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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Research Breaks--What To Do When All You Read is About Thailand.

My dining room is piled high with incredible books about Siam, (Thailand's historic name) Anna Leonowens, (Anna of The King And I,) and the history of Thailand. 

I'm in the midst or reading a fascinating biography about Mongkut, better known as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Chao, Yu Hua, or Rama IV, as he was designated later. Mongkut was King of Siam, the fourth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri, ruling from the 1851 to 1868. (My copy is from it's publishing date, so it's orange and cuter.) 

Clearly, the one-shoulder look won.
My favorite piece of information so far, delivered as an aside, is about Mongkut's reformation of Thai Buddhism, speaking of how Buddhist's at that time could get into doctrinal battles over whether the proper garment--the traditional orange robe of a Buddhist monk--should cover one or both shoulders. (I happen to adore silly religious quibbles--all faiths have them--and am happy to learn of a Buddhist one.)

Mongkut, however,  rose above this pettiness. A conservative, he worked to remove folklore and other religious beliefs that he felt had corrupted Thai Buddhism. This meant trading with traditional enemies while seeking out the earliest texts available. 

And lest you think his influence was small, keep in mind that in Thailand, it is traditional for all young men in Thailand, at around age 20 to spend a year or two as a monk, barefoot, owning only an orange robe, and carrying around a begging bowl, which will provide them their  only daily income--food they'll will beg from people as they wander through the country. 

What a fabulous training for a King. Even if it was only due to the early death of his father and the desire to avoid being poisoned or murdered by his older brother, who became king instead of him, Mongkut was the first King of Thailand to go through such training, which, in his case, lasted for, um, 27 years, which means he ate a heck of a lot of begged-for rice. 

 I'm also staring at images from this gorgeous book, Siam, Through the Lens of John Thompson 1865-66 Including Angkor and Coastal China. 

I *think* this is Bangkok. 

Be prepared, if you look at this book, to vanish from your daily life for a few hours, studying images like this one, which I *think* is Bangkok, or below, the image of a little princess. Stare at them for a bit, and try to understand which buildings are which, or the importance of the items on display next to this charming little girl--and in the full-sized image, the way the servant keeps the souls of his feet turned away from her and off the mat, part of how you dealt with royalty at a time when it was better that a Queen drown than that ordinary folk who might save her should touch her body with their profane hands. (True story, in the 1880's.) 

But I need a break from Siam now and then. What to read then? Well, in my case, The Crime and the Silence, by Anna Bikont, a careful, detailed exploration of a terrible massacre of Jews in western Poland in 1941, in and near the town of Jedwabne, committed by neighbors, with only two Germans in town. What Bikont does, interview by interview, document by document, is no more nor less than detail what is required to both create a genocide, and then to deny it, for over seventy years. Reading this book puts a human voice and face on Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur and the Sudan, but most particularly on those genocides that involve propinquity--when neighbor murders neighbor, then steals their house, featherbed, coat, pillow case, horse, cow, mill and rings. It means for those few who survived (by being baptized and married to Christians), how it feels to know that the man repairing your stove rounded up your family, beat them, and burned them alive. How painful it is to live with the memory of 1600 men, women, old people and children's death screams, the smell of their burnt flesh. How the crime seeps in to even those who most deny having committed it, as their mentally and physically disabled son greets you in the park saying, "My father did this," (slashing at his throat) "so now I have this--" pointing at his missing arm. 

Okay, okay, it's not exactly cheery reading. But when I hear the echoes of Jedwabne in Trump's speech, and Cruz's and anybody else running for President with an R behind their name, I know how important this is, for anybody to read. (Did you hear Marco Rubio's response to the drinking water fiasco in Flint?--I can't talk about it. It makes me literally sick.) 

And quite frankly, The Crime and the Silence is riveting, even more than the 1990's film, The Nasty Girl "Das Shrekliche Madchen," about a young girl in Bavaria who's desire to write an essay about her town's past during the Nazi era nearly gets her killed. Page after page of denial and battles for truth, page after page of detective work and yet another discovery as the author looks at the Catholic Church's active participation in Jew-bating, hating and murdering in this part of Eastern Poland, with it's complicated history during WWII, under first the Soviets, then the Nazis--a part of the world where Jews who returned from concentration camps after the war, often wound up murdered, and where those who hid Jews during the war were usually chased off after by their neighbors. Harsh, yes, but true to that time, though of course, there were about 100,000 Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. 

A funeral from the Kielce pogrom, when 42 Jewish refugees were murdered in 1946--after the war. 
And personally, The Crime and the Silence is fascinating for me, because my husband's grandfather was a roofer murdered by Polish laborers, this before WWII, before the Germans ever came. As I read the venom spewed by Catholic journals of that time in that part of the country--"Jews are lice, fleas, rats, it's best to exterminate them; the Germans are taking on the Jewish problem, maybe we can too; Jews murdered Cain and crucified Christ--it's time to serve them in kind--" well, it makes me understand better the why and wherefore of how Shmuel, The Roofer's, murder could have happened. 

But cheer up. I'm also reading some lit fiction--more about that later. And the occasional children's book. Betsy and Tacy anyone? I'm working my way through the cannon. 

What a journey this blog post has taken. From Thailand to genocide--Poland et all, and then up to "Deep Valley," Maud Hart Lovelace's made-up version of Mankato. May all the children of the world live in Deep Valley, not Jedwabne, Kilgali, Nyala or Flint Michigan. May their worst problems be those of Betsy and Tacy, at least until they are grown. Amen. 

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