The Nation


Book Review

Do mind over Metta

Tom Crowley weaves scenes like the red shirts' treatment of then-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva into 'VIPER'S TAIL'.

Tom Crowley weaves scenes like the red shirts' treatment of then-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva into 'VIPER'S TAIL'.

Metta Visions introduces itself with a remarkably varied selection of books that readily grab the attention

Viper's Tail

By Tom Crowley

Bangkok Pool Blues

By Tom Crowley

After the Wave

By Tew Bunnag

The Mind Spreads Its Wings

By Juanolo Gutierrez

The Traveler

By Suthep Srikureja

A farang's haphazard but politically jolting novel of Thai intrigue and a reissue of Tew Bunnag's collection of moving tales about the 2004 tsunami are among the books emerging from the relatively new publishing house Metta Visions.

Describing itself as "a unique and boutique publisher of art books and fiction", Metta has bases in Bangkok and Girona, Spain, and releases its titles in both English and Spanish. The imprint of Tew Bunnag, who lives in Spain, appears on most of the books as editor, if not author or inspiration.

Born in Bangkok and London in Britain, where his father was posted as a diplomat, Bunnag studied Chinese and economics at Cambridge University and co-founded the "spiritual-therapeutic centre" Chapter House, where he taught meditation and t'ai chi. When in Thailand he serves as a director at the Human Development Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that helps slum kids and people dealing with Aids.

Bunnag's "After the Wave" was among the books that Metta Visions sent to The Nation for review. It has also released or re-released his "Fragile Days", "The Naga's Journey" and "A Most Generous Uncle".

Bunnag's story "The Mistress Wants Her Freedom" was included in "Bangkok Noir", the well-received 2011 omnibus of Thai and Thailand-based writers collated by Christopher Moore.

A review of "After the Wave" follows, but attention is drawn first to the newest of the books from Metta, "VIPER'S TALE" by Tom Crowley, which is only 200 pages - and yet the thickest of the lot by far. The writing is strictly amateur, but there are some amusing quirks and an utterly audacious background that readers will find brave if not destined to be banned.

Crowley, a veteran of the Vietnam War, wounded and decorated, and subsequently a critic of that war, has adopted Thailand as his home and also works with the Human Development Foundation. With this book he's woven a startling fabric of fiction using real yarns from the local newspapers.

The plot itself, contrived as if with Hollywood in mind, involves a Thai-American former US Army Ranger named (amusingly enough) Tek Chance. Tek helps the Forestry Department and as such gets sucked into an investigation into the curious death of an American contagious-diseases researcher in the Chiang Rai jungle. Governments, military units, rival security forces and other nefarious agencies pile on as the plot thickens.

It seems that right-wing Japanese politicians keen to destroy China have revived a World War II laboratory in the Thai North to process deadly viruses that will be released in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The broad suggestion is that this is where Sars, H5N1 and H3N2 all came from. Now there's something much deadlier.

There are, along the way, references to the island bickering in the South China Sea, those Klong Toei slum kids, the Tak Bai debacle, Mae Nak Phrakanong and other ghosts, and even the angle of fire involved in killing Seh Daeng from the top of the Dusit Thani. Then there are lengthy digressions on the yakuza and samurai and, by way of a basic gym workout, muay thai.

But the real surprise allusions burst through the door about halfway through the book. We've learned that the Department of Special Investigation and the Army don't get along. "The army is the biggest mafia," says a DSI man. "Transport of drugs across borders is a key part of their business." And elsewhere: "The DSI wasn't a big problem. There was no power in the DSI. There was only the ability to uncover and leak information to favoured politicians."

Next thing we know we're attending a rally of the red shirts, with whom Tek empathises. It's the anniversary of the bloody crackdown of 2010 and the prime minister is being beaten in effigy - Abhisit, obviously, so this would be May 2011. That premier is not named, but another one is.

'"Everyone knows General Savin will lead the next coup," an insider says. Savin's real father was a Japanese war criminal, then a successful politician, and the son inherited his hatred of the Chinese, including "the immigrants here in Thailand who own all our big banks and businesses and are on the verge of owning the country outright".

This is General Suchart talking, ostensibly one of the good guys.

"There is no love for the Chinese here in Thailand on the part of the Thai. The mainland Chinese are a giant force that can't be denied.

They are slowly stealing the Mekong River ... When one of our local Chinese rulers, then-Prime Minister Thaksin, was asked about it by concerned Thai scientists, his answer was, 'The Chinese are our big brothers. They will take care of us.' What nonsense. The Chinese oligarchs own this country already. There are three billionaires listed in Thailand. All of them are Chinese."

As noted, "Viper's Tail" is an audacious book.

Tom Crowley is also the author of another of the Metta books, "Bangkok Pool Blues", a non-fiction essay on his hobby, reviewed elsewhere on this page.

For all its bold political artifice, "Viper's Tale" remains a lightweight time-killer, and certainly in comparison to Tew Bunnag's "AFTER THE WAVE", which is "light" only in the sense that it's 91 pages and six brief chapters. It punches hard for its weight, and that's because Bunnag is a gifted writer.

The six stories grew out of one, "Lek and Mrs Miller", which was Tew's contribution to a 2005 collection commissioned by the BBC to mark the tsunami's first anniversary.

Reading these tales now, fully eight years after the tragedy, underlines the fact that not enough books have been written about the tsunami. It took away so much that has not yet been replenished. As Tew says of the people on the southern coast who he helped regain a foothold, "The wave had washed away the solid ground of all their lives."

Politics makes only a brief appearance - a land grab - in this gem of a book about recovery. Nor does Tew dally on the horror of the event itself. Only in one story does it come gushing out, with deliberate suddenness, in the words of a hotel staff member who is asked if she witnessed the tsunami.

"And she told him, in a trembling voice, how she had stood on one of the upper floors and watched it come in and catch people who were on the beach, how she saw children dashed against trees and buildings, and how afterwards she had to walk past all the bodies which, to her amazement, had all been stripped naked by the wave and how two days later when she came to help with the clean-up her hair and clothes took on the scent of death which would not go ahead whatever she did.

"She stood by his table for half an hour telling her story as though it was the first time she had a chance to do so to someone who would listen."

That same surge of release is repeated in each story, but in the others far more subtly and in different ways. Each chapter holds a powerful wave of its own, restrained by the facts of daily life among admirably diverse characters until the time is right for the abrupt wash of monumental emotion. And then it eases back. It's an extraordinary depiction of the tsunami itself.

As mentioned, Tew Bunnag also teaches t'ai chi ch'uan, and Metta has re-released a 2009 book by one of his students, Juanolo Gutierrez, which isn't so much a guide to the practice as a commentary on the stumbling blocks one might encounter.

"THE MIND SPREADS ITS WINGS" is offered for practitioners at all levels, but clearly you should know the basic exercises to appreciate its insights. Now an instructor himself, Gutierrez evenly and sensibly addresses the frustrations that arise at each stage - and the disputes among the various schools of t'ai chi - and recommends methods for dealing with them.

Finally, and most charmingly of all, there is Suthep Srikureja's children's book "THE TRAVELER", which came out in 2010. Lovingly illustrated by Denys Blacker, the engaging tale is about pursuing your dreams.

Suthep, a father of three, informs his readers that he "can often be found immersed in various bodies of water". It's that kind of fun.

Also available from but not submitted for review are the prose-poetry collection "The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts" by Malcolm Ritchie and "When We Hear the Voice of Earth", written and illustrated by Kaori Ishihara.

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