Kukrit Pramoj: ยิวสี่แผ่นดิน (Four Reigns)
As the title implies, the story tells of the life of an individual across the reign of four kings of Thailand, from the reign of Rama V in the late nineteenth century to the death of Rama VIII in 1946. The individual whose life we follow is called Phloi, the daughter of a middle-ranking nobleman and his wife, a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Sadet, unmarried sister of the King. The story follows Phloi’s life on the fringes of the royal court and, as a result, we get a glimpse both of the fringes of the court and the changes that take place in Thailand during a tumultuous period of its history.
At the start of the story, when Phloi is ten and it is 1892 in our calendar (2435 in the Buddhist calendar), Phloi is living with her parents in their house. Her mother, Chaem, is Chao Khun’s second wife. He wanted to marry Chaem first but his parents had persuaded him to marry a noble lady by whom he had three children, Khun Un, Khun Chit and Khun Choei. Khun is an honorific. Un and Choei were female, Chit male. He had married Chaem later (polygamy was accepted and very common) and had had two children by her, Phloem (a boy) and Phloi. As a result, his first wife had left and gone back to her family, never to return. At the beginning of the novel, Khun Un, who despises Chaem and her children, is giving her father her maid, Yuan, as a new wife and Chaem is planning to leave. Relationships between the two families are not good. Khun Un is ruthless and dominating. She will remain single all her life. Khun Chit is spoilt and very badly behaved. By the beginning of the novel he has become an opium addict and is always scrounging money to feed his habit. He will remain irresponsible through the book. Only Khun Choei is a nice person and she and Phloi get on. However, Chaem and Phloi leave, with Chaem returning to the court, to work for Sadet again.
Phloi is naturally apprehensive at the change but soon fits in. She is a kind, decent and loving person and gets on with virtually everyone, except for her oldest half-sister. She soon makes friend with Choi, a girl her own age, who is something of a tomboy, tough, ready for a fight but with a heart of gold. Choi will also remain unmarried. Phloi soon starts working for Sadet and becomes one of the princess’s favourites. Meanwhile Chaem goes off to live with an old lover. She will eventually become pregnant but die in childbirth. One of the many surprising things we learn about the Thai nobility is that not only is polygamy tolerated but extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and even marrying out of one’s class are all acceptable.
The book essentially tells the story of Phloi’s life, ending only with her death. She is courted by Choi’s brother but ends up marrying a man from a rich family. They have a long and happy marriage, despite the fact that she finds out, fairly quickly, that he has an illegitimate child from a previous relationship. Kind-hearted Phloi adopts the boy and treats him as her own. She will have two further boys and then a girl. Kukrit paints a wonderful portrait of life on the edge of the court, from the gossip of the court, to major events as well as giving us a family-saga, Thai-style, with the usual births, deaths, weddings, marital disharmony (and marital harmony) and the inevitable problems. We follow the history of Thailand, though generally from a very royalist point of view. Phloi and, presumably, Kukrit are ardent monarchists (though Phloi’s family is not always so keen). We also see the changes that Thailand is exposed to in its dealings with the farangs (foreigners). Technological changes come into the plot, with the first trains, bicycles and cars all feature. The influence of what happens abroad is also key, with the royal princes and Phloi’s children spending time abroad, often in education. The World Wars, of course, have a huge impact on Thailand as do other events abroad, such as the Great Depression. Thailand tries to cling onto its past traditions while also trying to modernise.
If you do not know Thailand or only know it as a tourist, you will certainly find this book fascinating, both from seeing a way of life very different from that in West but also getting the Thai view of the West and its, in their eyes, strange behaviour. But it is also a first-rate story as Kukrit introduces us to a host of characters, from the royal family down to the servants, all of whom have their own personalities and views. And, as far as I can determine, this book is not available in other European languages but only English.
First published by Phrǣ Phitthayā in 1963
First English translation by Duang Kamol in 1981