Review: Emma Larkin’s Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok

An unused, overgrown, desolate plot in the heart of Klong Toei ties together the various worlds contained in the social quilt that makes up the Bangkok metropolis. From pah-tong-koh peddlers to reclusive movie stars, the lives of the city’s varied inhabitants intersect as they reckon with the city’s past as well as their own.

On the twenty-seventh floor of a luxury condominium, Ida Barnes contemplates jumping from the ledge of the balcony in the guest room to the jungle plot down below and leaving her socialite expat life behind. For real estate developer Wittaya “Witty” Techarungreaung, who’s married to a former actress turned screenwriter, Wongduan, the plot is a ‘unicorn,’ a gem of unimaginable potential and profit.

In the slums, Yai Sunan steers clear of the ‘bad land’ that is the mass of mango trees marked by a dusty spirit shrine. She realizes, like the other inhabitants of the Slum of Bountiful Pleasantness such as Kongkiat and Loong Pradit, that their community is threatened by the developer’s visits.

In the heart of the plot itself lives Comrade Aeon, a protestor from the 1970s still struggling to readjust to life in the city as it is now, haunted by both the crackdown he experienced in October 1976 and the one he witnessed in May 1992. He fills his days by exploring the city’s undergrowth, mapping and documenting it all in a vast collection of notebooks lining his hut.

Larkin weaves the cast together in a sequence of events that unfold at some point in the spring of 2009, a moment of increasing political unrest and rampant property development.

Threaded through the novel is Wongduan’s latest soap opera, Broken Shadows, a period piece about the complex courtly politics of succession, marriage, and assassinations in Ayutthaya. Sneakily timed with each step in the narrative, the soap becomes a metatextual reflection of the characters, their struggles, and their realizations as both the novel and the soap crescendo to their climax.

Despite being so densely populated, the overlapping lives of the characters retain their distinct hue. Larkin’s careful prose fleshes out each individual, delving into their pasts and their personalities through smaller moments in the overarching trajectory of her work. Even with the ever-shifting alliances and oppositions, the characters and their relationships to one another can be easily traced, each life coming together or drifting apart as is natural.

Capturing the multifaceted nature of lives in the city also means capturing the history of the city itself, which can be as bright shining as its tallest skyscraper or as insidious as its rotting undergrowth.

Looming over every character is “Black May,” the military crackdown of demonstrations in 1992 that left thousands arrested and an indeterminate number of protestors missing – most presumed dead.

The most prominent connection between Larkin’s characters and the historical event is Witty and Wongduan’s missing son, Witty, who ‘disappeared’ during the protests. Throwing themselves into their work to deny the emptiness of losing their son, their lives are hollowed out around his absence, a chasm of grief between them that can never find closure without a body or an explanation.  

For Comrade Aeon, Black May is an essential moment of the city’s past that is largely ignored and unspoken about in the present time. With the ramifications of 1992 resonating too closely with his own past and threatening his present, Comrade Aeon is constantly on the move, a man running away from the city as well as himself.

Whether his running takes him to Yai Sunan, who often feeds him and takes care of him, or to Ida Barnes, a stranger who connects with him in unexpected ways, its clear that Aeon will have to face the worst of his fears eventually and come to terms with his own condition if he is to ever move forward.

Larkin’s compelling prose presents readers with strikingly accurate snapshots of Bangkok, a mosaic portrait of the sprawling urban capital and the everyday lives of those within it. At the heart of the novel – quite literally – are the pockets of resistance to urbanity, be they physical or emotional, provoking us with alternate modes of remembering, understanding, and existing.

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