Book review: “Bangkok Wakes To Rain” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Bangkok Wakes To Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad is featured in many blogs as climate or eco fiction – but after reading it, I have the feeling it defies categorization. First and foremost, it is a chosen family saga that spans centuries, with live stories touching down at a special place in the city of Krungthep (an old Thai name for Bangkok): an old house that becomes the anchor point and ultimately a protagonist in the story. So much so that the nameless narrator ultimately asks: Do places remember us?

Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a Thai-American author, grew up in many different places and he asked himself this question often enough, which he talks about in an interview with the podcast The Avid Reader Show1. The book depicts the city of Krungthep in a state of constant change: there is always something under construction somewhere, or a temporary structure being built, an old structure being rebuilt or torn down. Before that, colonizers moved in and out, followed by Christian missionaries bringing ‘Western’ medicine and ‘civilization’, only to abandon the post years later because the city and its inhabitants were resilient against this kind of manipulation. The city experienced further violence against its people in recent 20th century Thai history. Clearly, all these cycles of destruction and reconstruction left scars in the fabric of the city, but the city continues to be, seemingly unimpressed by what it witnessed. The people, on the other hand, are unable to separate place from memory. In the part of the novel set in the near future, people have finally found a way to evict memory from their mortal body – however, Bangkok continues to live and give, granting plenty of space to the ghosts and shadows of its old inhabitants.

the plot (spoiler-free)

The author tells the life stories of several people in different centuries between the 1800s and the near future, whose paths sometimes cross or are connected by place. In my opinion, the most important figure was Nee, who witnessed the student unrest and the military coup in the 1970s as a young woman and tried to forget this trauma in the decades that followed. She repeatedly carries the plot back to the location of the old house, which, under the building boom in the 1990s, becomes a decorative part of the lobby of a condo. Nee gives swimming lessons to the children of the residents in the condo’s pool. Later, when the ground under the skyscrapers give way to the water, and the old Krungthep sinks permanently, it is one of her former swimming students whose life story is at the center of the plot.

The non-linear narrative style, changing narrative voices and protagonists are a challenge for the reader. These human lives seem so fragile in comparison with the materiality of the city and its buildings, and with the smells, noises, the taste, and the urban flora and fauna. Regardless of these beautifully written sensory maps laid out by the author, the essence of the city can never be fully grasped by readers or protagonists alike, as it is always in the process of transformation.

the role of climate change

What happens in the book gives us a preview of what will inevitably be the fate of the metropolises of the world built on shores: The man-made catastrophe, the proverbial breaking of the last dams, and eventually, the loss of habitats under water. Bangkok already experienced major flooding in the first decade of this millennium, which the author himself witnessed, and scientists assume that it will be partially submerged as early as 2030, worst-case scenario2. Indeed, one of the aftermath of the 2011 flooding is that there are discussions about moving the seat of government further East to higher grounds, which wouldn’t even make it the first among Southeast Asian countries to move their capital3.

Flashbacks from the future describe in detail how climate change hit the city: floodings that became more and more permanent, then loss of crops, and famine. Refugees whom the government calls “evacuees” in the hope they endure the horrific conditions in the makeshift tent cities quietly, by way of believing they might be able to return one day. But that is in vain, because in later times the old Krungthep has become a modern-day Atlantis. The descendants of those who once lived off what the river delta had to offer now navigate the submerged city by boat and create new sources of income and living space.

In “New Krungthep” buildings float on artificial islands in the water, and thanks to humanity’s ingenuity and inventiveness, its inhabitants have learned to live with it. Most of them don’t look back. The ones born later don’t have a strong connection to the place, but they see and understand what it means to those who once set foot on solid ground. They earn their livelihood with the ghostly underwater world, boating tourists or descendants of evacuees to submerged landmarks that still protrude here and there from the water. It is only so is a recurring phrase throughout that reflects their attitude toward change and transformation.

Apart from the question how this new world looks like, the book also elaborates on social justice issues that arise when the effects of climate change hit – whom it hits harder, whose neighborhood and livelihood is protected by technical solutions, i.e. flood gates – in short: Who still gets to prosper and has a future in this new topographical and social order, and who doesn’t. This will be the threshold for climate justice in just a few years, while in 2021, we’re still discussing whether we can economically and politically afford the bare minimum of climate change mitigation…

a recommendation

The book is a bit lengthy in the middle, and anyone expecting a book about climate change will be disappointed. However, as someone who just loves thinking about things like the history of places and the spiritual remnants of people who have been there before us, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this thought process inspired by the book. I live a perfectly modern life in a big European city, surrounded by its history on every corner, while it goes through incomparable changes forced upon it by climate change. The question of whether and how places remember us gets at least halfway answered in the end, and I’m not giving too much away by saying that it is us who shape places to remember us. My take on this book is that I need to do more to preserve and to prevent. It’s my duty not only to care for the planet, but also to keep this city, my home, inhabitable for generations to come. So despite some lengthy parts, I was rewarded with a wonderful, deeply humane story of a transformation that also taught me a bit about the responsibility to be alive here and now.

Read this if you like dystopian climate fiction, slow-paced books, Parable of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler, The New Wilderness by Diane Cook.

Sources:

I do not receive any compensation for this review and bought the book myself. Pictured is the 2019 edition by Sceptre (London).

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