One fam­ily and the legacy of a revo­lu­tion

Char­maine Craig’s novel is based on her mother’s life but is also about how the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­twine, writes Lucy Sc­holes

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction -

Char­maine Craig’s new novel, Miss Burma, tells the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of a beauty queen-turned-rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader.

It might sound un­be­liev­able but Craig’s fic­tional war­rior woman is closely based on a real life fig­ure: her mother Louisa Char­maine Ben­son Craig. Born in 1941 in Ran­goon (in then Bri­tish Burma), Louisa was a two-time win­ner of the Miss Burma con­test, who mar­ried a com­man­der of the Karen Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army when she was 23, was wid­owed only a year later, af­ter which she led his brigade be­fore even­tu­ally em­i­grat­ing to the United States in the late 1960s.

Al­though Louisa is the star of the show, Craig chooses not to de­pict her com­man­der years, start­ing the book in Ran­goon in 1926 – with the birth of Louisa’s fa­ther Benny – and draw­ing the nar­ra­tive to a close in 1965, on the banks of the Sal­ween River, just af­ter the griev­ing widow has em­braced her mil­i­tary du­ties. Thus, rather than pro­duc­ing a more tra­di­tional straight­for­ward fic­tion­alised bi­og­ra­phy, in­stead Miss Burma charts al­most half a decade of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal and civil un­rest, as ex­pe­ri­enced by this one fam­ily caught “in the eye of the storm”. The for­ma­tive events in Louisa’s life do not take place in a vac­uum but rather as the di­rect re­sult of what’s come be­fore; her choices are a prod­uct of those her par­ents made be­fore her. When Benny and Khin meet in the late 1930s, he’s a young of­fi­cial work­ing for His Majesty’s gov­ern­ment and she’s a nanny. Benny is Jewish, born in Ran­goon, al­though a child­hood in Cal­cutta where he was brought up by rel­a­tives af­ter his par­ents’ deaths has left him es­tranged from his com­mu­nity; while Khin is from the Karen eth­nic group, one of the coun­try’s many per­se­cuted mi­nori­ties. They are mar­ried be­fore they’ve even learned each other’s lan­guage and their early days to­gether are a time of awk­ward­ness and frus­tra­tion. The “de­fi­ciency” of Benny’s Burmese, which Khin speaks so flu­ently (it­self “ut­terly dis­tinct” from her na­tive Karen lan­guage) re­sults in “sput­ter­ing ex­changes” that leave an “af­ter­taste of dis­ap­point­ment in his mouth”.

Yet de­spite these com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems, their new­found in­ti­macy is also a balm to them both, “a re­prieve from lone­li­ness be­yond mea­sure”.

There is love be­tween the two but theirs is a re­la­tion­ship caught up in the larger geopo­lit­i­cal power play at work. Al­ready es­tranged to his own Jewish­ness, Benny fully em­braces his wife’s heritage, rein­vent­ing him­self as Karen, and so too Khin’s own eth­nic iden­tity is oddly re­in­forced by their union. This hap­pens ini­tially through the re­al­i­sa­tion of just how dif­fer­ent she and her new hus­band are – “She had not known how very Karen she was un­til there was Benny – bois­ter­ous, bel­liger­ent Benny, who big-heart­edly tram­melled all over her pref­er­ences for gen­tle­ness and hu­mil­ity and silent at­tune­ment to oth­ers” – and there­after via the hor­rors of civil war, the in­di­vid­ual suf­fer­ing of each trap­ping them in sep­a­rate pris­ons of their own trauma. Af­ter the Sec­ond World War the Karen com­mu­nity is tar­geted by the mili­tia of the Burmese gov­ern­ment of the newly in­de­pen­dent na­tion.

Miss Burma is a novel heav y on pol­i­tics, and Craig’s char­ac­ters aren’t sit­ting on the side­lines. This is a coun­try which has been “fash­ioned” by “eth­nic ha­tred”. Craig’s char­ac­ters ex­pend much en­ergy on long, colour­ful con­ver­sa­tions about about how those in charge – from po­lit­i­can U Saw to fu­ture prime min­is­ter of Burma Ne Win, to as­sas­si­nated Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s fa­ther), to the CIA – might push for­ward.

When Louisa mar­ries her hus­band Lyn­ton, it’s be­cause he’s “the em­bod­i­ment of hope and light­ness dur­ing a des­o­late time”, the fan­tasy she has of him in­ti­mately en­tan­gled with “her fan­tasy of a co­he­sive na­tion un­tainted by cen­turies of prej­u­dice”. In Craig’s hands, her char­ac­ters be­come the em­bod­i­ment of pol­i­tics – as Miss Burma Louisa is flaunted as a “sym­bol of in­te­gra­tion, as­sim­i­la­tion, sub­ju­ga­tion”; of false “har­mony” in a coun­try vi­o­lently di­vided. As such, Miss Burma is a Bil­dungsro­man of a kind; Louisa’s jour­ney of for­ma­tion from in­no­cence to ex­pe­ri­ence a metaphor for the larger strug­gles of Myan­mar it­self.

De­spite all the pol­i­tics, Craig is still an evoca­tive sto­ry­teller; the way she flits back and forth be­tween the dif­fer­ent points of view of her pro­tag­o­nists strength­en­ing our sym­pa­thies for this fam­ily cleaved be­yond re­pair, “slaves to their cir­cum­stances, liv­ing a kind of per­ma­nent es­trange­ment within these walls they shared”.

Ad­mit­tedly, the lyri­cism of her proses oc­ca­sion­ally tips over into slight hy­per­bole but then she ral­lies and pulls it back on track. Miss Burma is a richly-drawn por­trait of how the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal en­twine and how loy­alty takes many dif­fer­ent guises.

Lucy Sc­holes is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who lives in Lon­don. Agamem­non bru­tally sac­ri­fices his daugh­ter in re­turn for good for­tune on the bat­tle­field. But his ac­tions set the fam­ily – mother, brother, sis­ter – on a path of venge­ful vi­o­lence. This retelling of the story of Clytemnes­tra has been de­scribed as a Greek House of Cards. Fran Cooper Hod­der & Stoughton, May 4

In an ob­scure part of Paris there is a build­ing that hardly any­one no­tices. An old man feeds spar­rows on his win­dowsill, while an­other res­i­dent opens a small book­shop down­stairs. But as the heat rises dur­ing one Parisian sum­mer, things are about to abruptly change for the res­i­dents of No 37.

Key­stone / Hul­ton Archive / Getty Images

‘Fa­ther of Myan­mar’ Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi is his daugh­ter) in 1947. Miss Burma ex­plores the eth­nic con­flicts that af­fect the coun­try to this day.

These Di­vid­ing Walls

House of Names Colm Tóibín Vik­ing, May 18

Miss Burma Char­maine Craig Grove Press, Dh95

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.