Fictional Travel in Real Burma
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Fictional Travel in Real Burma

By Edith Mirante MAY, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.5


A touch of Alice in Wonderland pervades this surreal journey through the horrors of military-ruled Burma


Saving Fish from Drowning
by Amy Tan. Putnam, New York, 2005. P472

Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter) has written a seemingly light comic novel with real political weight. Saving Fish from Drowning (a title that comes from a Buddhist self-justification for eating fish) might not be to everyone’s taste, but those who stick with it will find the author’s good intentions shining through.


The tour group has been a narrative inspiration dating back to Canterbury Tales and Journey to the West. Tan uses the misadventures of a fictional group of travelers as her framework for revealing Burma’s real-life agony. It all begins with a ghostly narrator—appropriate for Burma, the land of multicolored ghosts. Bibi Chen, a recently deceased San Francisco art dealer, comments on the progress of the China-Burma tour she had been meant to lead, with post-mortem omniscience and scathing wit.


The travelers are a m?lange of well-off “been there, done that” types from America, the kind of art-focused museum-tour globetrotters who consume culture without savoring (or understanding) it. They start off in China’s Yunnan Province, inadvertently desecrating a local shrine and provoking an elaborate curse which sets in motion their abnormal/paranormal experiences across the border in Burma.


The tourists’ glossy obliviousness to their surroundings and each other is a major theme throughout Saving Fish. “People can be so mean and not even know it,” observes the tour’s youngest member, a sulky teenager named Esme, and that is pretty much how these solipsistic pilgrims act, even the inexperienced, undercover human rights activist among them. They are vaguely aware of a tourism boycott of Burma but decide that it doesn’t apply to people like them.


Bibi Chen explains. “In Burma, despite the sad reports, it is still quite possible to enjoy what is just in the right hand: the art, first and foremost, the festivals and tribal clothing, the charming religiosity of taking your shoes off before stepping into a temple.

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