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Shame vs. Guilt

'Bangkok Tattoo' explores the culture of shame

By Rick Kleffel

John Burdett inverts sexuality, identity--and even the mystery genre--in his new novel Bangkok Tattoo (Knopf, 320 pages; $23). This sequel to Bangkok 8 begins as Sonchai Jitpleecheep picks up the blood-soaked brassiere of Chanya, who has just brutally murdered an American tourist. First things first: a hefty bribe for the hotel receptionist, then a quick call to Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai's superior in the Bangkok Police force, who also happens to own the Old Man's Club, where Chanya was a dancer and a prostitute. Soon, Sonchai finds himself immersed in a mystery that is gripping, funny and shot through with trenchant wit and Buddhist humor.

Sonchai is one of the most delightful and original creations to grace recent crime fiction. Burdett's Bangkok police procedurals are sparkling, compulsively readable entertainments written from an alien perspective. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who lives in a world that's populated by ghosts, demons and aliens as well as courtesans, criminals and cops. Burdett's cleverly conceived setup allows the narrator to provide a point of view that we just don't see in American mystery fiction. Philosophy, religion, politics and personalities are seamlessly woven together. Sonchai tells the story in the first person, and his voice is a hoot, from his first words on the first page to his final refusal to bring things to a tidy ending.

Bangkok and Thailand are major players here. The collision of an ancient society with cutting-edge technology creates a surreal vision of "Westernization" as it is actually experienced by those being subjected to it. From call girls who use websites to help buy their parents water buffaloes to a Viagra-powered brothel, the world's oldest profession shows itself to be uniquely adaptable. The food stalls, the perfumes, the clothes, the many religions that are a presence here are all rendered with precision and density. Burdett's characterizations of Thailand are complex observations of chaos that are not themselves chaotic. He's a highly skilled writer who conveys the details of a Byzantine society without calling attention to his own talent.

In town recently to talk with me on KUSP's Talk of the Bay and sign books at Capitola Book Cafe and Bookshop Santa Cruz, Burdett talked about the cultural schism that drives his novels--what he calls "the culture of shame vs. the culture of guilt."

According to Burdett, "Many, many societies, particularly in Asia, and even in South America, operate, in the sense of controlling the society, through shame. That is to say, in those societies, you're not expected to have a tortured, guilt-ridden, introverted concern with whether you're doing right or wrong. You're simply expected to do right in the eyes of society, and if you don't, you feel an intense, burning shame. Whereas in the Western cultures of guilt, what you have is a demand by the society--and this obviously has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition--to examine your soul daily, if possible, or every minute, if you've got the time, to see whether you, personally, believe you are acting within the moral code that's being imposed upon you. They're both forms of mind control but they're completely different forms of mind control. And it's debatable which works the best; do we really become better people by torturing ourselves with guilt? On the other hand, in the East, are people really that well controlled by the concept of shame? And is it such a great thing for people to think, 'Well, I do what the hell I like so long as nobody finds out'?"

Burdett's plot in Bangkok Tattoo is a cleverly designed puzzle box that opens up to reveal plots within plots and schemes within schemes, a literary version of the city within which it is set. It's easier to visit, but harder to leave behind.

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From the May 25-June 1, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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