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My Recent Travels in Burma (and the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge Wrap-Up)

March 26, 2009

wellseasonedreaderFor the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge, I thought it would be neat to pick three books that all dealt with the same country. I had had a memoir by a Burmese man, Pascal Khoo Thwe, From the Land of Green Ghosts, on my shelf for quite awhile. Since I obviously needed some extra motivation to read it, I picked Burma (I know it’s official name now is Myanmar, but that was chosen by the military junta, so think of my refusal to use that name as a tiny protest against injustice. -Eva). I’ve also been eyeing the travelogue Finding George Orwell in Burma, and of course before I read that I needed to read Orwell’s Burmese Days. So the three books assembled themselves pretty quickly.

greenghostsI knew that I wanted to read From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pscal Khoo Thwe first. It was the only one of the three written by a native Burmese person, and I definitely preferred to be introduced to the country that way. But once again, I kept putting it off. I thought it would be too depressing for words, so I decided to wait until I was in the proper ‘mindset.’ However, by late February, I realised if I didn’t read it, I wasn’t going to finish the challenge, so I pulled it off my shelf and turned to the first page.

It was incredible. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“My ancestors told me it was after the beginning,” said my grandmother, adjusting her head on the log she was using as a pillow. Her brass neck rings gleamed in the candelight. The rings were fourteen inches long and rose to her head as if supporting a pagoda stupa. Hanging from her ears were several silver chains holding coins and charms. The holes in her ears were big enough to put a bottle cork in. We sat at her feet massaging her legs and shoulders as we listened to the story.

Thwe is not part of the majority Burman ethnicity; he is Padaung, who are famous for women wearing those rings around their necks. The book is divided into three parts, and the first one hundred pages deals with Thwe’s everyday life before there are any big problems. Especially, he brings the beliefs of his people, how for them ancestors are all around them, and their closeness to the jungle, to vivid life. Anyone at all interested in mythology and folk tales will be in seventh heaven. I found myself deeply envious of Thwe’s firm spiritual roots, of grandmothers who tell stories of the gods, of running about in the jungle with friends. It’s not that he portrays his childhood as perfect, but part one is called “Idyll of the Tribe,” and it definitely portrays Paduang culture as wonderful.

Then, Thwe moves to Mandalay to be a university student. As we all know, universities tend to be radical places, especially in totalitarian states. So perhaps it’s not surprising that this part is called “Revolution and Fight.” I liked how all of the important events (there was a student uprising in 1988, which led to the government slaughtering demonstrators, including monks) are still told from Thwe’s point of view. There isn’t much zooming out; in the beginning, Thwe struggles with culture shock, and then just as he’s adapting, the country begins to foment. We learn how various events affected him personally, and while he doesn’t become an underground fighter at this stage, some of his friends do. Eventually, he ends up having to go into hiding in the jungle region bordering Thailand (traditionally, a place the central government has had the least control over), so then he explains the life of a guerrilla fighter. But even then, he doesn’t glory in violence; the state military certainly commits some atrocities (they would kidnap civilians and force them to march ahead of the troops, as human mind sweepers, to give you an idea of what they were like), but most of Thwe’s time in the jungle is spent training, on the move, passing time. I’m really sensitive to war stories, and I could this pretty easily.

The last fifty pages, called simply “Rescue,” explain how Thwe escaped first to Thailand and then to Cambridge. He also discusses his experiences at Cambridge (where he studied English literature), his struggle with isolation and feelings of inadequecy, and the seeds of this memoir. It’s a good way to wind the story down, and it provides a nice counter point to Thwe’s difficult time in the jungle. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I can’t recommend this memoir highly enough. It’s a compelling story, written with an idiosyncratic and appealing voice, about a place most of us will never visit (I know I won’t, until the junta loses power-I don’t want to help their cash flow.). And while it isn’t always happy, in the balance it’s certainly much more positive than negative. Thwe allows the reader to really enter into his life and world, and I am profoundly grateful to have been able to spend time with him.

