Anthropologist Grant Evans has written a review of Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The review appears in the Far Eastern Economic Review (volume 169, issue 7). For those of you who cannot access the review on FEER’s public web site, here it is:
Evans review of The King Never Smiles
Grant Evans doesn’t like the book. I did, as I indicated in an earlier post. Grant’s review makes me want to go back and take another good look (a sure sign of a good review and, perhaps, a good book). I haven’t yet had a chance to do so, and given the pile of student essays I am slowly working my way through I don’t think I will have a chance any time soon. So, a couple of quick comments will have to do – one specific and one more general.
Grant is critical of Handley’s dismissive treatment of royal ritual:
…the book pivots on an old-fashioned polarity between the “rational” West and the “mystical” East with its ritualistic mumbo-jumbo. … That legitimacy is created by deliberate acts seems to puzzle Mr. Handley, who finds it hard not to see ritual as “irrational” and therefore its practice cynical. Dragging out another old cliché, Mr. Handley claims that only the “superstitious” peasants really fell for this. One wonders then what he makes of the hordes of urbanites who flooded the streets of Bangkok for the king’s 60th anniversary in June. That these rituals strike a deep chord across Thai society is clearly beyond Mr. Handley’s imagination, despite his years as a journalist there.
I have no doubt that Evans’ specific objections and quotations are spot on. But I must say that I did not come away from the book with the impression that, overall, Handley is so culturally insensitive about royal ritual. Quite the opposite, he seems to be at pains to document how such ritual has been revived, renovated and mobilised in the pursuit of royal legitimacy. Evans writes that Handley seems puzzled that legitimacy is established through deliberate acts. Puzzled he might have been, but the puzzlement (“it’s a puzzlement!” as Rodgers and Hammerstein put it) appears to have motivated a careful analysis of the way in which royal legitimacy has been constructed over the past half century. In good anthropological tradition Handley contributes to a historically specific contextualisation of how, in Evans’ words, the King came to represent the “the political and cultural unity of the nation.”
But there is a broader point. As Nicholas Farrelly notes in his post of earlier today, the Thai royal family is largely an academic no-go area. There is a limited and restrained body of scholarship on this important aspect of the Thai polity. In this context, Handley’s contribution is significant (a significance underlined by the banning of the book in Thailand). Of course, a good number of his sources are undocumented, but given the restrictions within Thailand on open discussion of royal matters this is hardly surprising. Evans’ acknowledges the value of Handley’s “important remarks on the uses and abuses of the lèse majesté laws.” But it is a much bigger issue than this. Handley has helped to open a discussion in which the royal imagery of “political and cultural unity” is put in its place, making room for a compelling account of political and economic partiality. If there has been some cultural insensitivity in the process, then so be it.