THE PARADISE EATER
Premio Letterario Internazionale in Italy (1990)
On the edge of the civilized world lies rotting Bangkok – a once beautiful Oriental jewel of a city, now devoted to a perverse mix of pleasure and pain. It is a place where violence meets innocence and the good die young, if they are lucky. This is John Field’s paradise on earth. A former journalist and free-lance everything, Field hears that his ex-wife and her lover have been murdered. Recalling the humanity once a part of him, he reluctantly enters a world he knows only too well, to search for whoever killed them. What he discovers in the teeming, sordid streets is a world out of control – a society of thieves and cynics and the living dead. What he learns will last him the rest of his days.
Reviews by Country
John Ralston Saul wants to make one thing very clear. He doesn’t, as some reviewers like to claim, writer thrillers in the manner of Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth with preposterous plots churning up spectacular evil and monstrous catastrophes.
“I don’t like being lumped into that genre,” Saul says. Tall, slender and 40, he takes his work seriously, and he’s been a bestselling success since The Birds of Prey caused a sensation in 1978. “The serious novelist’s role is to reflect a complex society in which people can see themselves. I write novels, not genre fiction. My novels are not ‘escapist’ fiction.”
It could be said that his new novel, The Paradise Eater, resembles Melville’s Moby Dick in that if your only interest is in the story and not in its metaphysics, you could flick from the first chapter to the last and perhaps find out who did what to whom. The author’s main concern is with what happens in between, where the society of the novel’s inhabitants – in this case, the stratified society of Bangkok – is dissected and explored.
Certainly, it’s a novel that far transcends our expectations of the thriller genre – perhaps because it sets out to fulfill Matthew Arnold’s imperative for literature, in the sense that The Paradise Eater – at least implicitly – aspires to be nothing less than a criticism of life. Among other things, Saul does attempt to create a sense of place and to make it vividly real to the reader. He also peoples it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the last chapter.
In fact, Saul, the Ottawa-born former investment and energy expert who is back living in Toronto after some years in Paris, insists his novel has no plot. “I try to create a sense of urgency and terror which, I suppose, translates into a reader turning the pages. But nothing is clarified in the end. My main character, John Field, isn’t a hero. He’s not out for justice. He’s weak, he has no strong sense of ambition.”
Field is a former Canadian journalist, occasional businessman and long-time resident of Bangkok. Sent on a seemingly innocuous business trip to Laos, he is suspected of having killed his ex-lover and her husband, who might have been involved in a vast drug-smuggling ring. He escapes custody and returns to Bangkok, where he attempts to elude a gang of assassins and make sense of what is happening to him.
It’s the details, at once grisly and theatrical, that are seductive: Bangkok’s sex-for-sale industry, massage parlors and brothels; the ongoing treatments for gonorrhea that the hapless Field is taking. Sex in this novel is definitely not an instrument of redemption but of destruction; and it soon becomes apparent that these are only the most visible metaphors for what Saul calls “the confusion and decline of society.”
Saul, though, makes no judgments. His is also nor mere tourist’s eye, as we know from his two earlier novels set partly in southeast Asia (Baraka and The Next Best Thing). In fact, he might be called an old Asia hand. “I’ve gone for a month, sometimes three months at a time, during the past 10 years. It’s where I go to drop the terrible ego of the author, to let go. It’s like drowning. Asia is like Canada turned inside out. There’s a tremendous exterior confusion and interior clarity.”
One of his characters is called Paga, once a village girl who arrived in Bangkok to work as a bar hostess for $10 a month. Now she controls 500 prostitutes and has made $20 million out of her trade. “She’s modeled after a real-life woman whom I met and who was absolutely delighted with the idea of having this large foreigner sitting in the car with her when she made the rounds of her brothels to pick up her payments. I’ve had years and years of listening to male locker-room talk, but with Paga I was talking with an expert from the other side. She understands male psychology. She makes Freud sound like a Sunday painter.”
There are some astonishing set-pieces, none perhaps more graphic than the description of an abattoir scene of ripped flesh, slashed throats and the sound of the pigs “screaming a long steady human scream.” The memory still disturbs Saul. “I’ve been with guerrillas in the jungles and felt no sense of danger. But hearing the human sounds of the pigs, with an iron hook locked in their jaws, was one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve ever had.”
Behind what Saul calls “the black comedy” of the novel, there is a looming darkness only partly assuaged by John Field’s humanity, his instinct for love (for his daughter and a young prostitute he rescues). “Although it’s a feeling that will go away, this is the first novel I’ve written with which I’m perfectly satisfied.”
