Capitalism, Michael Sandel and Michael Moore

Doha diary, part 1

I didn't arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei's wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair's film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically -- the drinking and the smoking surprised me -- and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)

I awoke this morning to discover that I'm staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.

Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion -- it's the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women's tennis event, and in a couple of weeks' time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it's bidding to host the 2022 World Cup -- as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.

And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir's daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile -- that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 -- exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)

The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I've often thought that Moore's work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful -- on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls "bailout outrage".

That's it for now. I'm off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled "on the order of the authorities". Mysterious. I'll try to find out why.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Prime Images
Show Hide image

The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder