Chariot of the Sun, disingenuously subtitled “An Informal History of a Siamese Family”, stands out from the recent plethora of run-of-the-mill or self-serving memoirs and biographies by very much being neither. Here we can meet an utterly fascinating variety of people, a number of whom occupied positions of power, but also some who didn’t, and they’re all revealed through what Nic Dunlop tells us on the back cover, “storytelling that revels in the fragmentary and the anecdotal.” This is a different kind of memoir; the main “character” isn’t so much the writer himself, but a selection of family members evocatively presented through stories and photographs that are linked by a narrative about an ancient prophecy (no spoiling here!). Bunnag begins with the 2011 earthquake and ends with a tree (the name Bunnag means “tree”) and a placenta, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he goes, employing full use of his skills as a documentary film-maker.
The Bunnag family had its roots not in Thailand at all, but in 17th-century Persia, when two Shia Muslim brothers, Ahmad and Mohammed Sayyid, decided to go to what is now Thailand in about 1600, settling in the city of Ayutthaya, which Bunnag calls “the city of memory”, and eventually becoming very prosperous and influential. There had been Muslims in Ayutthaya for a long time; Bunnag tells us that there had been trade with the Persians there for centuries, and that eventually they were given their own land by the king of Ayutthaya. Ahmad (Moahammed returned to Persia), who gained his power and influence by supporting a successful royal candidate, “fought, conspired, sired, yet he was the religious leader of Aytthaya’s Muslims.” Unfortunately, in 1767 Ayutthaya was attacked and plundered by the Burmese, and “the lives of Ahmad, and his first descendants are broken into fragments,” thus creating the memories Bunnag hopes to tap into. His task, as he sees it, is “the reconstitution of these shards”, which is going to be “torturous and precarious”, definitely not the stuff of conventional memoir-writing. Fortunately for Bunnag, an ancestor of his in the 19th century, Kham Bunnag, otherwise known as Chaophraya Thiphakorawong (1813-1870), “a nobleman who had run the Ministry of Trade for a time,” decided to write a history of his family “based on lineage records, memory, and oral transmission.”
Kham’s records and methodology are what inspired Bunnag to write this “informal history”. Under his guidance, readers are taken through what he terms a “labyrinth of memory”, a history based on human stories, evocative of the past through the present as Bunnag searches in present-day Bangkok for long-vanished landmarks such as family houses and other locations connected with family events and personalities. “My grandparents’ house was crumbling, subsiding and rotting,” Bunnag writes, “the whole place was in need of love.” This was in 2005; in 2011 the flood described in the first chapter of the book washed it away completely. This house symbolized family unity, which was already threatened by the death of Bunnag’s grandmother; “without the house,” Bunnag says, “the disintegration was quickened,” and the family scattered, much as it had in Ahmad’s time. The author himself is a product of this diasporic lineage; his father is Thai, his mother Irish; he was born in Cambridge, grew up in Greece and England and now spends time in Thailand. This mix gives him a unique perspective on Thailand; he’s not exactly a common or garden searcher for “roots”, and he’s not exactly a tourist either. He’s writing about his family, which of course provokes an emotional response, but his training as an historian allows him to step back from the personal at just the right moments, so the story he relates here never descends into sentimentality or sensationalism. At the same time, Bunnag has a gift for making the people he writes about very human and real.
As a noble family, the Bunnags had connections in high places. A quick glance at the family trees shows that by the 18th century, one of them had been Minister of War in Ayutthaya and had been killed fighting the Burmese. Two became royal consorts: Thani of king Rama I (reigned 1782-1809), and Chao Chom Liam of Rama V (reigned 1868-1910). The men did quite well, too; Mom Bunnag, for example, was married to Nual, the sister of Queen Amarindra (1737-1826), the wife of Rama I, and Tom became Minister of Foreign Affairs under Rama VII (reigned 1925-35). In 1866, using a combination of eastern and western methods, Rama IV predicted an eclipse and Chuang (Suriyawong), Mom’s grandson, who was Prime Minister, was there when the king’s calculations came true. There’s a delightful vignette of him as “he ran about like a young man … Chuang hugged the king and they both cheered, shouting ‘hurrah! Hurrah!’ in English.” Toh, Chuang’s grandson, was Rama V’s chosen companion when the king visited Europe in 1897 and 1907, and they were photographed together; “the staging was arranged by the king,” Bunnag tells us in his description of the photograph.