Will he ever write a novel that hews more closely to a Canadian setting and theme? “Half of my next novel is set in Canada”, he responds, “but, really, I think I’ve been writing Canadian novels all my life. Think of all the writers we now have who set their books outside Canada. It’s not the setting, after all, that makes a novel Canadian.”
Among the writers he most admires are Graham Greene, Ford Maddox Ford, the Easter Europeans, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Latin Americans. But at the same time, Saul is very enthusiastic about the quality of Canadian fiction.
The novel in Canada, he insists, “is still the central focus for ideas. It hasn’t yet abandoned public concerns, themes that have to do with questions of power and influence. One of the blocks to Canadian writing is that we must match the American, British or French schools. But our fiction is like that of the Russians, our prairie fiction should be compared to Chekhov’s stories. The novel in other Western countries, in contrast, has been pushed off the centre stage by the various electronic arts, and their novelists have withdrawn from the mainstream and moved into more private considerations and private language.”
“I totally reject the concept that serious fiction deals only with the interior life,” Saul says. “Everyone is free to do what he wants, but to reach a state in which deconstructionism and semiotics are considered to be the only reality is egotistical and short-sighted.”
The Canadian novel, to Saul’s way to thinking, is flourishing. “The number of good writers who’ve found a public outside Canada is truly astonishing and, with the exception of Robertson Davies, they are all relatively young. On a per capita or even an absolute basis, there are, for example, more Canadians known outside of Canada than there are French writers known outside France.”
To paraphrase Ezra Pound, it isn’t the poison bottled and labeled as such that is dangerous, it is the poison in the soup, and most ‘thrillers’ have health warnings stamped all over them (sometimes you can judge a book by its cover). By this yardstick you will be doing your immortal soul less harm by reading Len Deighton than, say, Le Carré. John Ralston Saul is perfectly aware of the problems facing any serious writer who happens to write what are condescendingly referred to as “adventure stories.” A splendidly loathsome character in this excellent novel, doing some “research” (which mostly involves getting drunk and ogling the “dancers” in the bars of Patpong) for his latest, to-be-seriously-reviewed, novels, puts it like this:
Each one has his touch. Mine is to dress it all up in a sort of convoluted upper-class verbiage that sounds like an Oxbridge crossword puzzle: if you see what I mean. That makes them all feel good: well, either good or impressed. Either way, it sells. Then you shove in some seedy spies for the bas monde and the moral aspect for the intellectuals.
What is as nice a touch as the semi-colon after “puzzle” is the context – our hero, who is being addressed, is not listening: he is busy waiting to see who is going to come in next and try to shoot him.
The name that springs to mind most often on reading Saul is Graham Greene’s, and for once the knee-jerk reaction is right. Conrad is mentioned on the jacket as well, and this will do (his last novel, The Next Best Thing, suggests Nostromo) but saying that he is “the Voltaire of our day” will, unfortunately, not. The donné of the hero more at home in an alien culture (in this case Thailand) than his own (Canada), who surprises himself with his morality; an admirably direct narrative style which never has to rely on rankly unconvincing corridor-of-power scenes (e.g. “Smithers, the PM’s calling everyone in. Get me the FO will you?); and a muted but persistent atmosphere of saeva indignation in the face of corrupted, and corrupting, power: these are common to both Greene and Saul, but it doesn’t make the latter’s achievement any the less worthwhile.
Our hero is John Field, and ex-journalist who, no longer feeling “the charges of adrenalin which had once come with each new story” (Canadian journalists not having, I suppose, the same kind of metabolism as English ones), is now a businessman suffering from a vague malaise and more exotic varieties of VD that you can shake a Q-Tip at. The novel begins where Field’s sex life ends – in the clinic: although he unsurprisingly buys a young prostitute from her employer out of compassion, he remains surprisingly chaste throughout.
The McGuffin turns out, after rather a long wait, to be a government-backed plot to smuggle heroin out of Laos in disturbingly large quantities; two of Field’s friends find out about it, try to tell him, and are gruesomely murdered. Field, framed, is offered the chance to escape from Laos but spends the rest of his time in Bangkok dodging the various assassins sent out after him. The scale of corruption and wretchedness in Thailand is portrayed with the convincing restraint that comes from sympathetic insight and first-hand knowledge. Sidestepping the usual narrative tricks of this yarn, preferring understatement to melodrama, and never resorting to moral pomposities or highfalutin prose, the story both excites and moves. The author is in complete control of his material: is photographed with a couple of Kalashnikovs beside him; writes for The Spectator. What more could you want?
The Paradise Eater is about drug running in Bangkok, involving two of the most gruesome murders I have ever seen described (one in a pigs’ slaughter-house). But there is much more: the foot-loose European (in fact, English-Canadian) in a Far Eastern culture to which he cannot ever belong although he has lost most cultural links of his own with Canada, England or Europe; morality of a kind: the serious treatment of corruption, greed and venery.
