It's always the same: I write about cities I've fallen in love with


John Burdett

John Burdett

The Godfather of Kathmandu

Interview of John Burdett doesn’t want to leave the reader unsettled, he writes for people who are already unsettled.

Your narrator often calls out to the reader. Why is that?

This is a very ancient narrative technique. Shakespeare uses it, so do Jane Austen, the Brontes, Trolope, etc. Even Homer breaks off to talk to his muse now and then. It has the advantage of providing another dimension in which to express the ideas of the book. I decided to use it because in my opinion it fits very well with other modern media techniques in which we are accustomed to being addressed directly: T.V. news and most entertainment programs, social media etc. Also, in most modern documentaries you find the narrator breaking off from the story to give information directly to the viewer. I think it is simply part of a narrative pattern to which we have become once again accustomed. Anyone who visited the Globe theatre when Shakespeare was there would also have become accustomed to this technique.

In your novels, it’s often black and white and not black or white. Do you like to unsettle the reader? And what is the moral of the story?

It’s not a question of unsettling my readers, but of writing for the already unsettled. Personally, I do not think there is a lot of stability available in modern culture. In my opinion our prevailing morality (political correctness???) is so immature only the immature can take it seriously. Surely, for anyone who has survived puberty, the world simply is both black and white?

Prostitution, drug and gemstone trafficking, corruption, Tibet, China, buddhism, Hollywood movies et horrible crimes… Isn’t there any topic that terrifies you?

Domestic bliss: I doubt I’d be any good at writing about that. Yes, that terrifies me.

Do you proceed differently for every city you feature in your novels, be it Khatmandu, Hong Kong or Bangkok?

It’s always the same: I write about cities I’ve fallen in love with. I fell in love with Kathmandu even before I ever visited Thailand. I could never write about a place I’ve only visited a few times. I write from intimacy, the product of numerous visits and adventures which build up into an interior picture far richer than anything that can be conveyed directly, but which I think comes out in the texture of the prose. There is nothing balanced about my infatuation with Asian cities, it’s a completely one-sided crush, as in adolescence.

Your characters are always surprising for a Farang. But what do Asians and more particularly Thai people think about it?

I don’t permit my books to be translated into Thai, out of cowardice. Those Thais who can read English, or who come to my talks in Bangkok, have so far always complimented me on my knowledge of their culture, although they do wonder why I seem more attached to some aspects than others.
I believe that those who have spent a long time in Southeast Asia, whether Western or Asian, tend to agree that my descriptions are accurate.

Do you really think that Tibetans will manage to have an influence on the Chinese public opinion and lead China to democracy?

I think it is inevitable over the longer term. I’ve not heard of any expert who, in my opinion, really understands the Asian relationship with its subconscious, or, if you prefer, the Asian religious sensibility. It is enormously powerful. If we understand the Mao phenomenon not as a Communist revolution so much as a religious one, and the reverence for Mao as a religious impulse, then we begin to see the kind of force we are dealing with. At the moment, though, due to the horrors and destruction of the 20th century, this sensibility has reverted to something crude and even brutal. However, if we look at how sophisticated Buddhism becomes once it has a chance to flourish in a community, and how it did so in the past in China, then I think there is room for optimism in the longer term. Traditional Chinese religion was a synthesis of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism. Already the Chinese government is hinting that Buddhism and Confucianism are on the way back. Were China to revert to this kind of tolerance of difference, then of course democracy must inevitably follow.