We are evidently not dealing with an “ordinary” Thai family here—these are influential people immersed in power and politics, serving as ministers and advisers to the Chakri dynasty as well as marrying into it. There are more recent relatives, too; Shane’s father, who features throughout the book, is the distinguished novelist Tew Bunnag (born 1947), author of Fragile Days (2003) and Curtain of Rain (2014). His grandmother Chancham, who despises cell phones, and grandfather, Tula, are also prominent in Shane’s life. They were both well-travelled and European-educated; he tells us that when they first met, “they did not like each other,” and she later noted that “Tula is rude to everyone,” although it didn’t stop them getting married. There are, so it seems, one or two rather unpleasant characters who make their presences felt, the most notable being a man called Dit, who gets a chapter to himself. Ruthlessly successful, he became Minister of War and Minister of Trade at the same time. He had twenty-five wives, two of whom were given to him by king Rama II (reigned 1809-24), and when he has to deal with foreigners, he “will not suffer to have [them] above his head, and visits their house through an upstairs window by way of a ladder,” to minimize contact with their “impure bodies”.
It’s anecdotes like this, together with many photographs, which Bunnag employs with great skill to flesh out the people he describes. However, this brings me to my one problem with this otherwise wonderful book, and that is that many of the photographs are too small and sometimes rather poorly-reproduced, especially in those which involve either a number of people or scenic vistas. One cannot make out, for example, the faces of the people in the photograph celebrating Rama IV’s eclipse prediction, and the photographs of house interiors are very grainy; of course, many of these are amateur photographs, and some are very old, but size does matter when the details of the photograph are important. A small photograph of Dit’s garden, for example, is almost unrecognisable as a garden, and one of Chancham’s living room is equally poor, although one can make out the ceiling fan.
These criticisms in no way detract, in the end, from book’s the many pleasures and the insights Bunnag has managed to glean from his investigation into this remarkable family. It also gives us a glimpse into past Thai life from the point of view of a well-established and sometimes quite powerful family. When Bunnag gets to the present we can see how they evolved as the years passed, although the connections with the royal family remained, and there are friendships with prominent people, notably Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995), a former Prime Minister and distinguished writer of perhaps the most famous modern novel in Thai literature, Four Reigns (1953), which Bunnag tells us he is reading before he goes to sleep. This family saga is anchored in the story of Phloi, whose life it spans; like Chancham, who translated the work into English, she is a woman who weathers all the storms of the times and eventually triumphs. Time and unforeseen events, however, took their toll on the Bunnags as they did on the fictional family; Bunnag’s grandparents’ house was dismantled and moved, but washed away by the flood in 2011. When he went to see it in 2005, his father told him, “Sorry about the state of the house, it’s how we are.” It symbolized the evolution of the Bunnag family and a repeat of what happened to Ahmad’s family during those far-off days in Ayutthaya:
The family gatherings ended there. Without the house a disintegration was quickened; it was not simply because of the state of the house, distance and fragmentation had already set in. Dad came to Thailand less, the family rituals dried out.
And that’s where the placenta comes in. After his son was born, Bunnag and his wife saved it for a year in a freezer, after which they brought a tree and planted it together with the placenta. “I had been thinking about things that flourish in this soil … what comes out of it, what goes into it,” Bunnag writes, and hence they plant the “family tree” and, “as we finish, bright sunlight floods the scene.” We hope it continues.