John Ralston Saul has been compared with Graham Greene and the comparison is apt. He has a throw-away descriptive gift, an eye for not just the seedy but the appalling, and ability to find qualities in the most unpromising and flaws in what looks, on the face of it, good. In other words, he is a moralist.
Hard-hitting, disconcerting, feverish and painful, The Paradise Eater takes John Field, an expat in Bangkok for more than two decades, through his last days there, pursued by killers for what he might know, determined to save two girls (one his daughter, the other a kind of slave he has bought) from the horrors which await them. Much of the narrative is spent in the girlie bars where 50 Dutchmen may arrive on a package tour for mass orgies and very young peasant girls are publicly debauched.
Europeans one would consider quite nice are accustomed to it all and the little victims regarded with a cool, professional eye; until Field finds one, sick, sterile and finished for public display at 17, and buys her – first from her pimp and then from her family. It is memorable in its depiction of our horrible modern world and its treatment of the poor, in sleazy luxury by the rich.
The city of Bangkok in John Ralston Saul’s amazing, lurid novel about decay of every imaginable sort is sinking five inches a year. The marble-faced bank buildings on deep pillars stay in place, but the rest of the Thai capital, built on a delta, recedes into the muck and soupy water that’s the temperature of the air. One cause of the flooding is the Western-style “development” that filled in so many of the city’s canals, or klongs. Sandbags keep the rising tide out of shops. Generals and politicians spend government funds on elaborate pumping systems for high-class neighborhoods. Power is shut off periodically to prevent mass electrocutions. Traffic hardly moves. “The popular explanation of the city’s lack of bank robberies was that a getaway car wouldn’t be able to get away. You could run faster than you could drive, except that it was too hot to run.”
If this sounds like a nice setting for a tale of moral rot of historic scope, be assured that the author – who clearly knows his way around Bangkok high and low life – is the man to tell it. Saul has informed, strong opinions, and he has a knack for letting his characters sketch themselves deftly with a few of their own words. When we meet him, local journalist Henry Crappe explains to Saul’s decent, weary protagonist John Field that Crappe considered both medicine and teaching history as professions, but that “I chose communications. You cannot turn your back on the century. You cannot pander to your own sentimental fantasies when the heart of your epoch beckons.” What he means is, Bangkok is the destination for “sex tours” from West Germany and Holland, and Crappe is the whorehouse reviewer for the Bangkok Post. At one point, Field, bereft over the murder of an ex-lower, is being consoled by Ao, the diseased prostitute he saved from a cruel pimp and who now sleeps at the foot of his bed.
“You love her, John?”
“Love? What do you care about that? For Christ’s sake.”
“I know about love, John. They have TV at hotel. I see love all the time. Every day when I no work. TV all about love.”
With his social observation, Saul can make you laugh while your heart sinks, and the occasional bits of out-and-out comedy in “The Paradise Eater” are just as sardonic. The retrieval of a perfectly preserved green corpse from a flooded graveyard so that it can be moved to dry ground – there’s no getting away from it – hilarious.
For the first third of the novel, Saul holds you with his dark comedy and smelly atmospherics, and with a leisurely depiction of John Field’s efforts to cure himself of an antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. Then, suddenly, the murder takes place, and the narrative begins to move at the speed of an Asian river in flood. The suspense is terrific as Field, a former journalist from Montreal who’s stayed in the Thailand he loves by trading in tractors and wicker furniture, flies to communist Lao on a business deal and stumbles, or is pushed – by Canadian intelligence, of all things – into a miasma of big-time drug-dealing.
As war fueled the Southeast Asian economy 20 years ago, drugs do the job today. According to Saul, 32 tons of heroin move west through Thailand each year and only half a ton of that is seized by police. In Thailand itself, the number of addicts rose from 50,000 to half a million between 1975 and 1985. As Henry Crappe tells Field, “Heroin is like a guerrilla force, Field, it passes by the paths of least resistance. The low ground. The endless valleys of human society…Is there a desire to stop the flow?…The circuit profits too many people now. We are like the Chinese one hundred years ago being forced to smoke opium by the West. The process is now reversed.”
Back in Bangkok, Field is hunted by the drug gang, who think he knows too much. In fact, he knows little but is forced to find out all he can so that he can identify and reach the Bangkok drug kingpin and make a deal that will enable him to remain in Thailand. There’s a remarkable scene in the Bangkok abattoir where workers loyal to a Thai doctor friend of Field’s grab a thug who’s trying to kill Field and, in a matter of seconds, slaughter him like a pig. It is uncommon to find this sort of gore and violence in the work of a writer whose outlook and sensibilities otherwise are closer to those of Graham Greene or John le Carré, but Saul – a Canadian whose fourth novel this is – is an uncommon writer whose occasional rudeness seems appropriate to a world where there’s plenty to be rude about.
