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Review: Burmese Lessons: A Love Story

Karen Connelly, Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, Random House, $32

Before writing this review of Karen Connelly’s memoir, Burmese Lessons, I read again portions of  The Lizard Cage, her 2005 novel that went pretty much unnoticed when it came out in Canada, and then won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in 2007—this was Connelly’s first novel, but in 1993, at 24, she won the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction for Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal and she is an award-winning poet. I think The Lizard Cage is one of the best modern Canadian novels; the story of a  Burmese poet named Teza (Songbird) serving a 28-year sentence in unspeakably horrific conditions for his protest songs is a masterwork of imagined identification with a character and an environment that its writer could not possibly know. When I first finished The Lizard Cage (which is so gripping that I was not distracted by extraneous thoughts until the end), I wondered how on earth Connelly was able to write such a visceral, subtle, complex book, how could she know specifics about life in prison in Myanmar, what people ate, what people did to one another, what people did in the name of  the freedom to write and read. She credited the input and support of many Burmese individuals, but the questions—not as a source of disbelief, but as acknowledgement of an extraordinary achievement—lingered.

Until I read Burmese Lessons. The recounting, re-imagining, of Connelly’s immersion in the mid-90s on the Thai-Burmese border, including several weeks in Rangoon, reveals a brave, even foolhardy, idealistic, beautiful young woman utterly seduced, co-opted, transformed by Burmese culture, but one who at the same time was digging into the fertile, pre-writing soil of a novel. Connelly was in her late twenties; she was returning to Thailand where she had first spent one year as a 17-year-old (escaping a sad and dysfunctional family, an alcoholic father, the suicide of a sister, religious fanaticism and an unwanted (terminated) pregnancy on a Rotary scholarship).  In 1996-97 she spent some time in Bangkok and then went to Rangoon, finally ending up on the border.

As a result of the protracted and brutal civil war in Burma (officially called Myanmar since 1989 by the ruling military junta; many countries including Canada do not accept this name change) at least 160,000 Burmese are residents of  numerous refugee camps on the Thai side of the 2000-kilometre border, and several hundred thousand others are economic refugees in the border towns and villages, most without work permits. The jungle hides the camps of numerous dissident and revolutionary groups. In the villages and towns on the border, Western sympathizers and activists congregate—journalists, teachers, NGO workers and writers like Connelly; in her sometimes humiliating experience, writers are at the bottom of the expatriate hierarchy, especially in the eyes of journalists contemptuous of her ingenuousness and focus on small, subjective details. Connelly went as a naïve, empathetic young woman seeking information; she intended to interview writers and activists, as a member of PEN Canada (the international writers’ organization devoted to freedom of expression; I am also a member.) She was in the early stages of a book, not necessarily a novel, something vaguely about political prisoners.

Burmese Lessons begins as an entrancing travel piece; charming moments with a family in a small neighbourhood shrine on a small street in Rangoon, a magical dinner with famous writers, little lessons in the Burmese language. “In the beginning all language is innocent—tree cup flower love—but San Aung …has taught me death and freedom. Democracy, cruel, trust, don’t trust” A dark, dangerous reality quickly asserts itself, in a country where even the name of imprisoned democracy heroine, leader of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Laureate  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be published or even uttered (she is simply “the Lady”).  Connelly is drawn into action—witnessing a rare public appearance in Rangoon by the Lady, small protests, an editor arrested, a Western journalist banished and finally a large street rally when Connelly and some very young students are chased into hiding by the military police. Connelly destroys the names of her Burmese contacts, returns to Bangkok and then goes to Chiang Mai, where she meets and falls in love with the charismatic, enigmatic dissident leader she calls Maung in this book. The remainder of the book charts Connelly’s deep involvement with Burmese dissidents and refugees; she travels (on the back of motorcycles, and barefoot) to dissident hideouts and refugee camps and clinics (witnessing the swift, shocking death of a small child with malaria); she learns disturbing information about her lover, but the relationship becomes increasingly irresistible. In many situations, she finds herself in the company of the women, leading her to disquieting conclusions about their role in the civil war, and about her own relationship.

Connelly is a sensualist, as a writer; this memoir is redolent with the smells of food, the stink of bodies, the weight of stones carried uphill on her head as she helps the women in a camp make the foundation of a water pump, the sharp, deep pleasures of sex, the edgy frustrations of sex denied, for the sake of propriety. She is frank about her own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, physical trials, which include prolonged constipation and finally malaria. At the same time, she is analytical, aware of her personal dilemma as the Western lover of a known dissident leader and the conflict between her emotions and her outrage and her goals as a writer. Readers familiar with The Lizard Cage will experience several shocks of recognition of characters and images and ideas that become the building blocks of the novel that took her eight years to write, after the period covered by the memoir—especially the sweet wisdom of monks, and the fleeting encounter with a cheroot-smoking feral street boy who becomes Nyi Lay the rat-catcher in The Lizard Cage, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction.