Monday, January 04, 2010

Burmese Lessons by Karen Connelly

As I received this book for Christmas and read it over a couple of days of bookish holiday bliss, my brain is far too mushy in regards to it for a formal review, but I don't want to miss my chance to let you know how wonderful it is. I read Karen Connelly's novel The Lizard Cage in 2007, it's stayed with me ever since, and it made a Burma a place that's important in my mind. I certainly thought of Teza as I read news coverage of the Saffron Revolution later that year (which was not really a revolution in the end, but for a while it was the promise of something). Connelly's novel was formidable in and of itself, but that a Canadian woman had managed to so well articulate the story of a male Burmese political prisoner was quite remarkable.

Connelly's new book Burmese Lessons is partly the story of how she came to write The Lizard Cage. I say "partly", because Burmese Lessons is "about" many things, strands of experience from that time in Connelly's life, plaited together in a gorgeous construction. The book is subtitled "A Love Story", and much of it is the story of Connelly's love affair with Maung, a Burmese dissident guerrilla fighter. But theirs is not the only "love story", strictly speaking. In the book, Connelly writes of her effusive love for the whole world, this one country in particular, and every corner of it, and its language and its people, and its beauty, and she seeks an understanding of its ugliness too. Her passion resonates throughout the text, whether she is describing the people she sees, the food she eats, those she conflicts with, the politics of Burma, the situation on the Thai-Burmese border, or sex with Maung (and there is much of the last one). Burmese Lessons is very much a story of the body, of sex, of violence she witnesses inflicted upon Burmese protesters, of the sick children she sees who are dying of malaria, of her own experience with malaria, of living in the jungle and not having a bowel movement for days and days and days. Connelly holds nothing back here, and her passion is clear with every line.

As well as a novelist, Connelly is a poet and a non-fiction writer, and her prose demonstrates such deftness. After more than a decade dealing with Burmese politics, she also knows her stuff, and holds nothing back either regarding the brutality of the Burmese junta, the realities of life in the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, and the violence that human beings enact toward one another. This is not an easy book by any means, but its various strands are entwined so as to counter heavy with light, to enlighten and enliven, to make reading the whole thing in a day or two a serious delight.

If you haven't read The Lizard Cage, you really should. And then when you're finished with that, read this to find out everything else, what Connelly couldn't hope to contain in her other book. Which is to say that Burmese Lessons is a serving of leftovers of a sort, but it would have been a sin to have them go to waste.