Open Book by Philip Marchand
Saturday, October 17, 2009 in the National Post, Canada

Travelling is a fool's paradise, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. "My giant goes with me wherever I go." Poet and novelist Karen Connelly is not quite of this mind. "I will always be a great advocate of the wisdom of physical escape," she writes in her memoir, Burmese Lessons: A Love Story. "It's not always appropriate, though sometimes it's imperative." In her case, as a teenager she spent a year with a family in Thailand in order to escape an alcoholic father and other severely troubled family members back home in Calgary. Later she established residence on a Greek island. As the latest instalment in what she calls her "adventurous life," her "vagabond existence," she takes the reader with her to Burma and back to Thailand.

In structure, the book divides into two parts, a visit to Burma and a subsequent Thailand sojourn. Each is dominated by the motif of food, although the motif points in opposite directions. In Burma, a desperately poor country ruled by an iron-fisted military, good food is almost a sacrament. Early on we find ourselves at dinner party in Rangoon where "silver worms" - baby eels that Connelly describes as "salty, faintly crablike and sublime" - are served with other delicacies. Connelly often mentions memorable food in Burma, consumed with pleasure to the point that the entire country seems like a savoury dish. "I need to spend more time eating, drinking and breathing Burma," she tells her Burmese lover.

In Thailand, where Connelly visits border camps of refugees from Burma and walks in the jungle with guerrilla fighters, asceticism gains the upper hand. Part of this is a result of her guilt as a privileged white foreigner amidst refugees who have lost everything. Not many silver-worm platters in these malaria-racked settlements. But Connelly isn't prepared to renounce all pleasures of the flesh. "The body - oh, I am good at the body, the joys of skin and food, the open mouth, the eating," she proclaims. And if not the open mouth, the eating, the food, there's always the joys of skin. Despite her awareness that "dining is usually more friendly and lasts longer" than sex, she commences a rapturous affair with an exiled Burmese politician. "Oh, happy, serious, wild frenzy!" she writes.

Still, her white guilt remains, not to be alleviated until she comes down with a serious bout of malaria. "This suffering is the ritual, the rite of passage that should marry me to the cause as effectively as a wedding," she comments. The fever and the medication kill her appetite and she rapidly loses weight, with the result that she no longer feels like a sleek Westerner in the midst of gaunt jungle warriors. "I am thinner than I have ever been, but I still feel plump beside these war-whittled men," she writes. Hope lies around the corner, as she continues to slim down. "Not eating is a novel experience," she says. "Life becomes sparer and sharper."

With characteristic honesty, however, she admits that she soon finds herself "ravenously hungry" again. Back in Greece, her friends are ready to feed her properly. The dialectic of the book consists precisely of this back and forth between idealistic conviction and realistic admission, as Connelly interrogates and confronts her "giant," which I take to be that inner creature of desire and egoism that Buddhism is particularly designed to tame.

"I become suspicious of myself," she states at one point. "I am trying to be critical of myself," she says at another. Tendering a complaint about water temperature to a woman who spent two horrible years in a Burmese prison prompts this critical voice of Connelly's to proclaim inwardly, "I am such a suck!" Waxing eloquently over her idyllic Greek island, where heart and body are joined, she then dismisses the thought with the reflection, "What a load of romantic crap!" The Buddha will tolerate no illusions or self-pity.

The genre she has chosen, the combination of personal memoir and travelogue, is a particular breeding ground of contradictions. A fellow foreigner in Burma says to her, "You said you would not come here only as a tourist. So what are you doing here, then?" Connelly admits that this is an excellent question. To her credit, she doesn't try to make the dubious distinction between "tourist" and "traveller." Tourists and intrepid travellers, she notes, "differ mostly in luggage."

She could say with complete justification that she is a journalist - she interviews lots of people and keeps notes - but is a journalist much more than a tourist? Both tourists and journalists often have an appetite for colourful and dramatic incidents they can shape into stories for the folks back home. Again, Connelly summons her honesty in discussing this issue. After fantasizing a successful confrontation between herself and a Burmese government spy, she stops herself. "Stupid," she writes. "I don't actually want anything bad to happen to me. I just want it almost to happen, so that I'll have the story."

Any journalist will recognize the dilemma, hoping for bad things to happen - to other people, usually - for the sake of good copy. That Connelly found herself witnessing the violent suppression of street demonstrations in Rangoon, and the death of a small child in a refugee camp, was doubtless harrowing and heartrending. But she would not be a reporter or writer if part of her were not grimly pleased that such things were placed for her to witness and to write about.

The end of the memoir leaves the impression that its author is now committed to Buddhist religious practices and to continued concern for the fate of unhappy Burma. This commitment may help to steady in future the weakest part of her narrative, which is her tendency to restless ruminations about life. ("In the human wound, evil spreads like an infection. Where does it come from?") As regards the rest, the author compels admiration for her brave intrusions into dangerous and awkward situations, and above all for her candour.


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