Friday, July 31, 2009

The River of Lost Footsteps

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, by Thant Myint-U
2007, 388 pp.

Burma has the dubious distinction of being home to both the world’s longest-ruling military dictatorship and the world’s longest-running civil war, yet receives among the least Western attention of any country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. It is the sort of place about which it is fashionable to have an ill-informed political opinion, and which lends itself well to the sort of simplistic morality play so favored by the facile American analysis of foreign affairs. That the brutal military junta is guilty of innumerable crimes and the immiseration of its people is without question; that Aung San Suu Kyi won the free and fair elections in 1990 is also beyond doubt; that the Burmese people have suffered and continue to suffer grievously at the hands of their overlords is self-evident. Yet there is a need for an informed, expert account of modern Burmese history written especially for a Western audience. It is that gap which Thant Myint-U, a trained historian and social scientist, an experienced UN employee, and the grandson of Secretary General U Thant, set out to fill with The River of Lost Footsteps. It would therefore be a backhanded compliment indeed to call it the best history of modern Burma, but I fear that backhanded is as kind as I can be. Despite an impressive breadth of knowledge on display and despite the author’s manifest familiarity with his subject, The River of Lost Footsteps is not a particularly good read. I am glad that it exists, and glad that I read it, but I hope that the field of modern Burmese history will not end with this book.

I began in high spirits: the epigram to the first chapter is footnoted, and on following the footnote, I was delighted to see that I would be treated to endnotes in Chicago-style formatting, which is the Johnny Walker of citation styles. The first chapter begins with the fall of the Burmese monarchy to the British in 1885. This seemed like a logical place to begin a history of modern Burma, but the trouble reared its ugly head immediately. Chapter Two is about who the author is and why he wrote the book, and therefore ought to have gone first. It simply serves as an interruption as the second chapter, and while the epigram to Chapter One is from a nineteenth century memoir, the epigram to Chapter Two is a Seinfeld quote, fairly accurately reflecting the decline in scholarly quality. Chapter Three begins well before the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, which cannot be considered "modern" by any stretch of the imagination, and there the scale of the problem became clear. Thant Myint-U is terribly, horribly, unspeakably fond of beginning in the middle, doubling back to the beginning to explain how the middle got to be the middle, then proceeding to the end. The technique of beginning in the middle is legitimately useful in film, where it is called “in medias res,” but is confusing and unpleasant in historical narrative. The book as a whole is in medias res; individual chapters are in medias res, and sometimes the brief sections which make up the chapters are in medias res. This makes the book damned difficult to follow, annoyingly repetitive, and a trifle amateurish. It is not helped by Thant’s habit of sketching the critical middle scene in a sort of fictionalized, novelish way, often devoid of footnotes. The book opens, for instance, with the last king of Burma deciding to flee the palace. But we have no idea what that actual scene was like, and neither does Thant, since he never cites any sources for it. How does he know what these people looked like and what they were feeling? As a trained historian, I know he has no real idea: he’s assumed, and he’s taking some poetic license. That is not the business of history.

Furthermore, he tends to rely very heavily on a few books which he effectively summarizes to provide some sense of narrative structure. Chapter One is mostly a summary of his own previous book and A.T.Q. Stewart’s The Pagoda War. The chapter on the Second World War is a summary of General Slim’s excellent Defeat into Victory, and Louis Allen’s Burma, The Longest War. The three chapters on Burma’s ancient and medieval history are interminable and irrelevant. They distract from the point of the book, seem to bear little importance to modern events (except for the point that the Burmese have a successful military history) and squat like a forbidding wall in the center of the book. This is unfortunate, since it will probably deter many readers who don’t care about fifteenth century imperial Burma and will discourage them from pressing on and reaching the very good later chapters. When Thant actually gets around to the British occupation, the Second World War, and the struggle for independence, he is at his best and is often quite good indeed. He has a terrific eye for the strange detail and peculiar character, which never moves the book along, but does at least make it interesting. Sometimes this misfires and he seems to be spouting non sequiturs, and frequently they require that you already know what Whitehall is, and who the Taiping rebels were in order to make any sense at all.

The famous 1988 uprising is discussed in Chapter Two, and then is mainly skipped over in the latter chronological chapter where it would seem to belong. I forgot entire about Chapter Two until I went back and consulted my notes, so for many pages I thought he’d overlooked it. The section on Aung San Suu Kyi is quite brief and perfunctory, possibly due to his conviction that his audience already knows a bit about her. He tends to insert his own and his family’s experience when his fractured narrative is otherwise unable to make a point, and this habit, combined with his choice to devote time and attention in greater proportion to subjects which most interest him undermines any sense that the book is communicating authoritative history. Thant should have cut the “Personal” out of the subtitle and gone with a regular history instead. There is no kind way of saying it, but the tragic flaw in this book is its author.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot about Burma, and can now draw from its colonial experience and modern dictatorship a number of interesting observations which are relevant to general discussions of empire, decolonization, state building, and so forth. It is valuable to know that the Burmese government was set up as a puppet fascist regime by Imperial Japan, that it is comprised of Buddhist Burmese-speakers who are but one of over three hundred ethnic groups, that it has been fighting and killing the Christian Karen people in the Shan states for decades, and that the military is also the only institution likely to survive future years of isolation. Thant even includes fairly logical and persuasive policy recommendations at the end, which is certainly welcome. Interested readers would do well to read Chapters Seven and Nine through Twelve, but skip the medieval sections and the utterly incoherent middle chapter on social history. There is much knowledge to be gained from this book, but you must pry it with some effort from the author’s rather confused clutches.

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