This experimental prose-poem is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno. It is a modern moral saga of depravity and redemption. In Part 1, the narrator, a man in middle life, hits rock bottom (well, nearly!).
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
chè la diritta via era smarrita.
In middle life I lost my way somehow and found myself inside a wood so dark that I had no idea which way to go. The situation that I faced was stark; no job, no money, no friends and no lover – hardly a walk, as they say, in the park! My three-year love affair with Lek was over. She had run out on me with all my cash; bled me white, then left me for another. With hindsight I can see that it was rash to seek a lover in a gogo bar – it was inevitable that we’d clash.
I met her in Soi 8, in Silver Star, a shy new girl – well, that is what she said – we only have their word for what they are, and it seemed true – she was so shy in bed at first, then gradually she got bolder, and before long was wildly giving head, practising what her bargirl friends had told her.
But she’d learned some less pleasant things from them, and soon her attitude to me grew colder. They taught her how to manage a farang: blow his mind with sex at night. By day, blow his wad at the nearest ATM – then blow his nose and send him on his way!
Lek learned her lesson well. A Honda Wave was first, then an expensive holiday, and then she wanted marriage. So I gave my notice, sold my house and came to Thailand – and found I was another kind of slave, and worse off than when I was back in my land! What capped it all was when I bought a house – in her name of course (we cannot buy land in our own name, but only for a spouse). It cleaned me out financially, and yet she wanted more – treated me like a louse.
The loan fell due last week. She was upset. Not about my debt – she couldn’t care less – but about the allowance that she didn’t get. And then on top of all my other stress, she told me if I couldn’t give her more, she’d find another pathway to success. That means another man – I know the score!
I’ll have to face my problems on my own. That’s why I’m going to the 14th floor. I’ll take the lift up – but the quick way down!
In Part 2, the narrator meets Dante (in the original, Dante meets the poet, Virgil) who offers to act as his guide to the Inferno.
L’amico mio, e non de la ventura,
ne la diserta piaggia è impedito
sì nel cammin, che vòlt’ è per paura;
The lift stopped when it reached the 13th floor and opened for an elderly farang, who hesitated just outside the door. ‘Up or down?’ he asked, and with a pang
I answered, ‘Up,’ then turned my back on him – I didn’t want to talk to any man.
‘Are you OK?’ he asked as he came in. ‘You look stressed out – if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘It’s a long story. Where shall I begin…?’ I stopped and wondered why I was betraying my secrets to a stranger – what the heck! – ‘I loved a girl called Lek – and now I’m paying…’
‘I’ve heard it all before. No need to tell me more. My name is Dante, by the way.
I’ve suffered from a broken heart as well, but ease the pain by singing it away.’
‘Oh, you’re a singer?’
‘No, I am a poet. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?’
‘Tell me your name again.’
‘I know it. You used to write for Stickman about Nana nightlife and Pattaya bargirls.’
‘No, that’s not me you’re thinking of, but Dana. My medium is Italian poetry. My homeland, the Italian campana. I sing of Heaven and Hell and Purgatory in my best poem, Divina Commedia – and this place seems a bit like Hell to me.’
‘I’d rather read Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes, cos languages are not much in my line. I failed at French in school, and can’t speak Thai. However, your conclusions are like mine: It seemed like Heaven at first. Those bargirls made my every dream came true – from 69’s to threesomes – I was on a high! But soon I wearied, as we all must do when glutted, so I looked for love instead – in the wrong places – the best bars I knew. And then I found, just like the adage said, that you can take a girl out of the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of the girl.’
‘Is that the reason,’ he said, ‘that you are heading for the 14th floor?’
‘To tell the truth, I am, and guess what – I don’t care!’
‘If you jump, you’ll really be in Hell! That’s where suicides go – didn’t you know?’
‘I don’t believe in that stuff, so farewell!’
He gripped my arm and said to me, ‘Let’s go to Walking Street and have a drink and chat. Maybe you’ll change your mind, you never know. And maybe, if you face your fear; go back to the Inferno where your problem started, your future prospects may not seem so black.’
The truth be told, I was feeling faint-hearted, about the jump that waited just outside, and so I felt relieved when he restarted the lift downwards, and said he’d be my guide.
In Part 3, Dante guides the narrator through the Pattaya Inferno. The text in caps is the most famous quotation from the whole of Dante’s poem.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE.
A high archway with lettering like coiled rope (Thai writing – also English), seemed to say: ‘ALL THOSE WHO ENTER HERE ABANDON HOPE’, and then I saw it in a different way: it just said, ‘WALKING STREET’ – but still my vision lingered, filling my heart with dark dismay.
Dante, seeing this, said with derision, ‘Those words are written on the gates of Hell, and those who enter here make the decision to break the seventh commandment. Let me spell it out: Do not commit adultery. Like you, the men who come here know it well, but that does not prevent them making free with every Jezebel that passes by. Let’s go inside this bar, and you will see.
I shook my head. ‘I don’t understand why we’re going here – I’ve seen it all before!’
‘But you must see it with a different eye. Last month when you came in this bar and saw that naked girl bathing in the Jacuzzi, you didn’t think it sinful. What is more, you put your hand in where the soap’s most sudsy, fondled her butt and boobs, gave her some baht, and took her for the night. She wasn’t choosey; she didn’t care that you were bald and fat; she is a sinner too; she lusts for money, and she could see you had plenty of that.
‘It was a bit of fun!’
‘It wasn’t funny to your ex-wife, Lek. No wonder she left you: she got the stings and you got all the honey!’
‘If I’d known what you intended to do – bring me here to preach and put me down – I wouldn’t have come; I would have seen it through!’
