The following titles, ranging from weighty historical tomes to breezy comic books, greatly enhanced our visit to Burma. We recommend all, though if we were forced to chop this list in half, we would suggest George Orwell's Burmese Days, Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma, Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles and Donovan Webster's The Burma Road.
Burmese Days, George Orwell
George Orwell's Burmese Days can be found everywhere in Burma; it is in almost every bookstall along Rangoon's Anawrahta Road, and children sell pirated copies outside most of the major temples. The cover of the edition sold in Burma features a photograph of the young Queen Supayalat, but we thought ours was much more appropriate: a group of khaki-clad gentlemen clearly in their cups at the Pegu Club. Based on Orwell's five unhappy years as a magistrate police officer in Burma in the 1920s, the book crackles with mordant humor and keenly wrought observation. Much of the narrative is centered on the lubricated musings of a group of dissolute civil servants in a sleepy Burmese backwater. It's certainly an indictment of colonialism, but one rendered with poise and subtlety — there's plenty of avarice and corruption on both sides of the equation. On its longer itineraries, the Road To Mandalay stops in Katha, the colonial town that inspired the book.
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
This small, beautifully observed travel memoir is a perfect contemporary postscript to Burmese Days. Larkin (not the author's actual name) is a Bangkok-based American journalist who speaks fluent Burmese and knows the country well. In the late ’90s, she spent a year visiting the places where Orwell lived and worked, interviewing dozens of wry, elderly associates and extended family members along the way (Orwell's uncle was married to a Burmese woman). Larkin's sadly compelling thesis is that Orwell actually wrote a trilogy about Burma — the latter two titles being Animal Farm and 1984. The book is full of gem-like descriptive sentences. Standing in front of Rangoon's old Secretariat building one morning, we recalled her observation on the city's decaying colonial architecture: “parts of the city look as if London had been transplanted into a tropical landscape and left to moulder for a century or two.”
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, Pascal Khoo Thwe
This is one of the most remarkable autobiographies we've ever read. In 1988, Pascal Khoo Thwe was a poor university student working in a tea shop in Mandalay when he struck up a chance conversation with a tourist who happened to be a Cambridge literature professor. Soon after, Thwe was targeted by the junta for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations, his girlfriend was killed, and he was forced to flee to the rebel encampments along the Thai border, where he lived an existence of utter deprivation — monsoons, food shortages, army raids, wild animals. Through the help of a Western journalist, he began a correspondence with the professor, and this mind-boggling story concludes at Thwe's matriculation from Cambridge University. If this were fiction, we would have found it far-fetched. Such is life. Such is Burma.
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, Thant Myint-U
This expansive history was written by the grandson of U Thant, the widely respected secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s. To be honest, we thought the first half of the book focusing on ancient history was a bit trying, but it was all in service of a well-wrought argument: that Burma is a loose collection of ethnic tribes that has been more or less at war with itself since antiquity (and when you're in power, history is what you make of it). In Rangoon's forlorn, neon-lit National Museum, we saw an imposing portrait of the current regime's favorite historical figure, King Bayinnaung, the Burmese ruler who conquered Siam roughly 500 years ago: “Far back enough in time not to be tainted by the colonial humiliations to come, yet close enough that he and his heirs subjugated peoples and places still around today, he is an untarnished hero for these militaristic but lackluster times.”
Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle
This graphic novel, or extended narrative in comic book form, is an utter delight. Delisle is a Canadian artist who spent a year living in Rangoon in the early 2000s while his wife worked for Doctors Without Borders. He spent his time there caring for their young son, mingling with the expatriate community, teaching a free illustration class and observing his strange new environs with a sharp wit. Along with plenty of amusing “culture shock” anecdotes of expatriate life in Rangoon (power outages, squat toilets), Delisle sprinkles in plenty of insightful and pointed observations on government censorship, the omnipresent sense of paranoia that typifies life in Burma for anyone interested in reading or ideas, and the struggles of NGOs in the remote Burmese countryside (and all this before Cyclone Nargis). His hilarious descriptions of the privileged diplomatic ranks currently stationed in Rangoon reminded us very much of Orwell's famous book. Delisle has also written about stays in Pyongyang and Shenzhen, and we look forward to scooping up those books soon.
Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
This one is a real doorstop and mainly of interest to history buffs, but the prose is peppered with vivid descriptions from primary accounts, and we appreciated learning about the broader historical canvas of Burma's fall during World War II. While the physical Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia (and the huge swathe of British-controlled territories therein) happened extraordinarily quickly, it was in fact the conclusion of decades of groundwork. Japan cannily exploited the growing independence movements in the region during the ’30s; many of modern Burma's “founding fathers,” including Aung San Suu Kyi's father, were covertly brought to Japan for training: “On 12 November 1940, Suzuki and Aung San met for the first time on the tarmac of Tokyo airport. The young Burmese was just in time to attend the imperial anniversary celebrations. Like his Japanese hosts, he bowed to the imperial palace on that auspicious day. But he already had nagging doubts about Japanese commitment to Burmese freedom and their methods of war. As a socialist, he instinctively distrusted monarchies.”
The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh
This immensely captivating historical novel has been described as a Doctor Zhivago for Southeast Asia, and we spent many hours with it on the top deck of the Road To Mandalay. Traces of Indian culture are everywhere in Burma, particularly in Rangoon, where one afternoon we enjoyed a visit to the small, mysterious Hindu temple of Shri Kali. While Indians have been living and trading here for centuries, most of today's Indian Burmese are descendants of the mercantile and administrative class installed by the British during the Raj. Ghosh's novel deftly traces the history of this cultural commingling through a sprawling family narrative that starts with the British occupation of Mandalay in 1885 and ends in contemporary Rangoon. Along the way, the reader is treated to dozens of smartly wrought accounts of historical episodes, from the last king of Burma's exile in India to the swift fall of Malaya to Japanese soldiers on bicycles. This book will especially appeal to fans of James Michener or James Clavell.
The Burma Road, Donovan Webster
Burma during World War II gave birth to the CIA in its first manifestation as the OSS, and the modern development of guerilla war tactics via the escapades of the British Chindit brigades. As the central front in the China-Burma-India Theater, it was also the scene of staggering amounts of suffering and heroism. The author, who has credits with a number of men's magazines, avoids chest-thumping histrionics and calmly details one jaw-dropping feat after another. General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and a hundred soldiers “walk” out of Burma through 150 miles of mountainous jungle. American pilots based in India fly over storm-tossed Himalayan peaks to deliver food drops to China (twice a day). Behind enemy lines, British soldiers collude with headhunting ethnic tribes to storm Japanese railway lines. Tens of thousands of Allied POWs build rail lines through said mountainous jungle, later inspiring the book and film The Bridge on the River Kwai. And on and on.
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