“All this talk of oblivion, of wanting nothing and becoming nothing, seems rather contradictory from a Buddhist sense. The Buddha did all this and be became so much a nobody that he became famous, the biggest nobody of them all. And he will never disappear because fame has made him immortal. But I do admire him for his attitude and discipline.”
“Saving Fish From Drowning” by Amy Tan
Told from the perspective of their dead friend Bibi Chen, Saving Fish From Drowning is the tale of eleven American tourists who go missing in the tumultuous landscape of Burma/Myanmar. The story is not so much about the search and rescue that takes place to find them, though that does factor in, but it is more about this beautiful land, its unrest, the idea that people who have nothing to lose will believe anything, and the simple lives of people and how they are shaped by their experiences.
Bibi has died unexpectedly, shortly before she and her friends were going to take a holiday in Burma, where she had planned for them a whole adventure to appreciate the culture, the history, and the artistry of such a place. They decide they will still go, despite her death, in fact to honor her death, and things start out fairly well, all things considered. The first half of the books involves the group getting their bearings, trying to follow Bibi’s itinerary, and dealing with their own foibles and quirks while Bibi watches and narrates, sometimes gently criticizing, always pointing out the mistakes that occur when they branch off of her original plan. Then comes along a young man called Black Spot, who spots one of the guests’ son, Rupert, performing a card trick for captivated audiences. Black Spot is from a small tribe of the Karen people, hiding out in the woods to avoid the strict Burmese regime, and their history has been heavily entrenched by a magic-performing lord back in the days of British imperialism, so, witnessing Rupert’s trick, he is convinced that Rupert is none other than the reincarnation of the Younger White Brother, who will lead their small tribe into safety against the regime. A Christmas Surprise has been arranged for the tourists, a trip to a local school where the children have learned to sing carols for them, but Black Spot intervenes, and the tourists are instead lead into the jungle, into another world, leaving behind no trace.
Artfully written and incredibly engaging, Saving Fish from Drowning fully immersed me in this beautiful world. Bibi Chen is a fascinating narrator, especially since she seems to take so much offense in the fact that she’s dead. Many of the other characters are so interesting and realistic, though, at times, others seemed to be extra baggage just hanging on. One of these characters would do something or be mentioned and I would think, “Oh, that’s right. That person is there, too.” It’s a great bottle episode of a book, if that bottle were a wild jungle under the watchful eye of a despotic regime, and I’m actually going to miss following these characters around on their journeys now that the book is over. If I had one main criticism, it would have been the ending, which wrapped things up in the neat little package of “end of the movie” montages of where the characters are after the ordeal, which dragged on a little too long and showed that most of these characters are not nearly as interesting outside the jungles of Myanmar.
Books read: 7/100.
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