Daily Archives: 17 May 2006

Trusting Only Old Books in Burma

Hla Htut sat reading a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories in a faded deckchair. I gave him my letter of introduction, from a mutual friend in Rangoon. He read it carefully, folded it up, and handed it back to me. With great solemnity he pulled a plastic stool from behind some boxes and offered me a seat. Then he leaned back in his chair, lit a slender cheroot, and confessed that he hates books.

Hla Htut is in his early thirties. He has placid, sculpted features and an easy, slow manner. Since his schooling was disrupted by the government’s frequent and haphazard closure of Burma’s universities, he never finished the bachelor’s degree he started in English literature. Instead, he began dealing in books. It isn’t that he hates all books, he clarified: he just hates Burmese books. In fact, Hla Htut has no time for any contemporary Burmese writing, be it novels, newspapers or magazines. ‘I don’t trust them. They always lie,’ he said….

Burma has always had a high literacy rate, thanks to a strong tradition of education instilled by the country’s Buddhist monasteries, and reading for pleasure became a widespread pastime under the British. After a few generations under the colonial education system and with the introduction of printing presses, Burmese writers began to write more for the masses rather than for the palace elite. An adventure story inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1904 and is considered the first example of the novel in Burma. It was an instant hit, and a few years later novels and short stories written by Burmese writers were everywhere.

The Burmese, explained Hla Htut, had always been primed to love stories. All Burmese children were weaned on the Jataka stories, a collection of some 550 moral tales which described the many reincarnations of Prince Siddhartha before he achieved enlightenment as the Buddha. Prince Siddhartha appears in human and animal form wandering through the Buddhist cosmological landscape – a wonderland of celestial beings and forests filled with mythical beasts. Among other early favorites were H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle (the translator of the latter transformed Sherlock Holmes into the longyi-clad Sone Dauk Maung San Sha, or Detective Maung San Sha, and the sleuth’s famous Baker Street address became Bogalay Zay Street in Rangoon). A hundred years later, both Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle are still big sellers. Hla Htut puts it down to the oppressive political environment in which people live. ‘We Burmese, we need to escape. We don’t want to read non-fiction. We want only fiction and fantasy. We want to read about heroes – strong men, clever men.’

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 26-28 (reviewed here and here)

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