By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The English Writer
Author: San Lin Tun
Publisher: Duwon Books, 2019.
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
The storyline shuttles between 2016 and the early twentieth century. Richards’s story is related to two young men very deeply interested in literature, called Oo and Lin, by an older man well-versed about the author’s life, U Aung Aye Myint. The setting brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s famed detective Feluda ( based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) who would consult his uncle Sidhu every once in a while to unearth a mine of information on any given issue. However, Uncle Sidhu was based on Mycroft and the discussion was mostly not literary as it is in San Lin Tun’s novel and the visits were repeated. Here the story is given at a single sitting.
Flavoured with contrasts between the eras and cultures of the Raj and current day Myanmar, we get a glimpse of a country where bookshops still seem to thrive and young men roam about in longyis, their traditional wear. The style of writing reminds one of Henry Feilding’s Joseph Andrews though rendered in modern Myanmar English. The story is direct and detailed with minimal layering used to add realism to the telling.
One of the most interesting observations made by the protagonist Lin, who develops a curiosity about Richardson after reading his poems, is a comparison he makes between this writer and George Orwell, who was also stationed in Burma.
After reading the poetry book, Lin wanted to find more books by the same author. He found that the author’s sentiment towards local people was quite different from other foreign authors who wrote about Burma.
Especially George Orwell, who wrote a novel set in Burma of that time. The novel was so well-known that almost every visitor enjoyed reading it. But Lin disagreed with some of the points in the novel, mainly those concerned with the portrayal of Burmese characters.
It is interesting to note his observation because when one reads Orwell’s Burmese Days, one reads more about the British stationed in Burma and not really the Burmese. The sketch of Burmese is used by Orwell to expose the cruelty, the harshness and the lack of sensitivity in his own countrymen. The Burmese and Indians are coincidental. They are there to play out the stories of the pukka sahibs at the Englishmen’s club.
We are told C J Richards wrote because he missed his life in Burma. Even to this day, expats find it difficult to go back and settle into their own countries. Described as the adult third culture kids’ (ATCK) syndrome, the term applies to people who evolved a hybrid culture like Richards in San Lin Tun’s novel or the protagonist John Flory and even the pukka sahibs in Burmese Days. They evolved a culture in between their country of birth and the country they spent their lives in. This was first identified by Ruth Useem in 1950 and the syndrome is evident in CJ Richards who does not like living in England after his retirement and keeps reliving his Burmese days with his writing and occasional trips to Burma. Born in Burma, CJ Richards finds many positives in the local culture as does Flory in Burmese Days.
We have seen such characters in stories written during this period by authors who lived and grew within the Indian subcontinent but did not belong to the local culture. However, perhaps, very seldom have we experienced such a positive account given of a British officer by the people who suffered under the regime of the Raj. To explain his unique stance and the culture of Myanmar, Sanlin Tun gave us an exclusive interview.
What made you pick the life of CJ Richards as a subject for your book?
I firstly found his poetry book on Burma/Myanmar and he called that Rainbow Land and Other Burma Verses. When foreign writers visit or pass Yangon and write about Burma or Myanmar, they mostly write in prose, not in poetry. This was one of the reasons I became interested in the author. But I could not find any relevant facts on his life though I searched the Internet. I wondered why he had sunk into oblivion though he had a number of his literary works. That made me curious. So, I thought that it would be nice for me and other people to find out more of his life and I decided to reconstruct it through the medium of a novel.