on April 13, 2003
Pascal Khoo Thwe opens this extraordinary book with the sentence: "When I was young I used to watch the rising sun with amazement." Incredibly, Khoo Thwe sustains our amazement as he relates the corruption of Burma through his eyes while growing up in its remote mountains. His words are informative and caring, painting not with the brush of pity as he portrays his home village and his family in their humble lives, but with one of deference and honor.
"From the Land of Green Ghosts" is more than an autobiography and more than a history: it is a testament to a young man's persistent search for truth and a place in life where he can just be happy. The author's prosaic language is suited well for the narrative, and a fine example of how well the author learned English in so short a time when his goals were achieved.
It is also a sorrowful tale because the woes of the Burmese remain, the grip is still retained by the military junta. I highly recommend this book, as well as "The Stone of Heaven" by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.
I liked this book immensely on several levels. As an anthropologist, I found it very interesting to get a Padaung's eye view, written in literate English, of his own background, his childhood in the remote, forested mountains of eastern Burma. The author tells of everything---from the strictures of Roman Catholic missionaries in far parts of Asia, to eating dogs, baby wasps, and snakes (with relish), his grandmother's stories, guardian spirits, a Padaung funeral. The Burmese political climate of the 1960s and `70s merely lurks in the background until the author drops out of a seminary and heads to Mandalay to attend university. While information about various remote peoples is not uncommon, it is usually processed by foreign writers who have visited them. FLGG gives it to you from the horse's mouth.
On a second level I admired Pascal Khoo Thwe because I'm an American, grandson of immigrants who left traditional villages in Russia for a new life, a freer life, in America. Odysseys like Khoo Thwe's form the essence of the American experience, but perhaps few are so dramatic---from university student, to jungle fighter to student at Cambridge University to published author. I can easily see the difficulties of becoming a new man (my family took the last name "Newman", but the real story is long) in a new country. I recalled Sir Albert Maori Kiki, a Papua New Guinean born into a Stone Age village, but who became a pathologist and high ranking Minister in his newly-independent country. I once had read his book, "Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime" and had been inspired by it.
This leads me to admire the book on a third level. We who live in modern countries, whether East or West, tend to denigrate those who live in poorer, less fortunate nations often suffering under tyrannical regimes. We feel that they may not have the sensibilities that we pride ourselves on. FLGG is a book that will shatter any such belief. The human spirit flies into the heavens from every corner of the globe, in all epochs. We--as Man---are universally capable of the greatest transformations and adjustments, able to surmount suffering. Pascal Khoo Thwe's thoughts and feelings, as expressed in his book, are eloquent proof of this. From a brutal regime which suppressed all independent thought, from a jungle war with no mercy, emerged a thinking, feeling man. I felt proud to be a human being when I finished. I admit that his book even moved me to tears.
A fourth reason why I liked FLGG is that it provides echoes of the same topic found in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"---the transformative power of literature and its ability to change human nature. As a student of English Literature, no matter how constricted, Khoo Thwe could respond to different ideas, imagine a different world. The theme is not the dominant one as it is in the above named works, but it is there. But now, Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Padaung, has produced a work to stand in company of the works of mankind. Read it.
on May 5, 2004
Culture and tradition, funny or deadly serious anecdote followed by a harrowing confrontation with Burma's brutal military regime characterize "From the Land of the Green Ghosts." Yet the story is told so gracefully that one feels eased into a life and death struggle rather than abruptly confronted by it (as one might find with a Western writer.) The advantage is that the author, the gifted Pascal Khoo Thwe, can punctuate his narrative with a precise, violent detail. Heart-stopping scenes appear neither moral nor immoral, only horrifying, a postcard from one of the most repressed countries in the world.
Thwe is unpretentious and perceptive. He has a gift for language few possess (indeed, English is not his first, second or even third language.) Still, the author fears that none of these assets exist in him. He is mistaken
Yet while it may sound like self-deception -- escaping jungle warfare to attend an elite college in order to "help" his people -- the book undoes this assumption. Admittedly, it is easier to write flowing prose in England as opposed to dodging mortars (or succumbing to malaria) along the Thai-Burmese border; but it is hard to imagine that any rebel fighter could have better informed the world about Burma's plight than is offered here by Pascal Khoo Thwe.
on January 2, 2003
This is a wonderful book and a very interesting read. It offers a both a detailed description of life growing up in a hill tribe in Burma and a broader look at the tragic consequences of years of totalitarian rule by the corrupt and failed government of Burma (now "officially" Myanmar). The author's journey to the border and subsequent escape from the country almost reads like a fiction novel. However, this true story is written with the respect and insight of a man well aware of the gravity of his country's plight. His book does the reader, and the people of his troubled country, a great service.
on July 11, 2003
I live in Thailand and have traveled to Burma (sometimes called "Myanmar"). I was prepared to like this book and I was expecting the heroic life story that I got. I was not, however, prepared for the beauty of the writing and the depth of the tragedy so simply, but touchingly, told. It is simply amazing to me that anyone can write so beautifully in a second language; Thwe is very talented. I hope that he keeps writing. I also hope that in his next book, he drops some of the reserve that characterizes his cultural upbringing and lets us into his inner life a little more.
on February 14, 2004
I don't post reviews, but this book was such a great one that I had to add my opinion.
