Ah, good intentions. The Burma Road is paved with them in Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning. This is a book about illusions and unintended consequences. It is about lies we tell ourselves, lies we tell each other, and lies told to us. Life turned into a reality show. Survivor Burma.
The title is the clue to this main theme. We justify our actions as doing good for others -saving the fish - but so very often, whether intentionally or unintentionally we are self serving- fishing for ourselves. In the interview with the author in the Reader's guide at the back Tan answers a question about blurring fact and fiction with this response: "Which kind of fiction is most harmful : the fiction masquerading as truth or the fiction that contains truth?"
I love Tan's acerbic, politically incorrect narrator, Bibi Chen. Through her eyes we see cross cultural confusion and clash of cultures and religions, media spin, government corruption genocide and oppression, all laced with witty commentary and irony.
There are some good shots -via Bibi- at the shallowness of the media, the eagerness to use and be used, for the sake of a good story.
"The worst of the newshounds in my opinion was Philip Gutman of Free to Speak International. That megalomaniac contacted GNN and dangled bait in front of them and they bit... he was proud that a member of Free to Speak was among the missing. He added in dramatic fashion that this person has now joined the tens of thousands of people now missing in Burma." ... Naturally this led to a flurry of guesses about who this activist might be... Who was the troublemaker they wanted to know... The punishment for spies in Mayanmar was similar to that for people who were caught smuggling drugs: death. Wendy may have been an immature nitwit but that did not mean she deserved to have her head lopped off simply because her former housemate seized any opportunity to promote his cause. " ...
This book is laugh out loud funny in places, black humour sometimes but mostly based on human behavior and foibles-which Tan makes clear is not a function of just one ideology, religion or culture. A policeman asks a Burmese witness who claims to have seen the missing tourists: "Did you see them before or after they disappeared?" How many times have we seen a reporter ask a similar silly question for the camera.
The GNN bureau chief in Bangkok coordinated with headquarters in New York on interviews. At the Bangkok airport, reporters from GNN and other media outlets swarmed the tourists arriving from Mandalay and Rangoon. Had they been frightened? Did they leave early? Would they ever go back? The people from New York and Rio de Janeiro gave wearied and disgusted looks as they pushed past... But a few travelers were easily stopped, because they were from some cities like Indianapolis, Indiana or Manchester, England where is it was considered rude not to acknowledge someone who asked you a question. Those from Los Angelos also willingly stepped before the camera since it was their civil right. " It was so hard to spend time in a country" a woman from Studio City commented "where eleven people wind up dead. "She was reminded that no one was confirmed deceased so she added , "Well it still gets to you."
"Were you scared" a reporter shouted to a couple emerging from a set of doors. "This one was" said a sunburned man, in a flat tone, and he jerked his thumb toward a woman behind him. "She went hysterical." The woman gave him a smile of annoyance. She turned to the reporter and said, her stony smile still affixed. "To be honest I was more concerned we'd get stuck if they shut down the airports." Her response - plus that gritted smile meant for her husband- was replayed each hour, making it seem to millions of people that she was a coldhearted bitch.
There are lots of moral morsels to chew on.
"I'd be uncomfortable," she said, "putting them [their abductors] at risk."
"But we're already uncomfortable, "Dwight retorted. And we are at risk. Don't you realize where we are. We're in the f---ing jungle. We already had malaria. What's next? Snakebite? Typhus? When do we factor us into the equation for what we do."
He had brought up their unspoken worries and a series of morally ugly questions. Whom do you save? Can you save both? Or do you save only yourself? Do you do nothing and risk nothing or die from whatever happens to come along as you sit on a log waiting for whatever comes?"
And further on: "But how did you know whether your intention would help, or whether it would only lead to worse problems? Sanctions or engagement? How could anyone know what approach would work? Who could guarantee it? And if it failed, who suffered the consequences? Who took responsibility? Who would undo the mess? Would anyone be around to care? No one had any answers...."
And some lyrically beautiful passages:
"With the Mind of Others I could see where they [The Karen] were. There is a place in the jungle called Somewhere Else, a split that divides Life from Death, and it is darker and deeper than the other ravine. They lie on their mats, all in a row, and they stare at the tree canopy that hides the sky. When the sun is gone and there a4e no stars above, they turn to their memory. They hear a hundred bronze drums, a hundred cow horns, a hundred wood gourds in the shape of frogs. They hear flutes chirp and bells echo. They hear the gurgling brook music any god would love. Together they sing in perfect harmony. We are together and that is what matters."
There are two kind of books in my estimation. Ones you know you will reread some day and those you know you won't. The first I keep, the second I eventually get rid of. Saving Fish has much to say in its wacky way and it is a keeper.