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The Dinner Party
I said that I would find the place myself. I wanted to walk through the city, into Chinatown. “No, thank you. I do not want a ride, it’s all right.”
The pause at the other end of the phone was so long that I thought the line had gone dead.
“Are you still there?”
He asked again, “You . . . want . . . to walk?” Judging from the hesitating formality of the telephone exchanges we’d had earlier, I’d decided that my volunteer guide, San Aung, was over fifty, and a dedicated worry?wart.
“I do want to walk. Please tell me again the name of the restaurant. And how to get there.”
He did. He described it all carefully. He said, “But it can get dark in the evenings. You will be all right alone? I do not want you to get lost.”
How dark could it possibly get in a city? I said, “There is no possibility that I will get lost.”
* * *
I set off gamely enough. The light coaxes me out of weariness and into intoxicating newness: the tea-shop stools, the bottle caps pressed like ancient coins into the hardened mud of the streets; the scowling face of a boy as he pours steaming water into a large pot, then tosses in a load of dirty dishes. As I cross the street, a woman reaches up to a yellow-waterfall tree—laburnum?—snaps off a lemony sprig, and tucks it like a bird into her braided hair.
Even the dirt draws me in, the realness of dirt that lines the edges of millions of flip-flop-clad feet, including my own, which I wash every evening before I sleep, as I am unable to get into bed with dirty feet—a habit ingrained a decade ago, when I lived with Pee-Moi and Paw Prasert in northern Thailand. It comes flooding back to me in the flood of Rangoon, that early time cascading into this one.
I experienced a surge of those memories when I first moved back to Thailand six months ago, a vivid unrolling of the past in a small Thai town, my long-ago life with my Thai family. When I was seventeen, I went to live and study for a year in northern Thailand. It was a Rotary Exchange Program—a dry-sounding moniker for an experience that was utterly transformative. I was a precocious teenager, already publishing my poems and stories, and chafing for more contact with the big world. Living in a strange, brilliant, difficult place gave me something specific to write about, and the book I eventually published about my life in Denchai—Dream of a Thousand Lives—became a bestseller. It also financed several more years abroad and set me up, at twenty-five, as a bona-fide writer.
Earlier this year I returned to Thailand, but now I live in the welter and roar of Bangkok, a city I both love and hate for its chaos. At the height of the after-work rush, Rangoon seems much quieter than Bangkok, more manageable, less noisy. Though noisy enough. The glorious disorder slowly organizes itself into the busy face of evening. Where at first I moved, dazed and jostled, in a thick crowd of bodies, now I float from one stream of rushing humans to another. Young office men with soft faces, housewives confounded by the price of chicken, students who glimmer with intelligence. On Anawrahta Street, small-time salesmen with slicked-back hair have spread their wares—nail clippers, small electronic gizmos, hand mirrors, ballpoint pens, sunglasses, bottles of cologne, and loads of used clothes, much of it smuggled in from Thailand or Bangladesh, since Burma produces very little—on swaths of the wide sidewalk.
One of these salesmen, white-suited and handsome, like a Burmese version of an Italian gangster, is picking his nose when he meets my inquisitive eyes. He smiles at me unabashedly. Women walk home with their baskets of greens and onions, and other women stride in the opposite direction, toward the river and the boats that will ferry them across it. Four young Indian children in their pyjamas, their eyes kohled and their cheeks swirled with thanaka, play a checkers-like game on a set of broad steps. Normally I would stop to watch, but I must not be late for dinner.
Here is Chinatown, with its blue and green buildings, wooden shutters and elegant roofs, looking romantic in the gold leaf of dusk. The paint on the buildings is new, thin and lime-based, making the whitewashing both literal and figurative. The SLORC—that is, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the group of generals who rule Burma—recently decreed it for all the buildings of Rangoon. Not so long ago, the SLORC also forcibly moved entire communities of the city’s poorest people into primitive shantytowns on the periphery of the city so that foreign visitors like myself are not burdened with the sight of them.
The city is being beautified because, after decades of a socialist isolationist policy—the Burma Socialist Program Party was created by General Ne Win, who staged a coup d’état in 1962—the regime has changed its stripes. This is Visit Myanmar Year, and the government wants foreigners to visit, spend money, come back, and, most important, do business. The usual weeklong visa has been extended to a month; business visas last longer. There are Lucky Strike and Chivas Regal billboards on the streets; a few big hotels are already standing and more are under construction, most of them built jointly by the SLORC and its favorite business partners, the Chinese. The shift to a free-market economy came abruptly, in 1989, after decades of mismanaged and increasingly non-functioning nationalization schemes. The aged General Ne Win handed power over to a group of generals under his sway—the SLORC—and within months “the Burmese way to socialism,” as it used to be called, became the Burmese way to rampant capitalism fueled by the opium trade and the plunder of natural resources. The beneficiaries of this extraordinary ?economic shift are the generals—all of whom are ethnic Burmans and ?Buddhists—and their business partners and friends, who are often Sino-Burmese with connections to the Chinese business world and black market. There are Thai, Singaporean, German, French, American, and Canadian companies in Burma as well, operating factories, mines, pipelines in direct association with the generals, but their presence is minuscule compared with that of the Chinese. In less than a decade, most of Mandalay’s shops, hotels, restaurants, and prime real estate have been sold to Sino-Burmese and Chinese people, who are able to buy the identity papers of dead Burmans for a few hundred dollars. The same shift of ownership is happening in Rangoon as impoverished Burmese people are forced to sell their properties. When I left the guesthouse, I asked Myo Thant, the clerk, the best way to get to Chinatown. He laughed and said, “You’re in Chinatown already.” I shook my head, misunderstanding. “The whole city,” he said. “It is becoming Chinese town.”
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.