I confess that I wasn't too enthusiastic about this book when I selected it. My goal from the start has been to read as much fiction as possible--something that just didn't seem possible for my Burma/Myanmar selection. Then, too, "Monsoon Country", my last South East Asia choice, which I picked also after much Internet searching, had ended up being a bit too self-conscious and ploddingly earnest. Very worthy of course, but I don't want to spend the entire year with books that elicit no more of an enthusiastic response than school book report dutifulness. I even thought of skipping the country altogether as I am getting further and further behind in my goal.
I am so glad that I made the time for Pascal Khoo Thwe's memoir, since it has turned out to be one of my favorite books of the GR 52 countries challenge. It's a beautifully written account of his growing up as a member of the Paduang tribe, an ethnic minority of Burma. It's a difficult feat to combine the universality of his experiences--dealing with an embittered idealist of a father (always the most dangerous of people), a charismatic grandfather himself disappointed in his own son--with the particularities of his own upbringing that to western eyes would seem unusual, even "exotic." Pascal writes compelling of the hybrid Catholic-animistic world in which he lived, where the landscape is ridden with ghosts, and the dead are feared, the isolated cemeteries deep in the jungle never visited, and where the "long-necked angels" of the Paduang women, tuck little paper twists of candy within the long copper coils around their necks. He's especially good at describing the flora and fauna of this world; the smoky long-house of his grandparents, with its constantly fermenting palm wine, really comes alive.
Thwee's evocation of a peaceful pastoral boyhood would be enough to interest a reader, but his early life takes up only half of his autobiography. Much as the hero did in "Monsoon Country", Pascal moves to the big city with the goal of religious training, though in his case, of course, as a Catholic priest. His transition to Rangoon seems as difficult as his later move to Europe--indeed, he writes more in detail about his culture shock there than his later adjustments in Cambridge. There, too, he finds that he has no religious avocation, and he gets caught up in the student revolution through his girlfriend of the time.
Khwee wasn't in Rangoon to witness Aung San Suu Kyi's return to her homeland; he had already returned to his village as he felt staying in Rangoon had become pointless, even dangerous. Soon, however, he was practically forced to become a guerrilla fighter (the worst in the group, as he cheerfully admits) when the government got wind of his activism in Rangoon.
I really enjoyed this book, but felt it faltered a bit towards the end. Pascal's decision to leave the revolutionaries for Cambridge University felt both a bit dry and abrupt. I listened to a Radio 4 interview about this turning point, it was far more compelling to hear his describe how he had to sing and talk to himself during the long walk to the Cambridge professor who had offered to help him leave the country in an attempt to keep his feelings of guilt at bay. I suspect it was too painful for him to put down his conflicted emotions. It was interesting to read his depiction of Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi's husband, who was instrumental in helping Thwee leave for Cambridge. And Thwee's account of life in Cambridge, though interesting enough, did suffer from a bit of donnish aridity as Thwee was understandably preoccupied with mastering the English language and getting his degree. It is still, however, a wonderful read, and one which I enthusiastically recommend.
I read this book the week Suu Kyi won a seat in Myanmar's government. For Thwee's interview on Radio 4 look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008lzmb#synopsis