nothing at the bookstores I usually haunt, and in the spirit of Mr Wit from thai-blogs with his Thai music collection, I went online and bought books through the excellent dcothai.com. They don’t have an actual bricks and mortar store in Bangkok but delivery anywhere in Thailand is 40 baht no matter the size of the order – would cost me more than that to take the Skytrain somewhere to pick them up.

“The story of Jan Darra”,was the first book I picked up and, yes, mostly because I was familiar with the movie and hence the title, but I was also drawn in by the description of the author on the inside flap: “A heavy drinker, Pramoon (Un-hathoop, who wrote the book under the name Utsana Phleungtham) was plagued by stomach ulcers from his mid-thirties, and spent the last twenty years of his life in and out of hospitals. Bukowski in Bangkok! Choice made.

I imagine distant bells might go off in the minds of some who read this due to the film “Jan Dara”, (why they dropped the extra ‘r’ i don’t know) which was based on this book and received a big opening abroad at film festivals. I was not in Thailand during its opening but news reports indicate that the film’s directors had to pay more than one visit to the Government Censor Board who greeted them with scissors in hand.

After finishing the book, I watched “Jan Dara” once again and to me it didn’t’ measure up to the book, but then again that could be said for any film adaptation of a book that I’ve enjoyed (save say the rare, rare instance like Shawshank Redemption or some such). Having been in Thailand for a longer while as well I must say that the actor playing the elder master of the house (known in the novel only as His Lordship) did to me bear something of a striking resemblance to my one-time fellow Christmas mass celebrant Mr. Chuwit himself! Maybe it was just the moustache.

The movie Jan Dara came out in 2001, but the book was written years before that in 1966 released as “Rueang Khong Jan Darra” and the writer himself was obviously aware that his book would meet with more than just an upturned eyebrow or two. Pramoon wrote in the foreword to his book: “This is the writer’s first novel, and he must insist that his work of fiction is unsuitable for kids and most offensive to sanctimonious pricks.”

Marcel Barang, who edited the translation of Jan Darra, writes in his postscript to the book that Pramoon infuriated those who petitioned against his book by answering them with a simply two-word riposte: “Phom chawp” (I like it!)

Barang in his postscript says that this is the only Thai erotic novel of merit in the history of the Kingdom’s literature. Seems like a bold claim but his defence is that other supposedly “erotic” books have been written, and bawdy tales dispatched to men’s magazines he notes, but they are pornographic rather than erotic and do not approach literature, as this book most certainly does.

Pramoon is said to have based the goings on in this book on real life events in a castle near to where he lived – he befriended the cook’s son and was provided with enough tales from the inside to lead to the publishing of this work. The protagonist’s first name is derived from ‘janrai’ (damned) and is given to him by his would be step-father who hates him (we learn why later).

Jan witnesses all manner of debauched sexual behaviour from an early age instigated by “His Lordship”, who uses his position of power in the household to bed all the maids, cooks, visiting relatives and even his own wife on occasion with seemingly unlimited verve and aggression. This has the effect of deepening Jan’s hatred of the man and also of spawning a family tree that it would take a patient scholar years to delineate.

His Lordship eventually banishes Jan from the household and sends him to Phichit where his family roots lie. That section alone is an interesting slice of the book for me – sure once we get a whiff of the tone of the book not much can surprise us in “His Lordship’s” castle of debauch, but the goings on upcountry are something else indeed! Jan has to invent pretences to ward off the advances of women and the instances of “romantic congress” are so frequent and occur in so many locales that one wonders at how these people remained upright long enough to complete any farming business.

This is a gothic novel and reads very much like one, with little reality outside of the dark household of His Lordship. Aside from his adventures in Phichit his journeys outside His Lordship’s compound only take him to school in his youth and it is there that he has a brief virginal relationship with a female school friend. That he counts as the love of his life and she’s gone before the reader can even register her presence. Pining for her, Jan begins to dive headfirst into the hedonistic world trail-blazed by His Lordship.

The novel didn’t read to me as a recounting of this man’s education of the opposite sex. When he walks in on two women sharing… intimacy… he for a moment is not sure what he is witnessing but when he can finally focus his eyes, he observes:
“Two women who could have been mother and daughter were engaged in an unnatural and obscene act that should have been struck by lightning.”

The Story Jan Darra starts out seemingly in a perfect frame to be a story of revenge – the mean-spirited owner of the house suffering for his wickedness at noble Jan’s hands. It doesn’t quite turn out that way. What happens I don’t want to spoil for those of you who may end up picking up this book, but suffice it to say that what we have in this saucy, supposedly sensationalist tale, is very much a Buddhist lamentation on the ruinous nature of desire, attachment, suffering and change. A typical Western tale this is not – here the feud that drives the narrator of this story also ensures his long-term unhappiness. Jan says at one point: “It’s true what they say; happiness and suffering are all in the mind.”

Thanks everyone for your excellent recommendations. On my third book now of the Thai Classics series and really enjoying it. I plan to write another blog about the Thai Classics series itself at a later point, but for now here is the information for this book:

ISBN: 974-89283-0-6
Translated by Phongdeit Jiangphatthanarkit
Edited by: Marcel Barang for the Thai Modern Classics Series

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