burmesedaysHaving finished the memoir, and given myself enough time to process it, I turned next to Burmese Days. I’ve read many of Orwell’s nonfiction essays, but the only other two novels of his I’ve read are the famous ones: 1984 and Animal Farm. I love Orwell’s writing style, his ability to make me feel directly with the characters, but I prefer his nonfiction because it’s slightly less dreary. So I went into Burmese Days expecting a well-written, depressing story, and that’s certainly what I got. The book centers around a remote English outpost and its Club, which is only open to the Brits. I should tell you right now, there isn’t a single really likeable character in the book…the only honourable one is an Indian doctor, but he speaks of the English empire with such high regard it’s impossible to love him (and he’s a minor character). Everyone else, the Brits and the native Burmans (there are really only two central to the story) will immediately alienate the reader. Orwell’s own experiences in colonial Burma turned him strongly against the British Empire, and in this novel he’s obviously trying to depict to the reader everything horrid about imperialism. He definitely succeeds. He uses various Club members to illustrate the different forms of racism among colonials, from out-and-out hatred, to a condescending ‘they’re good people as long as they stay in their place,’ to cowardice. That last aspect belongs to the book’s anti-hero, James Flory. He’s lived in Burma for fifteen years, and he actually thinks in many respects Burmese culture is superior to British culture. He speaks the local language, is fascinated by local customs, and thinks that the Burmese should have more control over their destiny. However, he’s careful to ensure that these thoughts never become spoken, because he’s aware of a colonial/imperial code he’s expected to follow. Because of this, he experiences overwhelming isolation, until the young, beautiful, and single Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives. Flory immediately wants to marry her, picturing her as his partner, who will come to love Burma as he does, and with whom he’ll be able to share his radical opinions. Meanwhile, the other plotline revolves around a Burman official U Po Kyin and his plot to destroy the standing of Indian Dr. Verasami (Flory’s close friend). Orwell juggles these strands deftly, writing both a political and personal novel. I know I’ve made it sound like it’s horrible to read, because I didn’t want anyone to read my review, rush off and get the book, and then be like ‘Eva! I was expecting a fun colonial romance story!’. But I loved reading the book. Orwell keeps up the plot suspense, and even though I didn’t like the characters, I definitely wanted to know what happened to them! The novel is well-crafted, and Orwell’s portrayal of the ugly side of colonialism is really delicious. The way he skewers his characters with a perfectly turned description is a thing of beauty, and just watching him relentlessly tear down the myths of imperialism (“We’re bringing civilization to the savage.”) will make twenty-first century readers cheer.

findinggeorgeorwellAs soon as I turned the last page of the novel, I immediately grabbed Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin. Larkin is a pseudonym for an American journalist who grew up in Asia, took an Asian studies degree at Oxford, and speaks Burmese fluently. I had crazy-high expectations for this book, and it managed to exceed them (as a sidenote, Amazon’s selling the hardcover edition right now for $6…just saying…). Published in 2005, so fairly recently, it’s a travelogue wherein Larkin visits all of the places Orwell lived in Burma. But Larkin hasn’t merely written a travel memoir. She also includes biographical information about Orwell, literary criticism of three novels (1984, Animal Farm, and Burmese Days) and an essay (“Shooting an Elephant”), recent political history of Burma, colonial history of Burma, and a window into contemporary Burmese culture. Do I really have to explain any more about why you should read this book?

As a reader, I get to listen in on countless conversations with Burmese people Larkin met, from Lit PhDs to a guy she played chess with in the coffeeshop to the various regime officials who follow her around to see what she’s up to. I got a wider view of the events Thwe discussed in his memoir, as well as others that happened after he left Burma. I applauded Larkin’s constant attempts to really convey to Western readers what it’s like living in a totalitarian state; not for a moment did she cut the regime any slack (there’s a point when she says that most Western tourists to Burma say ‘well, it certainly looks like everything’s ok,’ and then explains why they’re wrong, which I thought was very important). But most of all, I simply couldn’t put this book down. As you know by now, I read more than one book at a time, and usually I rotate between them all every fifty or one hundred pages. But I had no interest in any of my other books until I had finished this one. And I couldn’t help wishing it was much longer than three hundred pages! I can’t think of anything else to write to convince you to read this book, but you definitely should (one note: if you haven’t read Animal Farm, 1984, and Burmese Days already, Larkin does discuss the whole plot of each, including the endings).

As you can tell, my time in Burma was definitely a success. I very much enjoyed this challenge, in which I read my original three books (two by new authors). I really liked three different perspectives on the same country, and I think I’ll try to arrange my reading like this in the future for other countries! And I’ll definitely participate in this one again next year if Melissa decides to host a sequel. :)

28 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2009 6:28 am

    I think I told you this already, but I’m glad you liked Finding George Orwell in Burma because I bought it on Amazon as an impulse buy when I needed to make the $25 free shipping. Yes, I was sucked into the $6 sale :) All of the books you read sound awesome — I might go look for Burmese Days too.

  2. March 26, 2009 6:52 am

    Your blog is definitely giving me some great suggestions for my must-read list. Fantastic!

  3. March 26, 2009 6:55 am

    I know exactly how you felt about Burmese Days. The writing was great, the story interesting- the characters all people I could not like. Even Elizabeth- I wanted to like her, but she was so silly-headed and petty!

  4. March 26, 2009 7:48 am

    Great wrap-up post! Congratulations on finishing the challenge!

  5. March 26, 2009 8:54 am

    good for you- you keep calling it Burma!

  6. tuulenhaiven permalink
    March 26, 2009 12:47 pm

    Three very interesting-sounding books. I would like to read Finding George Orwell in Burma, but as I have not read any of Orwell’s books I feel like I aught to wait until I do so – I imagine I would enjoy it more. Thanks for the reviews!