Like so many characters in modern fiction, John Field, the protagonist of John Ralston Saul’s new novel, expects very little from life and appears to believe in absolutely nothing. If he’d been created by Graham Greene – and “The Paradise Eater” certainly has elements in common with a Graham Greene novel – he’d at least be God-haunted, struggling with the absence of grace. But Field, a Canadian-born former journalist who’s lived in Bangkok for 20 years and supports himself by negotiating import-export deals for the business community there, is only trying to get by as painlessly as possible in a world he accepts as irredeemably corrupt. “Cynicism was one of his easy comforts,” Mr. Saul tells us, and for other forms of comfort he frequents the numerous brothels of the city, where he picks up increasingly stubborn strains of venereal disease. This might serve as a metaphor for his relationship to Thailand itself, whose whores are touchingly innocent compared to the drug lords in control of its armies and its Government. The sheer venality of the atmosphere in which Field operates seems to have sapped him of any will toward meaning.
Even when his first love, a Canadian woman he hasn’t seen in two decades, is brutally murdered by the drug dealers, he experiences no great moral outrage or desire for vengeance. Although he’s sickened by the sight of her and her husband’s mutilated bodies – he’s the one to discover them, by accident, during a business trip to Laos – he’s perfectly willing to keep silent if the perpetrators will just leave him alone. They suspect, however, that he, like the murdered man, may know too much about their heroin trafficking with the Communist Government of Laos, and so they keep trying to kill him both before and after his return to Bangkok.
The tale of how Field keeps eluding their assassins and tracks down the ringleader of the drug traders seems a little mechanical at times, like a rehash of various other thrillers, and the reader will have guessed the identity of the ringleader before Field does. Yet that hardly even matters: “The Paradise Eater” remains consistently fascinating, mostly for its voluptuous detailed depiction of the life of Bangkok. Whether Mr. Saul is describing an English-style dinner party or a grossly self-satisfied English novelist ogling the nude dancers in a seedy bar, a meeting with the drug lords’ tame banker or a retarded boy rescuing his neighbors’ possessions from a burning slum, he conveys such a sense of decadence and moral rot on the one hand and fierce vitality and sorrow on the other that it doesn’t seem to matter who’s chasing whom through the flooded, traffic-clogged streets of the city.
We even get one full-fledged hero: a witty, mournful doctor, half Thai and half English-Jewish, who spends much of his life ministering to Bangkok’s poor. In one of the most powerful scenes of the novel, the workers in a slaughterhouse surround a thug who’s come in search of Field and butcher him as they’ve just been butchering the pigs because he threatens their beloved doctor with his gun. And then there’s the doctor’s 96-year-old father, a retired admiral, who excoriates the victors in the recent coup at his birthday party, swearing to kill them with his own hands if they don’t release his son from prison.
“The Paradise Eater” would be still better than it is if Field himself had some of that passion – if he even got savagely ironic at times, more emphatically disenchanted with the world. But “I want to go back to my boring little life where I happily plod along not getting what I want,” he says in the midst of his troubles – just when we’d like him to be having all sorts of epiphanies. Despite the ecstatic last lines of “Kubla Khan” that serve as the book’s epigraph, Field remains obdurately uninspired.
Mr. Saul, the author of three previous novels, does try to give him some emotional resonance by showing the residue of romance at his core: Field buys a 17-year-old Thai prostitute who’s riddled with venereal disease from the brothel that can no longer use her, and the story of the growing tenderness between these two disease-damaged people is woven throughout the book. Unfortunately, though, there’s something a little flat and perfunctory about the way it’s presented, as though the author had consciously seized on this device because he knew that every world-weary character worth his salt must have a lonely streak of sentiment.
Meanwhile, his best energies are elsewhere – in the streets of Bangkok, or out in the surrounding countryside, where the former prostitute who owns many of the city’s brothels has just built a golf course and a contemplation center for monks side by side. Mr. Saul has a positive genius for this kind of juxtaposition, and for making us feel the feverish, hypnotic quality of the country that has Field in thrall. It’s possible to believe, by the book’s conclusion, that Thailand is the Paradise of the title after all, and so it seems only fitting that Field should be forced to leave it in the end. Expelled to the tepid sanity of Canada, he and the young Thai prostitute, whom he’s married to get her out of the country, bring with them their incurable ailments – a legacy from the polluted Eden they’re likely to mourn for the rest of their lives.