The Otters and the Jackal


 Supporting the novel: resources for readers

The Otters and the Jackal is a mystery novel about the meaning of a tapestry depicting Southeast Asian Buddhist scenes. This is sent in 1991 to Oxford Finalist Dominic by his antiques dealer father; he travels to Thailand to investigate its authenticity and explore local fleshpots. Accompanying him, Paul is conducting academic research into a radical Buddhist movement leading opposition to the recent military coup. Paul is in love with Fon, who works in the Thai Civil Art Dept. 

Their paths intersect crucially and tragically with that of Jo, a taxi motorcyclist in Bangkok. His growing dependence on methamphetamines produces paranoia, violent mood swings and the mental disintegration that characterises the advanced stages of addiction; his final desperate bid for salvation has cataclysmic consequences for Paul, Dominic and Fon.

Deciphering the tapestry’s meaning proves a multifaceted process. This takes place on various levels involving art, religion, politics, semantics, a lucrative trade in fake antiques, murder contracts and a perilous expedition to no man’s land on the Thai-Cambodian border ruled by the ousted but still powerful Khmer Rouge in surreptitious alliance with elements in the Thai army. Decoding the tapestry unlocks a wealth of layers in its meaning, leaving Paul and Dominic sadder, wiser and compelled ultimately to weigh its message against their own survival. 

In the East, they find not just charm, benevolence and beauty but also cynicism, greed, hypocrisy, violence and conflicts that end with victims' vanishing without trace. Both boys have their preconceptions radically changed in different ways, alienating but ultimately reconciling them in anguish.

En route, they experience intellectual stimulation, good-natured fun, cultural diversity, sexual adventure, physical danger, disillusionment, humiliation and murderous brutality. A series of encounters they, Fon and Jo undergo radically alters their attitudes, perceptions and relationships (which traverse a spectrum ranging from intimacy and adulation through cold contempt to ferocious hostility). They encounter a motley assortment of unsavoury characters: CIA stooges, shady antiques dealers, their military minders, egocentric monks, fanatical cult devotees, powerful shamans, manipulative Chinese, rapacious taxi drivers, hard-nosed sex workers, importunate street vendors, trigger-happy soldiers and the remnants of the dreaded Khmer Rouge. They also meet well-meaning academics, downtrodden Chong minority folk and a canny doctor adept at administering both medical and philosophical balm to their respective wounds. Religion plays a key role in their journey, not just through Paul's fascination with Buddhism but also via séances, fringe cults, spirit houses, talismanic tattoos, animistic rites and cursing ceremonies.

They experience an eclectic range of situations which unlock different aspects of the tapestry’s significance. These include its depiction of a Jataka fable, its hidden provenance, its part in an illicit criminal enterprise and its poignant warning against the pitfalls of centralised authority in a land whose allegedly corrupt government is ousted by a patently more flawed successor regime. 

The escalating Thai political crisis surrounding a brutal crackdown on anti-coup protests provides a backdrop to equally dramatic shifts in the characters' identities, views, roles, bonds and ultimately their destinies in ways that prove unexpected, dire and fateful.  

Paul matures from philosophical Buddhist with a starry-eyed adulation for all things eastern to sober realist. His penchant for romantic idealisation of individuals and cultures gives way to disillusionment as the their true nature becomes apparent. Dominic, initially a self-indulgent hedonist, learns to care for and protect exploited border minorities. Fon progresses from bashful defender of the Thai army to stalwart protest leader when her beloved boss is targeted after uncovering an art scam. Jo’s quest for redemption is pursued through less than conventional media which include violence, spirit propitiation, millenarian Buddhism and the ultimate sacrifice. 

Crucial settings include Oxford’s Oriental Faculty, a séance, Bangkok restaurants, temples, shrines, seedy nocturnal venues, an opulent penthouse, deserted beaches, a religious boot camp, a jungle military HQ, a politician's office, a plush antiques showroom, a detention cell, an art factory and a secret conference where the Thai army zealously conceals powerful political players.

The novel is related partly through the eyes of Paul and partly through those of Jo. While all the characters except one are fictional, the background events in Oxford, Thailand and Cambodia are loosely based on historical events. 


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