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Bangkok 8

John Burdett

Set in Bangkok, but the hot, sticky, grimy and crowded Bangkok of the natives. The hero is the opposite of the cliche detective who solves the crime with the help of a huge intellect, amazing feats of physical strength or endurance, and convenient coincidences. This detective, Sonchai, is an outsider because he is a half-caste (American Vietnam GI, Thai whore) who refuses bribes because he is a Buddhist puritan. The plot is intricate, novel and entertaining, but what really makes the book are the philosophical observations on the meaning of life.

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"Whereas your average Westerner does all he can to direct and control his fate, the latter-day Thai is no closer to adopting this attitude to life than were his ancestors a hundred years ago ... continues to accept in toto the Buddhist doctrine of karma. At first glance such fatalism may seem backward, even perverse given the dazzling spectrum of weapons Westerners now have in their arsenal against the vicissitudes of life, but anyone who spends much time in the kingdom quickly finds themselves questioning the wisdom, and even the sincerity, of Western attitudes. When he has paid his taxes, his life insurance, his medical insurance, accident insurance, retrained himself in the latest marketable skills, saved for his kids education, paid alimony, bought the house and car which his status absolutely requires he buy within the rules of his particular tribe, given up alcohol abuse, nicotine, extramarital sex and recreational drugs, learned to be hyper-careful of what he says or does with members of the opposite sex, the average Westerner may - and often does - wonder where his life went. He may also - and invariably does - feel cheated when he discovers existentially that all the worrying and all the insurance payments have availed him not a jot or tittle in protecting him against fire, burglary, flood, earthquake, tornado, the sack, terrorist activity, or his spouse's precipitate desertion with the kids, the car and all the spare cash in the joint bank account. True enough, in a kingdom without safety nets a citizen may well be brutally flattened by accident or illness, where a Westerner may have bought himself a measure of protection, but in between the bumps a Thai still lives his life in a state of extreme insouciance. The standard Western observation that the Thai is living in a fool's paradise. Perhaps, but might the Thai not reply that the Westerner has built himself a fool's hell?"

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"The Lord Buddha taught two thousand years ago that there is no impunity. In more language than I can muster he warned that you always pay for pussy, one way or another. For example, if we go back to Jones' room at the Hilton, one of two things could happen. She could enjoy it more than I or I could enjoy it more than she. The keener one immediately becomes the slave of the other, with disastrous consequences for both. I think it likely that I would initially fall under her spell, which gets more powerful every day. Having trapped me, she would use her abrasive genius to nibble away at everything about me which is alien to her: my belief in rebirth, my spiritual dimension, my meditation, my Buddhism, my preferences for huge doses of chili in everything I eat. She would not realize that she was turning me into an American, but by the time I'm living with her in some luxurious but soulless suburbs in one of those cities in America which look like all the others, conscientiously working at the sort of work immigrants work at, speaking with an American accent now and forced to go underground now with my chili habit, she will have started to hate me because I will have become a millstone round her neck and the lust will have run out a long time ago. There might even be a child, which of course will make things a whole lot worse, because our mutual karma will include this third person. After death, no matter how hard we try, we will be reborn in circumstances where we will be forced to continue where we left off. We will be sworn enemies by this time, and I will probably be the dominant one now, due to the way things have to balance out in the universe. No, I am not going to fuck her today."

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