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Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma (Tauris Parke Paperbacks) Paperback – 30 Mar 2009
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'A work of great political commitment, powered above all by the authors outrage at the injustices, brutalisation and mass violation of human rights that he witnessed in Burma. Yet for all its pain, 'Under the Dragon' is a beautiful book. It remains his masterpiece; and in the light of the continuing tragedy in Burma is now more relevant than ever.' --William Dalrymple
'Exceptional insight and sensitivity, beautifully crafted and poignant... Maclean is a maverick among travel writers, his talent is multifaceted... Until the Burmese are free to determine their own lives then the pages of this wonderful book are as close as I will be getting to Burma.' --Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times
'Shines with an almost unbearable poignancy...a beautiful insight into this unhappy land…a book which marvellously extends the conventional confines of travel writing.' --Colin Thubron, The Times
The memory of a brief visit to Burma had haunted Rory MacLean for years. A decade after the violent suppression of an unarmed national uprising, which cost thousands of lives and all hopes for democracy, he seized the chance to return. Travelling from Rangoon to Mandalay and Pagan, into the heart of the Golden Triangle, he hears stories of ordinary people struggling to survive under one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world and meets Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps the most courageous woman of our time and the embodiment of all Burma's hope. On his journey MacLean exposes the tragedy of a hundred betrayals. "Under the Dragon" is a perceptive and heartbreaking portrayal of contemporary Burma, a country that is shot through with desperation and fear, but also blessed - even in the darkest places - with beauty and courage.See all Product description
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Ostensibly the story of an obsessive hunt for a specific style of Burmese shopping basket, Under the Dragon weaves wonderfully written and descriptive travel narrative with fictional accounts of the backgrounds of real-life characters. These fictional accounts may be based on some fact, but the author clearly allows his imagination free reign in filling the not insubstantial gaps.
Described in the author's bio as "creative non-fiction writing", the distinction between fact and fiction is blurred to the point of schizophrenia. As the second chapter begins with a fairly graphic description of sex between an expat and a (too) young Burmese girl, I actually wondered if a technical glitch in Kindle had fused two different works together and whether I was in fact reading the wrong book.
So does it then matter whether it is fact or fiction? Do we need to pigeon-hole art in such a way? Should artists not be free to express themselves in any way they wish? Well, yes and no. Because sticking labels on creative works allows potential readers to choose (and is one reason why customer's reviews on amazon are so useful). I wanted a travel book about Burma. I didn't want a fictional book about Burma. So I ended up with half, or maybe two thirds, of the book I wanted; and a remainder which simply felt too divergent.
The writing is very, very good - descriptive, colourful, articulate; and paints an evocative picture of the goodness inherent in Burmese people which has been tragically crushed by the military junta and subsequent economic circumstance. The author's and his wife's obsession for finding their holy grail clouds their decision-making and arguably takes them beyond a point of sensible judgement. But that in turn leads to more compelling - and dangerous - encounters with a very dark side of Burma's current situation.
So three stars for the fact - naught for the fiction.
I read this while in Burma and enjoyed being reminded of places we had visited and learning what had happened there years before which was often quite shocking.
Anyone considering travelling to Myanmar should first read this book, the description of the countries crumbling infrastructure should make any would be travellers at the very least concerned.
Overall first rate travel / geo-political comment well worth a read
Having travelled to some of the places in Burma I can understand his love of the people and the countryside.
I would recommend it to anyone contemplating making the journey.
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