Mithran Somasundrum’s debut novel climaxes during the political protests in Thailand in 2010, where Red Shirts revolted against the repressive regime. The novel’s events are a protest in microcosm against old Thailand’s entrenched power systems: the old and new wealthy whose privileges included partial immunity from the law. One of Mask’s two protagonists is the middle-class son of a murdered policeman; the other is the upper-class murderer. Mask’s achievement is twofold: first, it heralds democracy in Thailand; second, it gets us to understand, if not to sympathise with, both sides of a murder story. Mask is a promising debut from Somsasundrum, who has previously published short fiction in some of the world’s most prestigious literary magazines.
The Mask Under My Face opens in 1995 in Bangkok. The scene is a posh nightclub, where a policeman, Narong, is present for reasons that remain mysterious till well into the novel. Narong has got on the wrong side of Sirichai, a grown man with the emotional maturity and sensitive ego of an adolescent. Surrounded by fawning henchmen, Sirichai murders Narong. This is not Sirichai’s first murder; the Thai are beginning to murmur about the apparent immunity granted by wealth. So Sirichai’s wealthy family – among other things, they’re sponsoring a massive new legal casino – smuggle him over the border into Laos, and thence, following yet another crime, to London. We follow the London adventures of this displaced, dullwitted prince, who is nothing without his wealth and his entourage. Then, after a hiatus of several years, we catch up with the grown-up son of the murdered policeman, and with our killer, back in Thailand in a new guise.
Mask offers fairly nuanced portraits of some of its characters. As the story progresses, Narong goes from the sacrificed white knight to a cop engaged in a nexus of shady deals. The reporter Suwalee, who urges Narong’s widow to help broadcast the murder, appears initially as an overbearing lesbian, but later resolves into a sympathetic, enterprising, reasonably wily journalist. Sirichai and his father, both involved in crime to varying degrees, emerge as flawed human beings bumblingly following their own interests and instincts. Meanwhile the policeman’s son, Den, who coasts through much of the novel, shows courage and nobility when he faces the biggest decision of his life.
Mask also offers compelling portraits of places. We get a good idea of the middle-class neighbourhood where the policeman’s family live; of the modest Laos hotel where Sirichai holes up; and of London from the perspective of a visitor: lonely and empty, its riches social and material largely beyond reach. Fifteen years elapse between the book’s first and second halves. In this interim, Bangkok has grown: the city is dominated by new highways, and a whole generation of office-going women has triggered a readjustment of gender norms.
Somasundrum’s debut novel is a compelling mixture of literary fiction and thriller. The book’s first half is driven by the possibility of the fugitive Sirichai being exposed; the book’s second half, by Sirichai’s self-punitive longing to be unmasked and punished. Largely episodic in structure, the book, especially its first half, unfolds as a series of loosely connected episodes. But the focus of the story survives the narrative’s episodic structure, and its relevance as a song of social progress makes it a worthwhile read.
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