Had I not read Emma Larkin’s wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma in 2013, I wouldn’t have gone looking for further reading and found a list of the author’s recommended books about the country. That would have meant I missed out on Pascal Khoo Thwe’s remarkable, lyrical story of a life that begins in the jungles of Burma before – after a few dizzying turns – depositing him in Cambridge’s hallowed atmosphere.
Despite making bold promises to myself after compiling last year’s reading list, it has taken me close to two months to finish reading this book. Partly a change in available time is to blame, but also because there were passages that defy speeding through, rewarding repeated consideration and a slower pace. Carl Honoré would love it.
That pace is set by the author’s beginnings in tribal lands where the seasons dominate and everything is in tune with the life of the natural world around it. Some nods to modernity have been made, along with the tribe’s enthusiastic conversion to Catholicism, but the older ways operate alongside the new without too much anguish. Surprisingly – although perhaps less so when you learn more of what followed – the days of the British are remembered fondly. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s grandmother was even brought to London to be displayed as one of the ‘giraffe necked women’ and returned from the visit having enjoyed the ‘moving stairs’ that they didn’t need to climb, but full of complaints about the cold.
‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working… They say “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another.’
It is an enjoyable existence, one where uncles are supermen, playing for the town’s football team is the highest honour and wasps are a delicacy. Apart from that last one, it isn’t too far from my own. The dead remain in close proximity to the living, as in other parts of Asia. Death is not something to fear, but more a move to the next stage of life. These words from a funeral which was a blend of Catholic and traditional rites,
Well done, my boy. Well done, Peter Yew, for you have made us proud. You have finished your hunting. Enjoy being with our ancestors for ever; enjoy the banquet with them. They await you, and we will join you when the time comes. Meanwhile tell our ancestors about us, tell them to help us, and to protect us from the evil powers. Ask them to make our land fertile, to bring good weather and rains for us, to make our women fertile. Go my son, go, back to our ancestors. May your journey be gentle and your soul as bright as the stars.
That was one of the particular passages of the book that I read more than once. What better words could be said at the end of a life cut short but one that was lived well.
These ways which have endured for so long are not immediately threatened by the changes in Burma’s power structures as the military dictatorship takes hold slowly. The author’s grandfather and then his father are allowed to retain some vestiges of their tribal authority and so it is perhaps not until he reaches university, in a Mandalay so far off that it feels like another land altogether, that he begins to be exposed to the sufferings of other parts of his country. As a student he is advised to play the game and not question too much:
Remember what your grandfather said about the earth’s being round at school and flat at home. He was a wise man and taught you what you need to know in Burma. It is the same in politics… They may be as ignorant as peasants – but they have the guns. Never, never argue with them.
But he finds it increasingly difficult to engage in the doublethink which is needed to thrive in Burma. Even the university’s buildings, dating from Colonial times, impress upon him that at one point this place of learning sought to encourage an opening of minds and curiosity about the world that his generation is being denied. He is not the only one and, in 1988, protests sweep the country, starting with students before pulling in monks and ordinary people. The disappearance of his girlfriend in sinister circumstances shocks him off the sidelines and in to a more outspoken role, before eventually – inevitably – he is forced to flee for the relative ‘safety’ of the Thai border and the rebel fighters attacking government troops there.
And here this tale might have ended, by stray bullet or landmine, were it not for a chance meeting a few years earlier in a Mandalay restaurant with a Cambridge academic and a scrawled note which somehow reaches him. This contact catapults Pascal Khoo Thwe around the world, away from family, friends and comrades, and into the same misty cold that his grandmother had found so hard to bear. It is a heck of a journey and the reader almost has to keep reminding herself that Thwe is only recounting his first couple of decades.
Learning English and studying for a literature degree are colossal feats in their own rights, becoming a writer who can tell such a captivating tale in so creative and descriptive a manner is another. Mosquitoes are like ‘flying grape-pips blushing with human blood,’ and when he heads into the mountainous jungle, scenes of ‘cool-season flowers, ranging from… varieties of orchid to small white and purple bush-flowers,’ are interrupted by burnt-out villages.
It was a countryside that the hand of war had several times touched.
From his tribal childhood, to gaining maturity during the uprisings before heading to Cambridge, Pascal Khoo Thwe has lived more than one life, none of which I had much experience of. It’s a testament to his faith in ‘freedom and love of life’ that he was able to survive and to record such events not in a flat recounting, but in a tale that lives and breathes with the vitality and character of its writer.