Monday, November 20, 2017

Alex Garland - The Beach

Penguin Books
The Beach
Alex Garland

I came across the book in a very roundabout way.  I first spotted Leonardo Di Caprio in a wonderful movie called Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann. In my mind it was wonderful to see characters in modern settings mouthing Shakespeare.  Titanic mania swept me as it did the rest of the world which in turn, chasing Leo, brought me to the breathtaking cinematography of The Beach.  It was later that I learnt about the book.

I expect I read the book sometime in early '00. Most times I was just checking the book to see how much the movie matched to it. I loved the book, of course, but for some strange reason failed to absorb it.

It was a remark by my mother that brought the book back to me.  We were staying on Khao San road in Bangkok on a recent visit and mother said that the road became very famous after it was mentioned in the book. I wanted to re-watch the movie and re-read the book as soon as I returned home.

I had spent 12 hours travelling back to Chandigarh and all that staying awake wearied me.  I fell asleep within 2 hours of reaching home. I woke up at 1.30 in the night and started searching for The Beach on my bookshelf.  I read a couple of pages, found myself captivated, and fell asleep again.

I watched the movie, went back to the book and read my eyes out.

The movie is not a patch on the book, this is how most movie-book comparisons end up being described..

The book starts with Richard arriving in Bangkok and making it to a guesthouse on Khao San Road. He describes it to perfection.
The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.
Khao San Road has more foreigners than Thais. The Thais here speak English and know the ways of the tourist perfectly.  Tuk Tuks and Taxis cruise the narrow streets during the day. At night the road is taken over by hawkers and tourists sit and drink or eat al fresco, watching the gaieties. There are live bands and festoons and lights and the street does not seem to sleep.

A little while later Garland describes a Canal with a shanty market beside it which sounds like the thriving market beside the Chao Phraya river.  Soon he gets down to business. There is a crazy guy in the room next to his who gives him  a map to The Beach, a secret getaway no one else knows about. Along with two other backpackers, Richard sets off on the quest of this pristine beach where no one may go.

The book is an amazing piece of work.  Travel here is an extreme adventure, not staying in hotels and travelling to tourist spots.  It is a nod to the itinerant life of  backpackers, who are forever on the move and forever in search of an unspoiled destination, a willingness to live and travel rough. It is also a sort of a coming of age novel as Richard has taken to travel to escape being dumped by his girlfriend. It worked. The minute he sat in a plane, he forgot about the life in England, his imminent heartbreak. He learned to cope with life.

At the start, when Richard and his companions, Etienne and Francoise, reach the beach, and start living with the commune there, it is like 'The Swiss Family Robinson'. A bunch of people devising means to survive away from civilization. It descends into 'The Lord of Flies' soon after.

Garland's description of Richard's time on the beach is both real and psychedelic. It is both believable and a fantasy. It is a travelogue to a place that does not exist. From start to finish it is a gripping book that makes the most mundane of things look interesting.

I especially liked the short chapters, it makes the book succinct, like a terse report of the happenings.

The book is also about the loss of innocence. Richard, Etienne and Francoise have wandered into Eden and soon discovered the serpents.

It is an amazing debut for a writer, to turn out a book like this, about such an off beat topic with such conviction.

I am grateful to the movie for having drawn my attention to the book, and to Leonardo Di Caprio to have drawn my attention to the movie.  But that is about it. The movie does not capture too much of the book.  By its very nature, it is forced to summarize and let go of some characters.  It could not, for fear of attracting censorship, give us the full impact of the madness that is the climax of the book. It serves, with its stunning visuals, a good image for the beach, and to imagine what Richard looks like.

It is particularly off-putting that western movies cannot bear the thought of their protagonist going without sex for a long stretch of time. The book does not put any emphasis on sex lives of the characters, unlike the movie.

The unkindest cut I feel was the book being shown as a sort of an airport read in Bridget Jones, the Edge of Reason, when it is so much more.