BOOK REVIEW / Little Frog hops about in a fake world: Jasmine Nights; S P Somtow; Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Online
BANGKOK, 1963. Twelve- year-old 'Little Frog' lives a sheltered life in an upper class, snobbish Thai household. His parents have left him in the care of three aunts - Ning-nong, Nit Nit and Noi-noi. While waiting to go to Eton, Little Frog dreams a lot of an imaginary world where he is a British lord called Justin, and where he develops an uncanny ability to read Greek mythology in contemporary events.

The real world impinges on his life when he meets Virgil, a black boy whose father is fighting in Vietnam. Little Frog is forced to confront his family's, and his community's, racism. Little Frog, Virgil and Piak, the gardener's son, form an alliance and the three set out to discover sex and Shakespeare, torment and transformation, mysticism and migrations.

We are in post-modern territory. A number of different worlds clash and implode; dream sequences merge into real Sixties history; books talk to books; and Little Frog learns the importance of bourgeois liberalism and discovers the redemptive power of Western art.

In its Thai form, post-modern culture is essentially a culture of fakes. It takes Western consumer and cultural products and duplicates them exactly, complete with a certificate of authenticity. Indeed, an astonishing 20 per cent of the Thai economy is based on the manufacture of fake goods, everything from watches and designer clothes to genuine fake antiques. True to this tradition, Somtow gives us a fake novel. In Jasmine Nights Thai landscape is artificially manufactured, its erudition is quite pretentious and its post-modern concerns forced.

We learn that there is something profoundly wrong early on. Somtow went to Eton, is a relative of King Rama VI of Siam and makes horror films in his spare time. Not surprisingly, his Bangkok seems to come straight out of a cheap guide book. The city Little Frog discovers in a couple of excursions has nothing to offer except massage parlours where prostitutes perform incredible feats of sexual gymnastics and Buddhist shrines where fake gurus conjur up phii, good and bad spirits.

Little Frog himself is quite unbelievable. Even before his teens he has mastered Homer, Virgil and Ovid's Metamorphoses, read an annotated edition of Othello and is a connoisseur of Hollywood films. When Piak's father changes his gender and becomes a stunningly beautiful woman, Little Frog can see through his 'simulacrum'. He thinks like a wise scholar, behaves like a spoilt American teenager and talks like a trendy philosopher. 'Is it you,' he asks Jessica, Virgil's sister, 'who will lift me up from the slough of poetic despond, from the quagmire of my subliterate maunderings?'

Little Frog's encounters with race, class and Bangkok teach him that truth is 'plastic' and that salvation lies in fiction. He discovers that humanity has been telling itself the same story over and over: the narrative of Spartacus is the same as that of the black slaves in the American South; the likay, Thai operas with their babies swapped at birth, the woman of noble birth accidentally brought up by peasants and the dashing prince searching for his lost beloved, are essentially versions of adventures from Orpheus in the Underworld.

In the end Little Frog decides to write his own play, moving Orpheus and Eurydice to the American Civil War with lots of contemporary references. The play, performed at school with whites acting the parts of blacks and blacks playing whites, does the trick. Racism disappears, the poor are enriched, the self-perpetuating cycle of injustice evaporates. It is a fake and unpalatable Thai dish. Art triumphs over bigotry, and Little Frog moves on to Eton.