When asked how she felt about the Nazis, who killed her husband and mother, and imprisoned her in a concentration camp, holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer simply said, "We are all the same- good and bad." The characters in Jim Algie's "The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand" are a testament to this truth. Viewed from one angle, they might seem monstrous or pathetic: demented murderers crazed by blood-lust; death-dealing officials enduring their guilt in a state of numbed cognitive dissonance; rapacious journalists clambering over piles of corpses, claiming to be motivated by altruism; violent, depraved con-men breaking each others' noses; pretentious intellectuals warding off emotion with callous cleverness; narcissistic high society ladies treading a fine line between neurosis and nightmare.
All of this would be thrilling fare even if it remained one dimensional, but Algie's stories are more profound than your average tales of murder and mayhem because his characters are tilted this way and that until we see them from multiple perspectives. They appear and re-appear in various tales, at different stages of life. We learn of their hurt, their history, their illness, instability and idiosyncrasy, and begin to sympathize with them, especially when they unexpectedly show compassion for one another.
A cloddish Canadian tourist metamorphoses from obnoxious loudmouth to tireless relief worker in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. In a heroin-induced dream state, a con artist confesses painful childhood insecurities that propelled him towards a criminal life. A cannibalistic murderer's hungry ghost whispers of the economic and racial cruelties that reduced him to non-personhood. A conscience-plagued executioner rises at five a.m. and lovingly prepares breakfast for his family. One of the most moving characters in the book is a bar girl nicknamed "Watermelon" who sells her body, and perhaps parts of her soul, to feed her family. She endures being slavered upon by greasy, drunken ghouls for the sake of her daughter, "Duck". Finally driven to attack one of her clients, she bargains with the Buddha in her getaway taxi. How many karmic hit points will she sustain for this crime of desperation? Paradoxically, a fleeting sympathy arises between Watermelon and her fat, rich victim as they each pretend they are making love to somebody else.
When Watermelon appears later on in the story cycle, as the stoic fiancée of the cloddish Canadian, her hard-won equanimity is elaborated thus:
"Like a plant drinking in sunshine, she absorbed all the most pleasant aspects of what was happening around her: the ocean sighing and tossing in its sleep, the breeze fluttering past that caressed the hairs on her forearms, the candlelight burnishing the wooden table, and all the smiling people on holiday, dressed in bright colours."
Passages like this are some of the most striking, and highlight a strand of Buddhist philosophy that weaves its way through the stories, patiently shadowing certain characters as they tread crookedly intersecting pathways. Western intellectual men stumble haltingly towards acceptance of the inevitability of suffering, and reverence for the beauty of the present moment- a gift and survival tool that Watermelon possesses all along.