Many Lives is a short novel by Thai author Kukrit Pramoj, who was not only a renowned author but a politician, the thirteenth Prime Minister of Thailand, an actor and a scholar. Pramoj was inspired to write this novel when he passed by a terrible accident on the road. Bodies lay along the side of the street and he wondered who each of those people were and how they all had come to die in such a terrible way in the same place and time. Originally this novel was supposed to be written by Pramoj and his author friends, but when his friends became indecisive he decided to take on the project on his own. The result is this touching and eye-opening novel which tells the life stories of eleven victims of a passenger boat accident.
At the beginning of the novel the undefined narrator asks, “Could each have carried the same weight of heinous karma?” Karma is the Buddhist belief that the actions of your previous lives will affect your current one. If you were a bad person in your old life, you are doomed to suffer in this life. Each of the characters- a thief, monk, prostitute, prince, actor, daughter, writer, mother, soldier, rich girl and doctor- meet their end at entirely different points in their lives after experiencing entirely different things up to that point. Pramoj writes in the epilogue:
All that most of us ordinary mortals, who are not the Lord Brahma, can see if just one thing: which is that death, so much feared by us all, can in some cases be a dreadful punishment for wrongdoing, in some cases a reward for virtue; in others, the solution to a problem, or in still others, a healing balm for a wound unable to be healed by any other means.
So, in a way, Pramoj answers his original question. You cannot assume that a person’s death came as a result of bad karma, and even if it did, death might for that person be not such a bad thing. There is no one way to view death; there are as many kinds of death as there are people in the world.
On a scholarly level, I loved this novel. The wide variety of characters provided a fascinating look into Thai life in the 1950s in all its forms. I especially enjoyed that Pramoj told a story from the point of view of a monk. All Thai boys at some point in their lives become monks in order to make merit. The merit is not only for himself but for his entire family, and will help them all obtain better status in their next lives. Buddhist monastic life and philosophy is extremely interesting and and integral part of understanding Thai society.
Some of Pramoj’s characters, however, rubbed me the wrong way, in particular the way he portrayed the “bad” characters and some of the women. In the story of the bandit, Pramoj writes him off as being evil from the moment he was born. He had no chance to become a functioning member of society and was destined to bring pain to everyone around him. He hurt and killed without a bit of remorse without any tangible, understandable reason for why his personality developed this way. I’m extremely uncomfortable with anyone saying that a person could simply be born this way without there being any external influences. The second character I took real issue with was the prostitute, who was of course a woman, and who Pramoj expects us to believe gets sold into prostitution and then for the rest of her life only sees her body as a way to make money. She is totally consumed by her obsession with making money, which is supposedly a result of her growing up in poverty. At least Pramoj creates a reason behind this behavior, but again I am uncomfortable with how Pramoj gave this character very little depth.
All in all, I recommend this novel. Though set in the 1950s, much of the social classes in Many Lives still exist in some form today. I especially recommend it for getting a taste of the lives lead by Buddhist monks and Thai royalty, whose lives are unique in Thai society.