blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

A Burmese Interlude

April found me in Burma, which I have overly romanticized with the consumption of novels of the British Raj and French Indochina since I was young. Obviously, the country no longer resembles the days glorified by Rudyard Kipling, but has been thrust into an oppressive nightmare for the past 60 years, from which it is just timidly beginning to emerge. I have had two previous attempts to visit the country via Thailand, but was prevented by deteriorating political situations. Last month I traveled to Eastern Burma and provide basic healthcare to the marginalized and stateless Hill Tribe villages. There is a pervasive optimism within the Burmese people that their country is entering a time of liberation, freedom of press and openness. I met many young Burmese who were exceptionally well educated and well read despite coming from such a repressed background, and I was continually impressed with their knowledge of the outside world, which, until recently was obtained only through clandestine sources. Here are a few books that provide a window into Burma:

Burmese Days by George Orwell

One of the most famous Western writers to have written about Burma, Orwell’s experiences in the country as an officer in the British Imperial Police force at a young age seemed to have shaped his literary career.  Many critics believe that 1984 and Animal Farm are based on his experiences in Burma and disenchantment with the British Raj. The novel is a loosely veiled vignette of himself, disguised as a chap named Flory, who is in charge of a small outpost in rural Burma.  He details the ennui of many of the expatriates British of the time; the lack of home comforts, the absence of ice for their ubiquitous gin and tonics, and the oppressive jungle heat.  Flory is accompanied by a Burmese mistress, whom he dismisses after falling in love with young Elizabeth who arrives from Paris.  Fickle though she is, she returns Flory’s attentions at times, and then devastatingly for Flory, falls in love with a dashing though ruthless polo player. The love story continues until an unsettling end, but perhaps the more engaging themes are those of the Burmese laboring under the demands of the British, with glimpses of their hopes and dreams.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Emma Larkin is an American expatriate who has resided in Thailand for many years, and has traveled extensively throughout Burma, even when the military junta made it next to impossible for foreigners to move about the country. Ms. Larkin published this book in 2006, when the regime still had a stranglehold on the press, foreign correspondents were not allowed into the country, and any statement that could be remotely interpreted as traitorous resulted in an indefinite prison term. She was able to travel extensively throughout the country using her limited Burmese, to try to understand the correlations between Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and daily life in Burma. When she asked a Burmese man if he knew the work of Orwell, he replied, “Ah, you mean the prophet!” Ms. Larkin traveled from Rangoon to Mandalay, and to Maymyo, the Hill Station used by the British military as a respite from the summer heat. She found a remarkable network of underground libraries and learning, and a thirst for education that couldn’t- and hasn’t- been squelched by the regime.

No Bad News For the King by Emma Larkin

(Also published in the US as Everything is Broken)

This remarkable book details the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed over 100,000 Burmese and was little known by the international community. The crux of the book is the horrifying response of the Burmese government to the disaster.  The regime provided no help to the victims of the cyclone and refused to allow the international aid community to enter the country.  The US, French and British Navies had ships just off shore from the hardest hit areas to provide humanitarian relief, but were continually denied access into the country.  The few relief cargo jets that made it onto the airstrip in Rangoon were forced to take off again prior to unloading precious supplies. It wasn’t until weeks after the disaster that aid workers were allowed in, but very few supplies trickled down to the most affected areas.

The remarkable part of this book is that in a culture where government censorship of the media paints only rosy pictures  of daily life in Burma and that journalists are routinely thrown in jail for interminable lengths of time, Ms. Larkin was able to conduct clandestine research through a network of protective Burmese friends and travel to the hardest hit areas of the storm where no relief workers had come. She found that it was the Burmese themselves who took on huge risks to drive supplies from Rangoon to the Delta to help their countrymen, while the massive army stood wearily by. Her narrative again demonstrates the amazing resilience and willpower of the Burmese people.

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The Goldfinch

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

I have to admit that it took me a while to get into this book, despite its Pulitzer Prize and multiple accolades.  I’m not sure why I couldn’t sink my teeth into it from the first chapter, but somewhere around the middle of the book I couldn’t put it down until the last page passed beneath my fingertips.  And then I immediately got it on audiobook from the library and listened to the whole thing.

The book begins with a young boy named Theo and his art loving mother who go to the Met to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Carl Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch.” A tragedy strikes at the museum, leaving his mother dead, and Theo concussed and terrified in the rubble.  He then sees a dying art patron look at him and point to The Goldfinch.  Theo panics and takes the painting, a decision which unbeknownst to his 13-year-old self, will inform the rest of his life.

An orphaned Theo manages to make his way into the art and antiques world, a world punctuated by the elite, by childhood renegades, drug addiction, and unsavory business dealings.  Theo tries to make an honest living selling antiques, frequently ruminating on his stolen painting, only to find out that his childhood best friend stole it years ago and that it has been traveling the black market ever since. In a catastrophic and thrilling plot to retrieve the painting, Theo winds up bereft and suicidal in Amsterdam, with the painting presumably lost forever.  In an elegant twist in the last pages, Theo finds redemption, renewal and a path to righting his wrongs.

Exceptionally well written, I highly recommend it.

The Boys in the Boat

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

This is a phenomenally well written tome about the tribulations and triumphs that took the University of Washington Men’s team to Olympic Gold in Berlin. The narrative largely focuses on Joe Rantz, a boy abandoned by his family, who had the temerity to attend UW, where he promptly fell in love with rowing.  His teammates, most of whom had never rowed before, were strong kids from logging camps and fishing boats; skills that would translate well into the grace and power that a shell exacts from its’ rowers.

I think that this book was particularly poignant to me because I am a Pacific Northwest rower who has lived in Seattle for many years, and this book does an exceptional job of weaving in early Seattle history and University history, within the context of the greater societal pressures taking place around the country and the world.  The book also details Mr. Pocock, a quiet boat builder from England who came to Seattle and made the fastest, most advanced boats conceivable, giving the UW teams an extra edge.  To this day, having rowed Vespolis, Empachers, Aldens, Resolutes and WinTechs myself, my experience in a Pocock shell is unparalleled.

The boys train beyond what they think are the limits of their physical capacity in rain and sleet and snow, and after some harrowing wins to other more well recognized (and well funded) universities, the boys have a chance to take their boats across the Atlantic to compete and win on German turf in 1936.

If you are from Seattle, if you are a rower anywhere, if you have a interest in German-American relations leading up to the 1936 Olympiad, then this book is for you.