‘Then have a Heineken and look around, and see yourself reflected in these others – that man is 60, yet young girls surround him like a hungry locust swarm that hovers above the crop that it will soon devour. At least they send their earnings to their mothers and do what little good is in their power;
While he obscenely drools in selfish lust, not caring that his married life turns sour, or that his kids regards him with disgust.’
‘I hope I’m just as randy at his age! Better that than let my vitals rust!’
Dante shook his head like an old sage. ‘You just don’t get it! God laid down a plan. It’s written on the Bible’s every page, and points the way for every mortal man. To follow it is to find the way to Heaven; to go your own way is to damn your mortal soul!’
‘I’m sorry, but I can’t believe in all those medieval myths, because in schools today, we study science. You were naïve in your day, and the Catholic Church made fools of all its followers. Today we’re wiser, and everybody lives by his own rules.’
‘With what result? Look at those girls. Their eyes are empty though a smile is on their faces; and look at those guys watching them. Those guys are dreaming of the girls in their embraces. But when they get a girl back to their room, they’ll feel the emptiness, because nothing replaces love – especially mechanical boom-boom.’
I looked around hoping to point out any truly loving couple, but there were none – I didn’t know lust had undone so many.
It never fails to amaze me how NGO’s and liberal news media fall for the same wildly inaccurate clichés about the bar scene. In this part, a bargirl sets the record straight.
Ruppemi l’alto sonno ne la testa
un greve truono, sì ch’io mi riscossi
come persona ch’ è per forza desta;
Thunder awoke me – or perhaps the storm was in my head because of what I’d seen. Dante was there, still planning my reform, and with him was a woman. ‘Meet Kathleen,’ he said, ‘She’ll be your guide tonight. An NGO working in the bar scene, she helps to rescue bargirls from their plight, and might help you as she’s an atheist, well, an agnostic – her belief is slight. She’s not a Christian, but a feminist. A modern faith, a new morality, might hit the spot that my religion missed.
Kathleen said, ‘Come with me and you’ll see that many bargirls here are under age.’ She took me to a bar, Super Baby, and said, ‘Look at those dancers on the stage. Not one of them is older than fourteen! The paedophiles in here fill me with rage!’
‘How do you know their age?’
‘When have you seen a woman so petite?’
(In the west, never, judging by the spare tyre on Kathleen). ‘They look young, yes,’ I said, ‘but don’t you ever take the trouble to check their ID?’
‘All fakes!’ she cried. ‘The traffickers are clever!’
I called a girl to have a drink with me. ‘You’re very small,’ I said when she was seated. ‘How old are you?’
She said, ‘I’m twenty-three.’
But Kathleen couldn’t bear to be defeated: ‘Prove it!’ she said.
‘The police checked yesterday. My ID was OK and I’m well treated.’
‘Because of all the bribes your traffickers pay!’ said Kathleen, ‘but I’m here to be your saviour! Get dressed and I will smuggle you away, get you a better job, change your behaviour.’
‘1,000 baht a week.’
I whispered in her ear, ‘If I can have your company for tonight I’ll double that!’
But Kathleen overheard, and cried: ‘Disgusting! You’re old enough to be her father! Anyway she’s probably got AIDS! Here was I trusting the pair of you, hoping to do some good, and all the time you’re mocking me by lusting for honey and for money. If I could, I’d pass new laws to stop people like you: one to stop women selling sex like candy, another to stop sex-tourists who screw poor Asian girls. They should be made to see that they are being racist when they do,
and forced to date a western girl – like me!’
Dante, the traditional Christian, and Kathleen, the modern feminist, have failed to show the narrator the way out of his problems. In this part, a humble bargirl, Bee (the Thai equivalent of Dante’s Beatrice), shows the way to happiness. (By the way, a special thanks to Dante, for that wonderful last line!)
…tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
Kathleen stormed out and left me there with Bee.
‘Mee bpan-haa?’ Bee said, ‘What is wrong with her?’
‘She thinks these bars are bad.’
‘Chai, I agree. Bad! But no choice. Someone must take care of mae and paw – and factory no good! Hours too long – and not much money there. In bar – extra for dancing in the nude, and lady drinks and barfines, and then more: short time, long time – baht maak when I’m barfined – and some guys – just two minutes then they cum! I butterfly – that’s bad – but make good karma – send money to my family – make tambun! My friend – her father is a poor rice farmer – she met a guy – he’d just got a divorce. He looked so sad, but Jiab is a charmer, and sat with him dressed in her see-through gauze, and healed his broken heart with just a kiss (later, in bed, she gave much more, of course). They married, and they now live happily. So out of this bad place, there came some good – and maybe something good will come to me.’
‘My life is broken too, I wish you could repair it like your friend repaired that guy. I’d make you happy – I promise you I would.’
‘Mai nae-jai – I think you are butterfly! Butterfly OK – but not when wed. You’d hurt me – like you hurt Lek – make me cry!’
I got to thinking about what she’d said. In simple terms: you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Marry – or butterfly instead. One of them would work. Trying to make them both work leads you to the 14th floor! I’d have to choose. Meanwhile, I planned to take Bee to my condo for long time hardcore – and who knows, maybe for longer time – maybe try marriage, like I did before. And so I said, ‘Check bin,’ paid the barfine, and took her far away from all the bars, and all the noise and lights, and past the sign – and outside we looked up and saw the stars.
* * *
A conventionally formatted version of this poem appears in my collection, Jasmine Kisses, along with many other poems from the Land of Smiles. FREE copies are still available. To get your free copy, email me at the address below, and I will send you a Kindle version (mobi format).
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]