Mapping Vincent Calvino’s World
There is a beautiful quote from Jorge Luis Borges that like a song you can’t get out of your head, haunts me: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” ― Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories
Gore Vidal and Christopher G. Moore Oriental Hotel 1993
With the end of the Vincent Calvino series I’m tracing the labyrinth of lines on my own face. When I look into the literary mirror, I stare back in time at a person I once was and in many ways remain, and that person is also here and now, changed, humbled, chastened, watchful, remembering other faces, travels, slums, events, acts of kindness, the suffering and anguish that slices through the belly of life.
These brief observations outline a crude map of a very large unknown territory I’ve explored and still only vaguely understand and know. I’m aware that maps, models, simulations, representations are crude and simplified versions of infinite possibilities that go unmentioned. I make no claim the Vincent Calvino series is anything other than an eccentric attempt to reduce the geometry of space to two dimensions, hoping that the absence of the third dimension doesn’t go unnoticed. Writers are also readers, and for me, as a reader, I love books that leave the third dimension of character and setting for my imagination to complete. The pleasure in reading a book or a map is the chance the reader has for self-discovery of an unfinished landscape. One created precisely for the purpose of inviting another sensibility to complete the unfinished map.
A territory describes many things. To list just a few — a city, a country, an empire, a room, a body, or a dogma. Many of these territories overlap like Russian dolls. Vincent Calvino unpacked these Russian dolls like territories in book after book. And like Sisyphus he found the stone pushed up the mountain inevitably rolled back to the foothills and he started all over again. Every day. Forever. Camus’s advice was to find happiness in that sweat and toil over a territory that could never be defeated or appeased.
I folded these tiny maps into books in the Vincent Calvino series and sent them out into the world. Some of those books have travelled into thirteen languages, suggesting my literary maps attracted a few travelers seeking to understand the territory that connected Bangkok, Saigon, Rangoon, and Phnom Penh.
Author at Texas Lonestar Bar, Washington Square 1997
When you either start or end a journey, it is polite to explain how and why you started. Roll the hands of the clock back to 1990. I’d discussed my intentions to write a novel set in Thailand with one of my oldest friends, Ronald Lieberman. I asked him what he thought about the idea. We were on a beach in Phuket. Ron thought for a moment, looking out at the sea and said, “As far as I know, no writer has imagined a Philip Marlowe like character working out of a Bangkok office. Why not give it a try?” It’s an eerie feeling to think how a few words can change the course of your life.
In 1990, I began writing Spirit House which would become the first book in the Vincent Calvino Series. I’d been in Thailand for over a year, and like most young people, thought I had made a good map of this place called Thailand. I suspect all cartographers suffer from such a conceit. One that is only cured by pushing the boat out to sea, watching the shoreline disappear and relying on a self-made map of what lies over the horizon.
had the good fortune to become an apprentice map-maker under the tutelage of two experienced grandmasters who’d read Spirit House. They saw I’d shown some possibilities. I know now they saw a younger version of themselves in me. They’d come to Asia late in life; I became their second chance to revisit the beginning of a writing career. This time one set in Bangkok, Thailand. Stirling Silliphant, who had won an Oscar for his screenplay used to produce a movie called In the Heat of the Night, became a good friend. Stirling once said, “I wish I had come to Thailand at your age. I’d have given up my Oscar and other awards for that chance.” My other mentor was Barney Rosset, legendary publisher of Grove Press who published, among others, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller.
Author with Barney Rosset Soi 23 Sukhumvit Road, The Old Dutch 1994
Barney took me under his wing; he put my name on the list of authors that graced Evergreen Magazine. Over the years, Od, my wife and I, were guests at Barney and Astrid’s loft on the Eastside of Manhattan. Astrid rang me from New York the day Barney died.
Both mentors were devoted readers and I learned how to sketch mountains, seas, valleys, deserts, and long-stretches of white, sandy beaches, and to fill these spaces with characters on an uncertain journey. I learnt early on how difficult it was to draw maps. I worked with these mentors for years. After they’d died years ago, I carried their memory, wisdom and stories in my literary backpack, and whenever I got lost, I’d pull them out and use them as a compass to get back on track. Now as I approach the age when I first encountered them, I think of them in a different way. I see how they saw me then; I see how I see myself now. It was through them I was able to decipher Borges’ view in The Library of Babel, “This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherencies.” No matter how long you apprenticed this was to be your fate as a writer.
This was the world a private investigator in his 30s began his long career in Thailand:
George H.W. Bush was U.S. President, Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister in Canada and John Major was at #10 Downing Street, and Chatichai Choonavan was Prime Minister in Thailand.