The author's very personal insights into the Burma's struggles are profound. His early memories growing up in a tribal Padaung culture present a fascinating look at how the Catholicisim taught by missionaries coexisted with tribal myths (a favorite quote, from his grandmother: "The gods are like government officials. If you want things done quickly, you have to bribe the small ones.")
As his education progressed, so too did the unbelievable repression of the various Burmese regimes of the day (1960s to 80s). His experience as a student freedom fighter are gripping, as is his remarkable account of how a chance meeting with a Cambridge professor led to his eventual escape to England.
For me, this book did 3 things. First, it helped me glimpse the contemporary history of Burma (aka Myanmar), a nation that's always intrigued me, but a place of which I had very little knowledge. Second, it opened my eyes to some of the feelings and courage behind rebels and freedom fighters in oppressively-ruled nations, which allows me to read contemporary accounts of world events in a much richer context. Finally, it made me re-examine my own role in the world. While Pascal was fighting for his life as he made an unimaginable transition (to me anyway) from tribal to contemporary cultures, I was hawking software at trade shows or enjoying the tourist face of neighboring Thailand -- all with no idea of what was really happening in Burma. It was stunning that I could have been so ignorant to what was happening there at a time when I considered myself to be pretty aware of what was going on in the world.
A fascinating and extremely well-written book.
on July 28, 2003
Burma (aka Myanmar) is a country of many, many different ethnic and tribal groups. While the majority (69%) are Burman, there are many others including Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, and the author's own Padaung tribe. (The Padaung are most famous in the West for their "giraffe women" who wear golden rings about their necks that elongate their profile to freakish dimensions.)
Pascal Khoo Thwee's book is a narrative of his life as an ambitious young Padaung man trying to negotiate his way through the brutal, murderous, politically-dysfunctional culture that is modern-day Burma. It is an incredible story, cinematic in its dimensions and bizarre, fortuitous coincidences. Thwe gives voice to the Burma that nobody knows, i.e., life as experienced by one of its minority tribal groups.
Thwe's descriptions of his life among the Padaung are extraordinarly rich, with all the subtle nuances that only an insider could provide. His account of his flight from a hideous regime and life among the anti-government insurgents in the jungle is equally riveting. Eventually, he escapes to the rarified academic milieu of Cambridge University. It is a great story (and would make a fine movie.)
Unfortunately, it is in the account of his political awakening/transformation (the bridge between the two stories above) that the book falls flat. This was the most momentous and revolutionary period in the history of modern day Burma. It was when Aung San Suu Kyi came to world prominence and Burma looked like it had a hope of abandoning its decades long isolation and rejoing the modern (democratic?) world. One would expect that Thwe's narrative would sing at this point. Yet, it seems curiously detached -- almost mailed-in. It seems, in fact, to be reconstructed in significant measure from secondary sources. Only the death of his lover/girlfriend at the hand of the government has any resonance in accounting for his ultimate apostasy from General Ne Win's abominable political ideology.
I acknowledge that this may be unfair to Thwe in that I am thinking like a Westerner. He is candid in talking about his difficulties in coming to terms with concepts such as "human rights", "democracy", and "freedom of thought." Still, I feel that his account of the pressures that pushed him toward exile is woefully underdeveloped.
On the whole, this is a fine book. I learned much about minority cultures in Burma that I probably would not learn anywhere else. But. . .if you want to understand the revolutionary events that led to the great Burmese uprising of 1988 I would suggest that you look elsewhere.
on March 28, 2003
Pascal Khoo Thwe has written a clear and sensitive story of how it feels to come from a rural small town in Burma and, overcoming initial loneliness and feelings of inferiority, go on to excell in scholarship. Growing up in a Karenni village, he masters Burmese and English, survives having a price put on his head, escapes to freedom through the jungle and overcomes tremendous obstacles to finally study successfully at Cambridge.
I have lived in both Burma and Thailand, worked among the Karen and Shan people, but the author adds dimensions that I had only dimly been aware of.
His accounts travel in rural Asia, the taunts of enemy soldiers in battle, the terror of flight through unknown territory, and many other vignettes make the reader feel like he is there.
Khoo Thwe is a natural-born story teller. I hope he writes more.
on February 19, 2003
This book is so beautiful. It is a true pleasure to read due to both the prose and the astounding life experiences the author has gone through. It gives one a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Padaung and Burmese in general, while detailing out the tumultuous political situation of that country. It is a lovely book and hard to put down. It is an immensely rewarding read.
on November 26, 2007
I just finished reading this book and I can't stop thinking about it, it is wonderful! It's beautifully written and reads like a novel. The only thing that I felt it was missing was some sort of follow up on the secondary characters. Since Burma is still struggling, I wasn't expecting a totally happy ending but I was curious if he knew what became of some of his friends. Other than that, this is a fantastic, beauuuutiful book!