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Lesley Downer…passionate and poetic…Burmese Lessons is an intimate account of a country, a relationship and a man—all three of which remain elusive.
—The New York Times
From the Hardcover edition.
“Karen Connelly’s passionate and poetic memoir begins with her arrival in Burma in 1996 at the age of 27. Brash, naïve and bubbling with confidence, she is enchanted by the country, but also determined to ‘catch at least a glimpse of the truth—something beyond the beautiful images that are so readily available to the foreign eye’ . . . . Burmese Lessons is an intimate account of a country, a relationship and a man—all three of which remain elusive.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Burmese Lessons is a polished, literary memoir that includes, along the way, an account Burma's turbulent history. . . . Ms. Connelly is a hugely engaging writer. Burma itself—as Ms. Connelly well knows—is rather more complicated than one difficult love affair.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Connelly isn't a hard-nosed journalistic observer. She’s intelligent and curious, also emotional, self-deprecating, openhearted. When she meets Maung, a handsome Burmese dissident, at a Christmas party in Chiang Mai, she begins a passionate and complicated cross-cultural romance. We know things can't end well, but we're with Connelly all the way on this journey. There's no resisting.”
"[A] heartbreaking romance set among the temples and verdure of Southeast Asia."
—The Seattle Times
"A generous dollop of poetic chick lit combines surprisingly well with criticism of Burma's half-century of bloody dictatorship in Canadian Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons."
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A sensually acute writer, Connelly describes the lush pleasures of losing oneself in a romantic, foreign place, but also details the bitter act of renunciation involved in realizing that her lover belonged not to her but to the larger struggle for Burmese democracy.”
“Karen Connelly has given her heart to Asia. I bow in gratitude to this writer whose love story is personal and political — and true.”
—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
“Burmese Lessons is a tour de force. At once beautiful literature, an intimate account of a moving journey, a nuanced portrait of another country, a complex yet quietly honest reportage, this book is also a page turner. It will, I believe, become a classic in the new genre that mixes personal memory with public events.”
—Susan Griffin, author of A Chorus of Stones and Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy
"Weaving a poignant personal love story within a larger cultural tapestry of Myanmar circa 1996, Canadian poet, memoirist, and novelist Connelly delivers a lyrical look at a country in the throes of a deeply pernicious military dictatorship.... Connelly writes eloquently of having given her heart to Asia."
"Putting both her safety and heart on the line, Connelly renders deft passages on sexual longing and satiation that help anchor the book’s harsh sociopolitical themes. Burmese Lessons examines Burma’s tumultuous climate and nuanced cultural ethos with colorful prose and gritty self-reflection.
"Treading the boundary between romance and politics, Connelly presents an evocative account of passionately living the revolution, shedding light on those who give everything to the cause, and those who love them. Piercing and raw."
“Burmese Lessons shows us more than a place, or a person in a place: it shows us a way to be in the world: open, seeing, breathing, awake.... In virtually every encounter, Connelly shows us that there is no escaping the political: the reach of the regime is pervasive and poisonous. The political is there in the personal.... This is the greatest lesson in Burmese Lessons, and the most important moment: the realization that the whole history of Burma is reflected in every individual life. The small story is the Bigger Picture.”
—Literary Review of Canada
"Haunting and poetic.... Connelly fans will be enthralled."
—Quill & Quire
“The recounting, re-imagining, of Connelly’s immersion in the mid-90s [in Burma and Thailand] reveals a brave, even foolhardy, idealistic, beautiful young woman utterly seduced, co-opted, transformed by Burmese culture….”
—Globe and Mail
"Connelly compels admiration for her brave intrusions into dangerous and awkward situations, and above all for her candour."
But I’m in the heart of old Chinatown now. And I am lost. Darkness falls quickly, as it does in the tropics, and falls hard, as it does in Rangoon, because none of the lights on these streets are working. I take a moment to get my bearings and consult my map, which happens to have several errors on it—that is, if I’m reading it correctly. Soon I am rushing around in the dark, flustered and big-eyed and without composure, approaching and retreating from the wrong pools of light and people, my glasses slipping down my nose.