Thailand’s GDP growth rate was then a ripping 11.6 percent. The Thai population was 56.58 million. Bangkok had 5.9 million people. Tourists arrivals were 500,000 per year. USD $1 bought you Baht 25. Five percent of Thais had a university degree; 70.7% had finished primary school. There were 98.7 males to 100 females.
You needed a government license to own and use a fax machine. Lunch at the Texas Lonestar in Washington Square, two courses, was Baht 40. A bowl of noodles from a street vendor was Baht 15. Before you left the country you had to go to the Revenue Department and obtain a tax clearance certificate. The Madrid Bar in Patpong was the meeting place where an expat ex-GIs, CIA, and secret war warriors gathered. The Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand was in the penthouse floor on the Dusit Thai Hotel on Silom Road and expats met on Wednesday and Friday nights. It was a small, tight community of journalists, diplomats, writers, grifters, adventurers, wanderers — the kind of people who had secret maps with treasure marked with a big ‘X’.
My rent on a two-bedroom apartment (which had been slated to be converted into a toothbrush factory) on Soi 27 Sukhumvit Road (then a dirt path for half of the way) was Baht 4,500 (and would stay at that same rate for ten years. During the rainy season, I walked pant legs rolled up to the knees, holding my shoes through the brown flood waters that left Soi 27 underwater for a week.
This was a world without the Millennia generation; the Generation X were still children. No Netflix, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. We had no ability to escape into fourth dimensional cyberspace. It was a world of face-to-face encounters, of written letters, of long distance phone calls that cost Baht 40 a minute.
Thirty years later, in 2020 in the 17th novel Dance Me to the End of Time, Calvino investigates a missing person case in a vastly changed Thailand. Calvino has changed and so have I in countless ways. The changes have been driven by many forces. From smartphones, population increases, a new skyline filled with high-rises, the BTS and MRT, an explosion of the middle-class and cars, massive expansion in the tourism industry, and accelerated environmental degradation following unrestrained development. Add to the mix — social media, cheap packaged holidays, digital nomads, and periods of political unrest and violence, Calvino’s world has been reshaped into a landscape no one could have hoped to imagine in 1990.
What will the world of Bangkok in 2050 look, sound, smell and feel like? There are too many moving gears to predict what that machinery will turn out to be be. Dance me to the End of Time is an imagined future. It is difficult enough to imagine the present. To project life decades into the future is a leap into the dark. That is the place I’ve chosen to leave Vincent Calvino, private investigator, in a post-climate changed Bangkok.
The Vincent Calvino series sought to integrate the full impact social and cultural changes over three decades as they fundamentally altered the culture and the personal relationships between the Thais and between Thais and foreigners. Calvino has been from the beginning a cultural detective. Mysteries in a foreign land follow a different drum beat. Calvino worked best when he understood the rhythm, the beat of those drums — and could distinguish drums of war from drums of celebration. Chad Evan’s The World of Vincent Calvino chronicles the ways in which the novels documents the people, the culture, the beliefs, customs and language and the way these changes have forced them to adapt to the transformations over which they have little control.
After thirty years, the Vincent Calvino crime novel series I have decided to end the series. There is no need to kill off Calvino or his friends. They are in a temporal zone without a time machine back to our present. Locked in a time capsule, they will wait until a future generation decides whether they have delivered a message from the past worthy of recalling.
Tom Stoppard’s line in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is appropriate to the occasion:
“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
To which I’d add every exit opens an entrance for someone else.
As Vincent Calvino makes an exit from the stage, I offer a challenge for a new generation of writers. The entrance door is open. Somewhere, someone reading this essay, may be inspired to start a new series in 2020. Of those who start, one or more may have the stamina, good luck, and encouragement to continue the series for a thirty year run.
At the end, you are invited to pen an essay much like this one as you work in the world of 2050. Share your vision of how your characters, our species and planet will adapt to a life you with the aid of a powerful AI that imagines worlds within worlds in every language may be generating an infinite number of stories by the year 2080.
Perhaps human authors will have survived intelligent machines in 2050. One them may grab the literary baton I’m passing. In that case, a new series will run its course and end in 2080. In the final 2080 novel, that author will image Bangkok (if it still exists) in the year 2110. The idea is straightforward — three thirty-year back-to-back crime novel series are coded into Hilbert space, which like Borges’ Library of Babel, contain every combination of every book in every language, and shelved in an infinite-dimensional space. Here we would find intelligent entities researching the history of human map making exercises showing the borders and conflict zones that rose and fell over the social-economic-political-technological history from 1990 to 2110.
From the young private investigator who debuted in Spirit House three decades ago, his wish is to remain in your contemporary memories and for those memories to echo through the volumes predicting the future. His dream within a dream is to be remembered as part of a grand human experiment to leave behind a recording in a brief moment of time of who we were and what wished to be.