Passing exams the hardest way
FROM THE LAND OF GREEN GHOSTS by Pascal Khoo Thwe HarperCollins, f17.99, pp. 304, ISBN 0007116810 In the autumn of 1991, a new undergraduate entered the Gate of Humility in Caius College, Cambridge, to read English — 'intensely anxious', and afraid, like almost every other fresher, 'that I would not fit in, that I would be unable to measure up even to a small part of the knowledge and ability of the other students..." Unremarkable sentiments, you might think: but Pascal Khoo Thwe was no ordinary student. This is the luminously vivid and truly remarkable autobiography of an extraordinary young man.
Pascal was born in Phekon, in the remote jungles of Burma, into the tiny Kayan Padaung tribe. Two of his four grandmothers (his grandmother's sister, sister-in-law and cousin shared her semioracular 'status grandmother') were socalled 'giraffe-women', wearing 14-inch coils of rings that elongated the neck, until they looked 'like mythical creatures, halfhuman, half-bird". When Grandma Mu Kya came to visit, 'the first thing we saw was her long neck and head floating about the hedges, for all the world like a walking wild goose'.
Pascal's early reminiscences are infinitely beguiling, recreating that combination of wonder and absolute acceptance that is the hallmark of childhood. For English readers, indeed, the title of the autobiography may seem to promise the exotic and childlike (The Land of Green Ginger, and 'green thoughts in a green shade.') The associations are of course spurious, yet it is the 'green' freshness of Pascal's writing which is so enchanting. It is only by the end that one is aware of the extent to which this simplicity is hard-won.
Part of its fascination, of course, depends upon our green ignorance: I speak for myself — of course there may be many Spectator readers out there who already know what baby wasps taste like (somewhere between scrambled egg and roasted prawn'. By the end of the book, foodies will have discovered what dung-beetle grubs, snake, and goat's blood taste like, though some may not be much the wiser to discov
er that monkey flesh tastes like dog flavoured with garlic and lemon-grass.) And it is even more fascinating to be reminded of the limitations of our Western outlook. When the 'giraffe-necked' grandmothers are enticed away to tour England as freaks in Bertram Mills's circus, one prepares to be sympathetically shocked. But the grandmothers, who 'did not have the concept of a freak', rise magnificently above any notions of exploitation, find the English richly comic, and, apart from the cold and the shoes, thoroughly and touristically enjoy themselves. 'If we had had the notions of freaks, I suppose [Grandma Mu Thai would have put the whole English race into that category.'
Even among Burmese tribesmen, Pascal's village community was a minority of a minority: long-necked', but also Catholic. The entire tribe had been converted by an Italian missionary who got lost on his way to China. After initial doubts about Padre Carlo's humanity (he seemed, to villagers who had never seen shoes, to have no toes) they were won over en masse. Pascal's charismatic grandfather was the last to convert, persuaded, in the end, only after losing a wrestling match with the priest, in which 'it was agreed that whoever lost would convert to the other's religion'.
Catholicism was grafted onto animism to make a gloriously rich cultural amalgam: Catholic worship happily co-existed with a belief in ghosts, dreams, tree spirits, evil Vats' and guardian spirits of happiness, or `Yaula'.
In Burmese mythology, however, 'green ghosts' are neither childlike nor benign. They are the spirits of those murdered, or brought to a premature grave — those who have died a 'raw death'. And 'raw death', shockingly and unforgettably, impinges upon Pascal's 'imperfect' jungle paradise.
Pascal became the first member of his tribe to study English at university — at Mandalay, where there were few books and where party-approved essays were dictated, to be learned by rote. As a 'tribesman', Pascal felt countrified, provincial, ignorant and apolitical; but he did, to his astonishment and delight, win a brilliant, sophisticated, politically aware Burmese girlfriend. His parents would have feared and distrusted hers; hers would have despised his. Their love, however, was never to be tested by parental disapproval: it was brutally overtaken by politics.
Burma's military dictatorship was already impinging upon Pascal's life: the economic crises of the country had forced him to become a low-paid waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Mandalay. Here, however, he met an unlikely, dandified tourist in a white linen suit and a Panama hat — a Cambridge don from Caius College, Dr John Casey, who had heard from friends of a local waiter with a remarkable passion for James Joyce, and dropped in to meet, as he imagined, 'a grizzled old Chinaman'. A chance meeting, but one which would eventually change (and almost undoubtedly save) Pascal's life.
For Pascal was soon to be shocked into political rebellion. His girlfriend, Moe, had been bravely if unwisely investigating the details of her father's death. She was arrested, beaten, whipped, kicked and then serially raped by the secret police. Soon afterwards, she vanished. She died, so her mother was informed, 'from natural causes' in prison.
I shall not reveal how Pascal became a student agitator in the movement for democracy, learnt of the order for his arrest and was forced to flee into the jungle to join the guerrilla fighters against the regime; or the terrible details of the ragged fighting in which he saw the death of many of his friends; or the stages by which, in his extraordinary 'Burmese Odyssey', he reached the doors of Caius College: for by now, any reader who has bought this book will be utterly gripped, and will need no incentives from a critic to read on,
From the Land of Green Ghosts deserves to become the Wild Swans of this new century. You should buy it for the vividness of its first-hand reporting — this is what guerrilla warfare is like, this is what the jungles are like to live in — but you will actually read it for Pascal himself: he is wonderfully witty, tender, self-aware, wise about his own youthful vanities, yet still deeply vulnerable. One finds oneself waiting, quite desperately, to discover how he will cope with and what, if any, degree he will get from Cambridge. And I was left wondering, with a degree of interest rarely raised by any other memoir, how happy he is now. For by the end one realises just how those apparently simple and luminous early memories have been sharpened by the complex — and Yaula-destroying — griefs of exile.