S.P. Somtow‘s Jasmine Nights is one of my favourite books. It’s funny and sweet and clever and awesome. It’s about growing up, and sex, and racism, and magic, and life and death, reincarnation, and identity. No, it’s more complicated than that, and better too. It’s about all these huge wonderful things, but really, it’s about this little boy.
Justin, or Little Frog, or Sornsunthorn, is twelve. He’s an upper class Thai boy who has been left by his parents to life with his very odd Thai family. For the last three years he’s been refusing to speak Thai and insisting on eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. He’s been living two lives: in one of them he has servants and aunts and is a child, and in the other he has made a fantasy game for himself in a ruined house based on his reading of Homer and science fiction. (“Homer is a god, but he only wrote two books.”) It is also twisted through with Thai mythology of spirits. In the ruined house one day he meets his great-grandmother:
There is an enormous leather armchair in the room. It rocks. It faces away from me. Poking up from behind the chair’s high back is a tuft of silvery hair.
There is someone there. The lightbulb sways. My shadow sways. The cobwebs sway in the wind from the electric fan.
I have seen Psycho fifteen times. I have visited the fruitcellar of the Bates house in my dreams. I know what is to be found in leather armchairs in abandoned houses. I feel my heart stop beating.
Will the armchair suddenly whip round to reveal the corpse of Norman Bates’s mother? I step back. My Homeric drapery slides to the floor.
“Who is there?” The chair has not moved. The voice is as ancient and as gravelly as the stones of Troy. It speaks in Thai. “Come on, who is it?”
Before I can stop myself I say “It’s me, Norman.”
His great-grandmother is dying, and he is on the verge of growing up. They become friends. She tells him he has a year to find out who and what he is, and the book is the story of that year, the discoveries he makes inside and outside himself, the friends he makes, and the adventures he has.
It’s the books I love best that are the hardest to write about. I don’t want to take one angle on them, I want to dive into them and quote huge chunks and tell you everything about them, and it just isn’t possible.
Jasmine Nights is written in the first person of a child who lives mostly in his own head but who is just beginning to step outside it. The magic that is interwoven through this story he entirely takes for granted. Justin (it’s his preferred name for himself, though he’s made it up himself) doesn’t quite know what’s real and what isn’t, and neither does the reader. His pet chameleon, Homer, dies, and his great-grandmother tells him that he has to take the spirit of Homer into himself and become like a chameleon. Homer appears in his dreams as Yama, god of death, and later he visits a magician who becomes Homer and continues the conversation from the dream. The magician’s love potions work. All the magic we see unquestionably works—and yet this is one of those books where you’re not entirely sure whether it’s fantasy until the very end. It walks a very subtle line, very cleverly.
Also, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. And it manages to be funny about very serious subjects, like race and sex. It’s very interesting about race, too. S. P. Somtow is himself from Thailand. The book is dedicated to his four grandparents, one of whom was Queen of Siam. Justin is Thai, but his first language is English, his passions are Homer, Asimov, Shakespeare and Hollywood movies. He sees himself as an unmarked inheritor of Western civilization…and he has definitely inherited it. He has to find his Thai identity, like his ability to speak the Thai language. He’s between two cultures, one of them not quite real. The first two friends he makes are a servant boy, Piak, and an African-American neighbour, Virgil. In Virgil’s treehouse, Virgil announces, they are in America and Piak isn’t a servant. It’s an idealised America, because this is 1963 and in the real America Martin Luther King has only just announced his dream. The race issue that first impinges on Justin isn’t to do with the question of his own race (when he experiences racism against himself it pretty much goes straight over his head because he doesn’t have the context for it) but the question of racism towards Virgil when they interact with white Americans and with a South African. To begin with, Justin and his Thai family have no context for black people. When Virgil says Thais are too superstitious, Justin counters:
“What about you people with your cannibals and your voodoo? You sit around worshipping King Kong for God’s sake! You strangle your wives, too,” I added, learnedly.
He’s perfectly prepared to go on from that naiveity to being friends, and fortunately Virgil’s response is to roar with laughter. But when, during a rehearsal for Justin’s play about the fall of Troy the South African and the European-American try to lynch Virgil, Justin comes to a consciousness of race, and of race in the context of Western culture which is all the more clearly seen against the background of Thailand. His solution is to write a play about Orpheus that will reconcile everyone. But it takes Kennedy’s death to make Justin’s dream of having all the boys in the treehouse come true. And Somtow sees that this is a limited dream, that the girls (white, black and Thai) are left out, and the climax of the book concerns them.
Jasmine Nights seems pretty thoroughly out of print, but fairly easily available used. I’d love to see it in print again, but in the meantime do seek it out. Somtow has written lots of books, some horror, some SF, some fantastical. My favourite of his other books is The Shattered Horse, a sequel to Homer. If you’re new to his work, the collection Dragon’s Fin Soup seems to be available. The short story “Dragon’s Fin Soup” is just brilliant. I keep hoping one of his books will be a big bestseller and all his older books will come back into print so I can recommend them in good conscience. Meanwhile, he’s the director of the Bangkok Opera, which seems entirely appropriate.