Set in an orwellian southeast Asian country which is a not really disguised Burma (the Irrawaddy of the title sort of gives it away!) it follows the wife of the country’s military dictator (an equally thinly-disguised U Ne Win), who has the book’s title as her unlikely nickname. Since it leaps from their first meeting to their married life, where she is already sarcastic and fearful of him, you are left with the question, why did she marry him in the first place? She seems pretty jaundiced almost from the beginning of her life, certainly about all her men, the political movements she comes into contact with, and the countries where she lived (Burma, the US and even Thailand!) and the whole book is quite bleak, for which you can’t blame someone who grew up under the dictatorship or was exiled from her country. Nevertheless Law-Yone is witty and often funny.
She compares her people to a column of caterpillars who found their way onto a pot:
“Following their leader, the insects had reached the rim and were making an endless circuit round and round the lip. Not for minutes, not for hours, but for days they circled that pot, unable to break out of their roundabout, even after collapsing periodically; even after – at long last – one member would actually strike out on its own.
In the end every adventurer returned to fall back in step with the column. And on went the march – an endless looping of the loop by witless troops who’d lost their leader but were simply unable to abandon their path.”
Another more sympathetic and heart-wrenching portrait of a beaten but dignified people comes in a picture of a robbed platform vendor:
“At one big junction we were in our seats, having a snack, when we heard a commotion on the platform. One of the food vendors, a girl about my age, was standing with a tray on her head, crying her eyes out. The tray was empty, but the girl – by force of habit, apparetly – kept it balanced on her head. The effort required an erect posture comically at odds with her misery.
The face under the tray was puffy and wet. Through her sobs, she was trying to tell some sort of story to the people who’d gathered around.
‘What is happening?’ Merc asked, in her quaint Daan, of someone below.
‘She has been robbed,’ said the person on the platform, in precise English. He had a plump mole in the middle of his chin out of which grew three luxuriant hairs. ‘They have taken everything. They have taken the food, they have taken all her money. Now she fears going home because she will be thrashed.’”
A cynical and bitter portrait of a downtrodden country which deserves better.
At the same time I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as my travel book, which proved the perfect accompaniment. At first blush, Orwell’s stint as a policeman in the British colonial government might not seem to have much to do with his masterworks, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Larkin shows just how ‘orwellian’ the military dictatorship was at its height.
Wendy LAW-YONE (1947 – ), Irrawaddy Tango, Evanston, IL, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8101-5142-1