There can be no doubt that Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of Green Ghosts (Flamingo, £7.99) is a good read. The plot is direct and interesting: village boy (from the rather obscure Burmese Padaung tribe) goes to the big city to study English, forges a friendship with a charmingly befuddled Cambridge don, boldly rebels against the brutal and autocratic government, flees into the jungle to escape persecution, then is rescued by the aforementioned charming Cambridge don and whisked off to England where he makes good as an English student. Compared to other memoirs of this kind, which belong in a genre largely dominated by Chinese women authors like Jung Chang and Xinran Xue with novels like Wild Swans and The Good Women of China, From the Land of Green Ghosts most certainly doesn’t lack the oomph factor in terms of eventfulness. In fact, the relatively unexplored territory in which this odyssey is set adds much to its charm. Its flaws though are flaws that can be seen to belong to the entire genre, the main one being a slight degree of artificiality in response to the political climate of the homeland.
We must give Pascal Khoo Thwe credit though – the idyllic childhood he describes, spent in Phekhon, provokes a veritable sensory overload. He speaks of a typical Burmese summer, where the “monotonous song of the lonely cuckoo terrorised the horizon” and “cicadas joined the cuckoo in the maddening chorus that was the hot season”. The language is beautiful and the prose sensitive. The quaint Burmese stories and tales his grandma Mu Wye only tells after being sufficiently massaged also provide the additional mystique of a culture where ghosts are a given a role and incorporated into the trivia of everyday life.
The author’s consciousness, which can be described as essentially Padaung, is composed of an interesting and quite unique blend of Catholic notions and animistic symbolism, a combination that comes through best when he responds to familiar and local climes. I was actually most moved and impressed by his evocation of his mundane existence in Phekhon – there seemed to be genuine feeling and experience behind his words. In fact, Pascal Khoo Thwe, overall, seems quite like a Burmese Ben Okri in his sophisticated portrayal of the symbolic mindset which sees the added concurrent dimension to daily events.
Once Pascal leaves Phekhon for Mandalay, the jungle, and then England though, his Padaung mentality and perspective undergoes a change in the new environment of the big city and the political turmoil; he falters, both as a character within the novel, and overall, as the author. His descriptions of political repression, for example, seem totally incongruous. In the rest of the novel he loses his signature Padaung mindset, seeming to respond exactly as any Western person would, and losing, thus, some of his authenticity. It is here, then, that the novel fails to captivate completely, even though its energetic plot and autobiographical tone make it truly impressive.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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