In Richard Arthur's I of the Sun, a backpacker sets off for Southeast Asia to experience new cultures, to understand himself and life better, to forge a new beginning. The backpacker falls in love with Thailand's party scene, girls and natural beauty, while pondering the origin of the universe, the nature of cause and effect, the extent of free will _ all in a haze of uppers, downers, hallucinogens and casual relationships. Along the way he catches dengue fever and skin infections, becomes addicted to any number of substances and thrills, feels a bit of sympathy for others in their plights and a lot more for himself in his.
I OF THE SUN: By Richard Arthur, 356pp, 2012 Matador paperback. Available at all good bookshops for 450 baht.
Sound vaguely familiar? It would take an exceptional talent to pull this off, mainly because similar roads have been travelled many times over the years. Expats the world over, students in gap years, travellers of the hippie trail and vagabonds of the mind have suffered similar excesses, triumphs, failures and epiphanies.
What is unanticipated in I of the Sun is that Arthur at times does come close to something quite masterful; despite some familiar, even trite content, compelling prose and refreshing honesty fashion the whole into one of the best books of the regional backpacker trail.
The book takes us from Malaysia to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam but is mainly a tale of Thailand _ especially Chiang Mai, Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, not neglecting illicit Bangkok beer bars or Koh Phangan's full moon party, nor steamy liaisons en route with Thai butterflies who flit from tourist to traveller. There are astute takes on the decadence of Pattaya or border towns such as Sadao in Songkhla. At times the story takes on the meandering character and flow of a diary _ literally meandering, in the spontaneous nature of the narrator's travels, and figuratively, in the nature of the philosophising, with side notes on evolution, history, cosmic expansion and biological and chemical processes.
One problem is that even when the narrator is intentionally suppressed by the author _ the narrator's background isn't discussed, he isn't named, only rarely is his age (22) given _ the result is not a flavouring of fiction as much as a unifying of narrator and author (and of that other main character, the Sun). Another problem is the lengthy introspective exposition when outer description might serve the narrative better. The surrounding geography is briefly described, for example, but not what kinds of flora and details comprise it; the many beaches and bars are difficult to visualise because they serve more as vehicles for the author's journeys of mind and body, lacking the descriptive specifics to truly bring them to life. And with its "when in Rome, do the Romans" conceit, it is certainly more about the archetypal male backpacker experience than the female.
As the title suggests, there is a lot of "I" in the book and a lot of the Sun. The Sun, capped and omnipresent, even at night, becomes intertwined with the narrator's thoughts. Reading the book is a bit like travelling with an intelligent but morose, horny philosophy graduate unshackled for the first time from the restrictions of home and academia _ OK for reefer-fuelled fireside beach chats but a bit self-indulgent for long stretches of company. In life you might part ways a few days into the story; the book's quality, however, makes you feel obliged to see it through to the end _ long-winded but never dull, self-pitying and vain but not egotistical, absorbed by the I but perceptive of the we and you, intensely personal but also attuned to the setting. Arthur writes very well, especially when slipping into stream of consciousness, as we are led down the murky labyrinths of the narrator's psyche.
Solipsism. This is the theory that the self is all that can be known to exist, but the word is more commonly taken to mean self-centredness. It comes from the Latin solus, or alone. But the word is also reminiscent of the Latin sol as in solar, of the sun. So if a review had to be delivered in a single word, this would be it, although after extricating it from its negative connotations.
In the sense of having overlapping layers of fiction, travel non-fiction, science and philosophy, I of the Sun is also reminiscent of WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, another book with a titular celestial body. Rings is ostensibly about a summer's hike down the British Suffolk coast. After a few kilometres, it becomes clear there's more to the narrative than a series of deadbeat fishing villages _ namely a reflection on the inhumanity with which people can treat other people. In I of the Sun, that ancillary layer is a reflection on the extent of free will. While Saturn is related etymologically to the sense of melancholy, the sun is more symbolic of empowerment. These symbols are clues as to the tones the narratives will take.
Such books are difficult to categorise. If I of the Sun is a novel, it's missing a plot; if a travelogue, it's lacking in focus and powers of description; if a metaphysical treatise, it lacks new insights. The whole, however, adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.
There might be some sort of Euclidean proof in this: The Sun is the absolute, the absolute seeps into the book, narrator becomes Sun.
Be prepared to squint.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker