Monday, September 13, 2021

The Serpent and the Seventies


    We're in Kanit House, a stylish yet shabby five-story apartment house in Bangkok in 1974. Balconies face a sun-drenched inner courtyard with a swimming pool where young hippie tourists from Europe and America share travel experiences, swim, get stoned, and listen to music. Alain Gautier, a suave dark-haired gem dealer wearing aviator glasses, stands on his balcony and watches the people frolicking below. He watches with purpose until he selects his prey. 

   Gradually, we come to recognize what he looks for: the vulnerable, reckless, needy, trusting. He studies them the way he studies jewels through his loupe, searching for genuine gems or fakes. Even before we learn what he's capable of, we sense danger. Even before he invites the unfortunate one to his room for a drink, and afterwards, coldly watches the person convulse in mysterious spasms. Even before we glimpse the man and his accomplice carrying the sick person down dark stairs. The following morning, there is one less hippie in Bangkok. But their money and passport remain-- to be stuffed in a safe with many other passports to be used later by the man and his two accomplices: Ajay, an Indian criminal, and Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a young French-Canadian woman.

    On the other side of town Herman Knippenberg, a young Dutch diplomat, Third Secretary in the Dutch Embassy in Thailand, studies newspaper reports of a couple who were knifed and set on fire while still alive. Although the couple is identified as Australian, the diplomat wonders if these two are the young Dutch man and woman who disappeared and whose parents called him to find out what happened. Knippenberg's investigation leads him down a dark and twisting path that uncovers the serpent's den and opens to an unimaginable web of horror that spans countries. 

                                                        Billy Howle as Herman Knippenberg

     The Serpent is a chilling, sinuous eight-part miniseries coproduced by BBC One and Neflix that reveals the world of the seventies as it tracks Charles Sobhraj, a real-life gem smuggler, escaped convict, and serial killer who preyed on backpackers on the Hippie Trail-- Bangkok, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, and Delhi. in the mid-seventies. He drugged and robbed countless people, and murdered at least twelve, and probably many more. Half-Vietnamese, half-Indian, he was raised in Vietnam, and later, in Paris. By the age of sixteen, he was in jail for petty crimes and theft. For the rest of his life, he'd be in and out of prison for increasingly violent crimes.

                                            The real Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc

    Sobhraj, played by actor Tahar Rahim, has nothing but contempt for these young drifters. He, Ajay, and Marie, now known as Monique, roam the Hippie Trail in search of victims. By observing how Sobhraj manipulates Monique, grooming her into his pimp luring potential victims to their room, we see how he manipulates everyone. A hollow man, he mimics human emotions, tests his followers' limits, demands utter obedience. Monique admits he turned her into a slave. Those who dare to challenge his authority or disagree with him are doomed. A vengeful god, he wants payback for every time he was mistreated for his mixed heritage. From The Guardian's review of The Serpent: "In the series, as in real life, he uses valid complaints about racism and neocolonialism to justify his crimes as a kind of revenge on the embodiment of careless white privilege." But the truth is he mistreats and abuses everyone who comes in his circle.

    Watching busloads of young tourists from Europe and America get off in Nepal and India is a revelation. They are mostly white, traveling to third-world countries with no sense of caution or danger. Disgusted with wars, capitalism, and society's rules, they've come to Asia to seek enlightenment, experience, community, drugs, and the meaning of life. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion describes their mind-set: "drifting from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins." They are here to transform themselves.

    So is Sobhraj, who shifts his identity with each passport he steals, and with each person he encounters. Poor Knippenberg, back in Bangkok, tries to make sense of this chameleon and to follow his winding, dizzying trail. He must fight the indifference, hostility, and threats of the diplomatic community and local police who view these hippie tourists as disposable. No one cares to investigate their disappearances, no matter how suspicious they are. In addition, at that time, there exists no powerful DNA analysis, and police departments in different countries barely communicate. The world was a playground for serial killers. 

    If you weren't alive pre-cell phones and internet, pre-social media updates and CCTV, it may be difficult to imagine how different the world was. How private you could be. How possible it seemed to attain true solitude and freedom. For those who went on the Hippie Trail in the seventies, their only contact with the people back home was the weekly mail pick-up. If you wanted to drop off the face of the earth for a while, you could. 

     Why can't I stop thinking about this show? I've just finished writing Zigzag Girl, my first crime novel, in which an amateur sleuth confronts a serial killer. My sleuth lives in the 21st century and has the advantages of modern technology. She searches the web for clues, and she carries her cell phone, but she still must face the heart of evil. I've been thinking a lot about the monster that hides behind a human face, the inner rage that simmers and eventually explodes in violence. Sobhraj's cool mask hides the seething fury inside him.

But it's more than that. The show is brilliantly constructed: Knippenberg-- the force of light-- attacks Sobhraj-- the force of darkeness-- without ever meeting him. Knippenberg forms his own small team to investigate: his intelligent wife, a courageous French neighbor in Kanit House who witnessed suspicious activities, and a jaded Belgian diplomat. He nearly loses his wife and his job, but he is driven by the pursuit of justice. The storyline jolts back and forth in time, showing us how Sobhraj has been robbing and murdering for years. It's depressingly clear that he will never stop, and more depressingly, that it's unlikely he will ever be caught. 

    By the third episode, we've seen what happens when Sobhraj gets angry, and we tremble for Dominique, a young Frenchman. Drugged and held captive by Sobhraj, Dominique struggles to escape with the help of the French neighbor. It's edge-of-your-seat suspense. The final episodes can be frustrating, but the task to capture a charismatic manipulator who shifts identities, freely crosses borders, bribes his way out of prison after prison, a man for whom everyone is prey, is gargantuan. Amazingly, he has met his match in the stubborn Dutch diplomat, a true hero. He cannot give up. In his words, Sobhraj "got inside me like some sort of tropical malaria." 

Thanks to Knippenberg's efforts, Interpol finally enters the case, and Sobhraj is arrested in India. That's not the end of him: he served 21 years in India, returned to Paris a free man in 1997, and in 2003, went back to Nepal, where he is now serving a life sentence. In yet another improbable twist, he married a young Nepalese woman, who, of course, claims he is innocent. But he is still in prison, and that is thanks to the efforts of one man. 

                                                The swimming pool at Kanit House        

   Despite the darkness at the center, The Serpent portrays a time of hope, innocence, and seeking, when the world seemed vast and uncharted, and adventure and knowledge waited around the corner. That may be why I'm ultimately so fascinated by the show. I'm haunted most by the image of the group gathered around the pool at Kanit House. Like all the young, they feel invincible. They dream of tomorrow-- the world they yearn to explore, the love they hope to find-- unaware that from his balcony, a man watches. For a terrifying moment I picture myself in that group. Don't look up! I want to tell them. Please, whatever you do, don't meet his eyes

    The show is dedicated to them.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Remember Writing Letters?

I didn't keep a quarantine diary, but I wrote letters. 

During the pandemic my husband and I went on a nostalgia kick. We watched movies from the 70s and 80s, delighting in a time before cell phones and computers were widely used. In our isolation, we already cringed at crowd scenes, but we loved how personal and intimate the characters' worlds felt. People met in person rather than communicated on a phone, they wrote letters and missed important phone calls because they weren't home. It lasted for months, this yearning for a time before plague, a time that seemed more innocent, for a thriller that relied on human ingenuity rather than technology.

I began dreaming of letters I'd received and sent. Letters that changed lives, perfumed letters, witty letters I wished I'd kept, love letters that bared souls. I wrote new letters I didn't mail: to people I 'd lost touch with, people I'd never met but who intrigued me, those I'd met only once but who left an impact, historical figures, characters in my stories who puzzled or infuriated me, and old lovers.

Remember writing and receiving love letters? It was so much more than the words on the page. First, the scribbled rough drafts. The careful selection of pen and paper-- oh God, remember stationery? The torment of writing the letter-- finding the exact words that conveyed the message you wanted to communicate, stopping before you said too much.... If you were a girl, adding the faint trace of perfume before you sealed the envelope. Then the anxious wait for a response. Checking the mailbox, hourly sometimes. 

It wasn't just love letters, it was letters themselves-- those mysterious missives from somewhere else, exotic stamps from different countries, the suspense of opening the envelope. Handwriting that revealed so much: impatient scrawl, precise printed letters, words that crawled uphill or diagonally across a page, back-tilted timid letters, misspellings before the days of auto-correct. A non-business typed letter brought its own set of questions: why so impersonal? is their handwriting that bad? what's the underlying message here? Then there were aerogrammes-- those wonderful thin blue sheets sent home from travels. You had to squeeze everything onto the side of one page. Unfolding them without tearing away part of the writing presented its own delicate challenge.  

At the height of the pandemic I taught a creative writing class on Zoom and described letters to my university students, all born in the 21st century. They sat in their little Hollywood Squares and stared, baffled, while I explained the art, passion, and power of writing and receiving letters. Replacing the shortcut of emojis with the search for the exact words to convey mood and intention. The built-in delay before pressing, "Send." The fact that you can keep them, concrete and solid memories. Once they figured out that letters went way beyond text messages and emails, I sensed a shift in mood. One young woman said with a sigh, "I wish I could get a love letter." Another said, "I want to write one, but I don't know who to send it to."

I decided to give them an assignment: write a letter to someone far away and tell them something you can't tell them in person. You can make it up or make it real. You can send it or keep it. But write a letter with a pen on paper (on paper? with a pen?!). Bring it to class. You can share the letter or not.

They shared them. Amazing to listen to 19 - 21 year-olds read letters they'd written by hand... on Zoom. 
The letters were moving, funny, heartwarming, and tender, and often illustrated with drawings. I thought, plague or not, we're still here, still the same yearning hearts and souls straining to connect. 

Afterwards a few students thanked me for the introduction to letter writing. 

I feel like a visitor from another planet. What can I show them next? Ah! I know. That inscrutable monolith of power that sat grimly silent for hours while you watched and waited... and waited... for it to shrill to life.