One of the great things about embarking on a world literature adventure like this is all the fellow literary globetrotters you meet along the way. There are lots of projects out there and each of them is slightly different, shaped by the personality and interests of the reader behind them.
Some people are only reading books set in particular countries; others are including poetry, plays and factual history books. Some are travelling from state to state as you would on a map, while others are leaping around all over the shop. And in addition to the hardcore nutters among us who set ourselves numerical and, in my case, time limits, there are many people who intend that the adventure should take them several years, if not decades.
It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers, not least because they can often be a great source of ideas for countries I’ve yet to tackle. So when Paul in Canada responded to my Halfway Appeal with some suggestions from his own Reading Around the World project, I was intrigued to hear about them. In particular, his Myanmar choice, Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi – the first novel by a writer living in the country to have been translated and published in the US, and shortlisted for an international literary prize, despite the best efforts of the Myanmar authorities to suppress it – sounded fascinating. I decided it was the book for me.
Set around the Taungbyon Festival, a massive celebration of nats (spirits) that happens in a small village near Mandalay three times a year, the novel follows Daisy Bond, one of the event’s most famous transgender natkadaws (spirit mediums), as he sets out to make the most of the extravaganza. A master at parting gullible and superstitious visitors from their money, the aging dancer puts on the performance of his life, ably assisted by his very much younger bodyguard and lover Min Min. But when his partner begins to fall for a beggar girl at the festival, Daisy’s precarious existence looks as though it may be about to crumble once and for all.
Yi’s sensuous descriptions of the hurly-burly of the event are a joy to read. Bustling with the interior monologues of a whole host of people – from the rich woman seeking spiritual guidance on what to do about her husband’s mistress and the elderly devotee fretting about the cost of the flowers she has had to offer, to the pickpockets moving through the crowds – the narrative bumps and jostles the reader so that you feel as though you are in the midst of the action.
Into this vibrant scene bursts the voice of Daisy Bond, easily one of the most irreverent and fabulous literary creations you are ever likely to meet. Buzzing with expletives, contradictions and fears, his distinctive interior monologue paints a complex and moving picture of a lifestyle that is at once based around a sham and yet a source of fulfillment and meaning. Bluntly honest about the fact that natkadaws such as he ‘deal in lies and pushing people to offer animals’ and ‘cook up crazy hopes ’cause we have to eat’, Daisy’s descriptions of his love of performing and the self-expression he finds as a transgender medium reveal that for all the cynicism of the cons he peddles, what he is doing has surprising value and significance – much like the festival itself, which though reinstated by the British ‘to create a diversion’ in colonial times has become a source of hope and a way of making a living for thousands of people.
This duality is particularly apparent in Daisy’s illicit relationship with Min Min (homosexuality is still illegal in Myanmar). Despite his frequent abuse and humiliation of the youth whom he bought as a teenager seven years previously, Daisy’s dependence on and feelings for the young man are clear. It is testament to Yi’s skill as a writer that, even though we want to see Min Min break free and follow his own desires, we cannot help feeling pity for Daisy, for whom ‘the gay life carries such heavy karma’ and who is perpetually haunted by the thought that his love is ‘going to leave [him] for a real woman’.
The result is a powerful, moving and memorable work that more than deserves its place on the Man Asia Literary Prize 2007 shortlist. It is an insight into a world of extremes, where conflicting truths weave together and catch the eye like spangles on a spirit dancer’s costume. Highly recommended.
Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion, 2008)