  7. March 27, 2009 8:36 am

    I LOVED this post, read it twice :)

    I really feel like reading something on Burma now, or at least about some other far off place. Thanks for the reviews Eva, they were great…

  8. March 27, 2009 11:35 am

    Wonderful post. I added From The Land of Green Ghosts to my TBR list when I first saw it on your blog. Now I will add Finding George Orwell In Burma.

  9. March 27, 2009 10:14 pm

    These all sound really good. Ugh, I need more time in life!

  10. mel ulm permalink
    March 28, 2009 12:25 am

    I too love George Orwell and have been reading his work on and off for 45 years or so. Animal Farm is my favorite. I loved it at 15 and at 60. I found Burmese days kind of poorly plotted but has some very telling observations on colonialism and its impact on local populations as seen in the Indian doctors love of the British.

    My favorite nonfiction work of Orwell is Road to Wigan Pier about English coal miners. It seems to me very deeply felt.

    I read Land of the Green Ghosts a few years ago a very brief into Burma and enjoyed it a lot.

    I thank you for your very well done blog

  11. March 28, 2009 5:34 pm

    From The Land of Green Ghosts sounds like an amazing read. I just had to add it to my ever-growing TBR pile. Great reviews!

  12. alirambles permalink
    March 29, 2009 12:51 am

    I love the idea of reading with a theme. I do this, too, but end up spreading them out so much that doing a wrap-up post would seem silly!

  13. March 29, 2009 10:09 am

    Eva, what a great collection of reviews here. If you’re still interested in Burma, I can recommend a fantastic novel by a Canadian author — Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage, about the life of a political prisoner in Burma.

    Your continued wide-ranging reading and reviewing, is, as always, truly inspiring!

  14. March 29, 2009 11:23 am

    Why do I come here? Every time I come, I add another book to my ridiculously long tbr. And you know how I love to read about other cultures. Damn you, Eva! ((tongue firmly planted in cheek))

  15. March 30, 2009 10:01 am

    LOVE THIS POST!!! Seriously want to read them all now. Of course. But especially From the Land of Green Ghosts. I just saw Melanie’s suggestion of The Lizard Cage…I added that to my wish list when I was playing around one day looking for more books to add to my lists for your challenge. Maybe I’ll do my own little Burma-thon and read these two. (Embarrassed to admit that I really know NOTHING about Burma.)

  16. April 2, 2009 11:39 am

    SO glad you had a great experience. I’ll have to check out a couple off those books (we own Burmese Days…). You make them sound absolutely fascinating.

    Thanks so much for participating!!

  17. April 7, 2009 12:04 am

    Kim, I think you’ll really enjoy it! :0

    Erin, thank you.

    Jeane, I wanted to like Elizabeth too, until I realised what kind of girl she was. She still didn’t deserve that uncle though!

    BermudaOnion, thanks!

    Jessica, thank you. :D

    Tuulenhaiven, well, if you plan on reading those three Orwell books, you should before Finding George Orwell in Burma just because of the spoilers. But I think if you don’t care about spoilers, you’d enjoy it now!

    Violet, awww-thanks so much. :DGavin, thanks!

    Amy, lol-time is not my problem. ;)

    Mel, I think you can tell Burmese Days is his first novel. You know?

    Samantha, it is! go read it! :p

    Ali, I want to try the mini-theme again. I love focused reading (though the random stuff is good too!).

    Melanie, I have that on my shelves! Thanks so mcuh for reminding me. :D

    Susan, lol: you do the same thing to my TBR list! :p

    Debi, thanks! I didn’t know much about Burma before I started reading either. :)

    Melissa, thanks for hosting! I hope you enjoy them if you end up reading them. :)

  18. mel ulm permalink
    April 7, 2009 3:56 am

    Yes Burmese Days was, of course, Orwell’s 1st novel and and is worth reading more than as just Orwell’s 1st novel.

  19. February 7, 2010 8:24 am

    I know this post is quite old, but I just discovered it from your Traveled by Books post on the front page. I just wanted to say this is really cool that you go to travel to Burma through these books. My dad is from Burma (he immigrated to the US in the late 70s). I’ve been wanting to go back and visit but due to the political problems the country has, it’s quite unsafe to go back. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to visit but for now, books like the one you read are the only way I’ll be able to travel.


    • February 10, 2010 2:30 am

      I can imagine it would be unsafe for you to travel in Burma right now! I really hope the junta collapses soon, both for the country’s sake and so you and your dad can visit. I can’t imagine feeling exiled from my native country like that. :/

  20. June 5, 2010 6:51 pm

    Eva, thanks for pointing me to your Finding George Orwell in Burma review! Now I REALLY want to read it. I actually bought it the other day so as soon as it arrives I may just pick it up. And now you’ve got me curious about the other two, also. I think you’ll really enjoy Everything is Broken, although it is definitely depressing and will make your heart hurt.


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