From a structural point of view, Falcon. At the Court of Siam by American author John Hoskin is an interesting experiment. The book begins with an unfinished Prologue (which intends to keep the reader in suspense) and ends with an Epilogue that tells the reader how the Prologue ended. For those with some knowledge of Siamese history, there’s no secret as to what happened to Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek who became a high-ranking minister at the court of the Siamese King Narai: he was betrayed and met a violent end.
But apart from the Prologue and the Epilogue, John Hoskin’s true experiment is the rest of the book, written in very short chapters that alternate between the omniscient point of view and the first person narrative. The first few chapters are of a adequate length and give the readers basic information about Phaulkon’s place of birth and his adventures before he reached Siam. But, as the narrative progresses the chapters become shorter and shorter, only to culminate in diary-like entries no longer than half a page.
Such a structure requires a brisk style of writing, but the language and rhythm of the story does sound slightly archaic with an overemphasis on “important” terms—such as Honour, Valour, Enterprise—which are all spelled with capital letters. Unfortunately, the very short chapters and the author’s insistence on staying true to the actual historical events make Falcon. At the Court of Siam a novel that reads more like a simplified history book. Plus, there is little towards character development and the readers are never sure if they sympathize with Phaulkon or believe his betrayal and violent death served him just right.
“Constantine Phaulkon was a man of action” who was born in a Greek family of modest means on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. As a boy he was known by the name Constantine Gerakis, but as he advanced to the highest positions at the court of King Narai in Ayutthaya, he was also called Lord Wichayen, The King’s Favourite, Monsenieur Constantine, or simply Phaulkon the Greek. The word falcon used in the title of the book comes from his original Greek name, Geraki, which means “falcon.”
From a very early age, Constantine felt he did not belong in his parents’ inn but rather in one of the ships anchoring at the port of Argostoli where he used to spend his free time, gazing at the far sea. “A fire burned fiercely within him.” One day in 1658, at the age of eleven, Constantine runs away from home and becomes a cabin boy on a ship sailing for London.
Just like he did for the rest of his life, he rose from his initial humble position as a cabin boy to that of an assistant gunner. He saw some action against the Dutch on the ship of the Duke of Bavaria and was afterwards taken to India. “It was here that he became known as Phaulkon when the ship’s officers anglicized his family name Gerakis.” Constantly on the move and on the lookout for an opportunity to make his fame, Phaulkon boarded a ship heading to Bantam, a European trading station in Java, as an ordinary seaman. Here he became a clerk with the English East India Company and after saving their factory from flames, he received a reward of 1,000 crowns.
Now, for the first time in his life, Phaulkon had the means to take matters in his own hands and thus boarded a ship heading to Siam, “where he intended to enter trade on his own account.” His success in Siam was also due to the fact that King Narai’s policies towards foreigners were quite relaxed and, soon enough, he was able to secure good profits from trading with Sumatra and Japan.
Ever since King Narai ascended to the throne in 1956, the king recognized the importance of trading with the foreigners and welcomed the extra income that it brought to the Siamese court. Also benefitting from a period of peace from the wars with the Burmese, Siam became “like a courtesan who chooses to remain her own mistress” and was thus able to dictate its own foreign and economical policies. Thus, if anyone wished to sell or export goods in Siam, they needed to go though the offices of the King, while bypassing the royal monopoly was punishable with death by beheading.
Because of his fluency in both Thai and French, Phaulkon was instrumental in organizing the Siamese missions sent to Europe and receiving the French missions at Narai’s court. The highlight of Siam foreign policy was undoubtedly the French mission which arrived in Ayutthaya in 1673 with letters from Pope Clement IX and King Louis XIV of France. Of course, their main objective was to convert the Siamese king to Catholicism, something they never succeeded in, no mater how influential Phaulkon was as the highest-ranking minister at the court.
The action of Falcon. At the Court of Siam alternates between the official Siamese capital Ayutthaya and Louvo (as the French called Lopburi) where the king had built a palace and, later in the novel, in Bangkok, where the French concession with some six hundred soldiers was stationed. Louvo remained the King’s favourite place and it was here that he observed a total lunar eclipse with the French Jesuit missionaries in 1685.
John Hoskin describes Phaulkon as “a man of medium height, with straight black hair and handsome rounded features,” just as he was depicted in a 17th century print while standing proudly in the foreground, with an elephant and two helpers in the background. Phaulkon lived a life no other foreigner has lived since then at the Siamese court but his closeness to the king was also to become his death warrant. While King Narai was terminally ill, the Falcon at the court of Siam was rounded up together with his supporters and murdered at the orders of Narai’s foster brother who, soon after, became the next king of Siam. It was June of 1688.
Today, the ruins and restored parts of Phra Narai Ratchanivet Palace can be found downtown in Lopburi city. The site also accommodates Somdet Phra Narai National Museum where curators look after over 1,800 items of ancient artifacts that date from the reign of King Narai and the following Siamese monarchs who have used the palace as their accommodation. Every February, on the palace grounds, the local administration organizes King Narai the Great Fair, a festival that displays the region’s traditional costumes, food, crafts, and sword and stick fighting techniques.
The historic city of Lopburi is situated about 150 km northeast of Bangkok. Air-con buses and vans leave hourly from Mo Chit and Victory Monument respectively. The trip lasts two or three hours, depending on the traffic in Bangkok, and it costs a bit over 100 baht. For more information about Lopburi, go to the province’s official website (Thai only).
Initially published in “Bangkok Trader” (Vol. 6, No.7, June 2012)