BANGKOK 8reviews4
John Burdett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
318 pp.; $24.00 (cloth)

Tailing an American suspect through the gridlocked streets of Bangkok, a Thai policeman witnesses his partner’s gruesome murder. What would Buddha do?

John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 tells the story of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a police detective in Bangkok’s eighth precinct determined to avenge his partner’s death. But Sonchai is no ordinary policeman. He is an arhat, a former Buddhist monk exiled to the police force by his abbot to work off some troubling karma. To Sonchai, Buddhism is not an exotic faith; it is the constant backdrop of his daily life, a simple fact of his existence. He acknowledges that not everyone sees things this way, as he explains to the reader early on:

Every man [in Thailand] has ordained as a monk for at least three months of his life, meaning that every man has seriously contemplated the inevitability of his own death, the corruption of the body, the worms, the disintegration, the meaninglessness of everything except the Way of the Buddha. We do not look on death the way you do, farang [foreigner]. My closest colleagues grasp my arms, and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about the sunset?

The cliché of Buddhist fiction in the West is the spiritual quest: a naive student stumbling toward nirvana. If we encounter an enlightened being in literature, it is usually an inscrutable master who kindly helps our hapless hero along the path. In breaking the mold and telling this engaging story entirely through the awakened eyes of Sonchai, Burdett is able to present even obscure Buddhist beliefs as ordinary reality.

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