Image: Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma
Image: Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma

Land of Illusions

In this scene from AMY TAN‘s latest novel, the cynical ghost of murdered San Francisco socialite Bibi Chen tells the story of her friends’ trip to Burma.

CROSSING THE BORDER into Burma, one can spot the same pretty flowers seen from the bus window in China: yellow daisies and scarlet hibiscus, lantana growing as plentifully as weeds. Nothing had changed from one country to the next, or so it appeared to my friends.

But in fact all had suddenly become denser, wilder, devouring itself as nature does when it is neglected for a hundred years. That was the sense I had in crossing that border, as if I, like H. G. Wells in his time machine, possessed the same consciousness but had been plopped in the past. Moff and Harry immediately took to calling each other “Rudyard” and “George,” after Kipling and Orwell, the chroniclers of old colonial Burma. Like my friends, I, too, have found the literature of yesteryear intoxicating, engorged with the perfumes and pastiches of the exotic and languid life: Victorian parasols, stern pith helmets, and fever dreams of sex with the natives.

As for the more recent stories about Burma, how they pale. They are mostly distressing reports. The stories go more or less like this: Miss Burma is now married to a lunatic despot who has changed her name to Mrs. Myanmar. She has gone to live in Oblivion, so no one knows where she is. The husband is vile and beats his wife. The children have been abused as well, and now they bear scars and are hiding in corners. Poor Miss Burma, the former beauty queen, she would be gorgeous still if it weren’t for the gaunt limbs, the missing eye, the lips mumbling the same babble.

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