But I do find my dinner party, finally, when San Aung sees a woman stumbling by on the broken pavement and calls out, “Miss Karen,” accent on the second syllable, Ka-rén, like the ethnic group that has been at war with the Burmese military for half a century. I approach the table, smiling and sweating in equal measure as I greet everyone, a dozen or so dinner guests gathered together by San Aung, who is not in his fifties at all but is a good-looking man of perhaps thirty-five with high cheekbones in a long Indian face. With his gorgeous head of gleaming hair and his immaculate clothes, he looks like a movie star. He wears a blue pin-striped shirt and a dark blue longyi; both seem to have been lifted off an ironing board five minutes ago. He shakes my hand three times, then lets go and turns to introduce me to the others, giving me condensed biographies as we make our way around the table of mostly Burmese writers. But a lawyer is also here, and a history professor who works at the Japanese embassy (the pay is much better, the university is a shambles), a burly ship’s captain who loves Gorky (he announces this immediately, as an intellectual credential) a woman who collects Burmese folktales, and a Swedish journalist, Anita. Even though she’s sitting down, I can tell that she is very tall.
Plates of food are already arriving, heaps of greens and noodles and two whole fishes. And a pile of twisted, glistening stuff: very possibly a platter of silver worms. The ship’s captain and a very rotund poet make a place for me between them and, once I’m seated, the introductory quiet closes up with voices again, like steady waves after a lull. Streams of Burmese rush around me, and English strides out into the air, directed to Anita, to me, and to a man I’d assumed was part of the local contingent but who is, in fact, Johnny, a Filipino photographer employed by Time magazine.
Everyone talks about books and writers, passing the names back and forth like gem dealers handling sapphires and rubies, marveling at the riches. Though at the mention of Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, San Aung pushes out his bottom lip in contemptuous-Frenchman style and huffs, “But it was too much, all those characters. I couldn’t keep them straight. There were too many of them at the beginning and too many at the end.” He laughs. “I did not read the middle, but I’m sure it was the same problem.”
The ship’s captain, clearly a great admirer of the old Russian writers, is scandalized. “But that is how Tolstoy . . .” He looks at me, open-mouthed, searching for the word on my white face. Apparently, he finds it. “That is how Tolstoy re-creates the world. He fills his books with real human beings. Yes, there are many of them; Russia is a big country! And all different kinds of people live in his work, not just one class or another class.”
Is he really a ship’s captain? He talks like a professor. I tell him, “Listening to you makes me want to be a writer.”
He replies in a tone close to reverence, “You already are a writer. How fortunate!”
“But writing is hard work. And lonely. There may be a lot of characters in a story or a book, but the writer is always alone with them.” I look around the table. “And there’s never enough money.”
My fellow writers at the table nod their agreement. But I know that none of them are spoiled as I am spoiled: by early success, by government grants and, most abundantly, by freedom. Yet still I complain. In Burma! It’s disgusting.
Lately I’ve found my enthusiasm for my calling on the wane, partly because I know I’m stuck with it. Most of my life will be spent in a room in front of a computer, tapping out the visions in my head, reworking handwritten scrawls. This notion once filled me with delight. Now it just makes me want to get out of the room and meet someone for a drink—preferably someone who looks like San Aung.
However, the captain is right. Tolstoy has been dead for one hundred years, yet Anna Karenina is alive and beloved in Rangoon. It is extraordinary that something so still, so lifeless—black type on the cheap paper of Penguin’s classic pocketbook—can contain a living world. A Burmese man can step into a time machine and go to nineteenth-century Russia just by turning one page, then another, and another, until he is entangled emotionally and intellectually in fictional lives. Strangers become his familiars.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted November 11, 2010
The value of this book to me is that I have great curiosity about life in and near Burma, having had the tiniest taste of it once in a small border town. It was a pleasure to go along with the author then on her 1996 trip to the country. She does an excellent job of bringing the people and the scenes to life. The history of the Burmese people, their modern struggle against dictatorship of the worst kind, the passion and warmth of the people are all there in these pages. When the author falls in love, she brings us into the life of one of these revolutionary leaders, and we see the burdens and needs of his life up close. Not all is flattering, either to him or to the author. She delves too deeply into their sexual life, and her own selfishness becomes clear, especially in juxtaposition to those suffering near her. The last pages of the novel slip in quality as the author does not appear to know how to wrap the story up, and it does end in an unsatisfying way, at least for me. A question remains unanswered. She is allowed access to people who believe she is writing a book about their cause. Did the book ever go to print or was this more of a ruse? If this is the book, then 14 years later it is pretty outdated in terms of telling the story her sources wanted told. But for those of us uneducated on the subject, there is a lot to learn here.
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Posted January 31, 2011
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