- From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey
This is a classic coming-of-age, my-life-as-parable story with a strange and shattering cross-cultural twist. Pascal Khoo Thwe is a Burmese tribesman—a Kayan Padaung from the hills south of Mandalay, where the women wear brass coils around their artificially elongated necks, demons are captured by seizing their testicles with bamboo tongs, and opium poppies keep the economy going. Baptized a Catholic (hence the "Pascal") by an itinerant Italian missionary, he is raised in a magical world of ghosts and goblins, the famous "nats" that animate and infest the jungled landscape, his grandfather a powerful, charismatical, antiauthoritarian regional chief. After several years in the local government school where he seems mainly to have been instructed in the virtues of Ne Win, the blood-drenched Burman dictator, and then several more years preparing to be a priest in a makeshift local seminary, where he soon loses his vocation, he goes off to national university in Mandalay to study English, the first of his village to do so.
Working there as a flunky in a Chinese restaurant, he encounters a passing-through Cambridge don who has heard-tell of him in Rangoon as a tribesman unaccountably devoted to the work and example of James Joyce, and he starts to dream of England and its scholastic gardens. As the brutality of the military regime is increasingly felt in the university, a shambling, dispirited place at the best of times, and his activist lover, a laughing Buddhist beauty with a rebellious streak, is arrested, raped, and murdered, he becomes himself inflamed and disappears into the jungle to join the guerrilla resistance. There he survives numerous long marches into Thailand and back and several set-to battles with government forces. Ill, wounded, and, most of his comrades killed or captured, near despair, he pulls out the scribbled address of the Cambridge don he has been carrying about with him and writes to the man in the hope that he can somehow rescue him and bring him to England. The don, a somewhat elusive, hard-to-read figure—he is eventually banned from Burma—shows up somehow in northern Thailand and does indeed cart him off to Cambridge. There, after three years of struggle and [End Page 349] confusion as "the only oriental reading English in the whole university" he gets a narrow third (he wrote on tragedy, Aeschylus to Chekhov), dresses up in native costume to receive his degree, gets drunk with his mates at the local pub, and returns to visit his left-behind family. Beautifully written, exactly felt, immediate, and genuine, Thwe's book is indeed a contribution to English literature, worthy of its Irish model. And, more importantly, a contribution to Burmese witness.
Clifford Geertz's books include Available Light, After the Fact, Local Knowledge, Negara, and The Interpretation of Cultures. His Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.