Book Reviews

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Mara in the Land of Smiles:

An Ancient Fable for Today

by Ian Mayo-Smith (’Ajahn Ian’) with watercolour illustrations by Din Hin

2007. 123 pp., 16 colour illustrations, 21.5 x 15 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-090-7 $23.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-090-2

Art Or Oxymoron

Book review by Jeffery Sng

(ASIANEWS, April 27-May 3, 2007)

Ian Mayo-Smith, the author of a new book titled Mara in the Land of Smiles, is an aristocratic looking American gentleman with white hair and a goatee.
   Initially, he had come to Thailand as the head of a team from an American university to conduct training programmes for the Thai government. Enjoying his time in the country so much, along with its people and culture, he continued to return for extended stays.
   On his many trips, Mayo-Smith made a number of friends in government as well as among intellectuals and artists, including the famous Thai social critic, Buddhist leader, writer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sulak Sivaraksa. During the launching of Mayo-Smith’s new book Mara in the Land of Smiles at Orchid Books in Bangkok’s Silom Complex, Sulak made a touching speech commending the author for his passion for Thai culture and his valuable contribution to Thai literature, culture and society.
   It can hardly be denied that Mayo-Smith is in love with Thailand. What is interesting is that he sought to express his deep love for the country through literature. While many foreign and Thai writers have translated Thai literature into English, very few have tried to write Thai literature in English. As a farang, or foreigner, Mayo-Smith set out to do just that. Although it sounds like an oxymoron we should not simply dismiss the idea out of hand. Mara in the Land of Smiles is Thai in many ways.
   The author takes great pains to acknowledge that the new book grew out of his lasting friendship with Janya and Tongchai from a family of professional likay (folk theatre) performers. During his stay in Thailand he also became profoundly influenced by Buddhism. He wrote the book in the home of Janya and Tongchai, surrounded by Buddha images and other holy personages. Mara in the Land of Smiles mirrors the influence of the Buddhist faith and Thai culture on the author.
   Ian Mayo-Smith’s choice of the fable or child fantasy medium as the vehicle for his message also reflects another Thai influence—likay, or traditional folk theatre. “The story unrolled before me as though it was being performed as a likay drama,” he says. Likays generally combine music, singing, classical dance, knockout comedy, melodrama, sword fights and romance.
   In Mara in the Land of Smiles, Mayo-Smith set out to write a mythical fable, utilising traditional likay attributes, set in a symbolic Thai landscape. The story has a familiar structure. It begins in an idyllic paradise, called The Land of Smiles, where traditional Thai Buddhist values of contentment and moderation prevail and people are happy, living in harmony.
   But danger is lurking. The inhabitants, like Adam and Eve in the Biblical Paradise, are blissfully unaware that their happiness annoyed Mara, The Lord of Delusion. Mara embodies the predatory values of greed and selfishness in sharp contrast to Buddhism’s core values of moderation, peace and balance.
   One of the highlights of the book are the lyrics which preface every chapter. Many of the songs are disarmingly seductive. The use of poems or lyrics as a dramatic technique to introduce a character or set the tone for a scene can be directly traced to likay.
   The author effectively uses likay techniques to bridge the space between fable and reality and to speak to the burning issues of contemporary Thai society. The character Meobah’s seductive song speaks to the innermost fantasies of every beer-bar girl in Thailand’s robust commercial sex industry, while Marshal Jorakei’s song celebrates power and order over peace and democracy, evoking the politically predatory nature of the Thai military. This is reflected in a turbulent modern political history punctuated by 31 coup d’tats—the last of which occurred on Sept 19, 2006.
   Somewhat like the Biblical Serpent in Paradise, Mara seeks to corrupt the innocence and virtue of the inhabitants of The Land of Smiles. The stage is set for re-enacting a primordial theme in Western ethical thought—The Fall from Innocence.
   In Mayo-Smith’s modern version of The Fall, Mara sends his disciples to The Land of Smiles to sow hatred and mistrust among the inhabitants. Soon fear, jealousy, hatred, greed, delusion and decadence replace happiness and peace in the once idyllic locale. The Land of Smiles was ripe to crumble under Mara’s moral siege.
   But a good drama cannot just end there. Likay always provides for a dramatic rebound after putting the audience through fearful suspense. In the depths of despair hope flickers. Somehow, four persons remained uncorrupted and stood in the way of Mara’s complete victory. The King of the Land, an old monk, a poor peasant and a wealthy merchant refuse to succumb and organise a resistance, turning the tide on Mara’s baneful influence.
   In the story, the four set themselves up as followers of The Great Teacher who preached peace and love. The Great Teacher may be interpreted as Buddha in the Thai context. Mayo-Smith concedes that “The Great Teacher may appear in different guises in different places at different times in history”.
   Similarly, he adds, “Mara is always around and appears in different guises in different places under different names.”
   After many vicissitudes, the epic struggle between Mara and the followers of the Great Teacher culminates in a final battle where King Surya defeats Mara’s supporters. The story has a happy ending in conformity with traditional likay convention, where the King not only magnanimously forgives Mara’s repentant disciple Meobah but also marries her.
   Mayo-Smith has created a charming and beautifully narrated bedtime story. Clearly, he also wants the book to be something more.
   “Perhaps” he suggests, “some of the troubles in the mythical Land of Smiles have their parallels in Thailand today.”
   Mara in the Land of Smiles speaks to the crisis in Buddhist values in modern Thailand. The vulnerability of Buddhist values is underscored by the eloquently seductive arguments put forth by Mara to justify a selfish moral standpoint. The helplessness of the Sangha in the wake of the erosion of Buddhist values has prompted the renown Buddhist reformer Sulak Sivaraksa to cry out: “Thai Buddhism is dead!”

Mayo-Smith’s other books include Peace (Poems, Essays and Memories for Everyone), The Children’s Aviary and Trying to Walk the Way.

[Read a review from the Bangkok Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]