The Lady’s Not for Burning

Heaven Lake Press Available at leading bookstores

Reviewed by Daniel Gawthrop

Published in The Nation (Bangkok) on Sunday, March 23, 2003

THIS BURMESE ROAD NOVEL, Chris Moore’s sixteenth work of fiction, follows the adventures of Sloan Walcott, a Bangkok-based photographer and art collector who’s still married to the Japanese woman he met in the early Seventies. Now it’s the spring of 2002. Walcott is turning 53 but behaves like a selfish teenager—happy to live from one deal to the next, as long as the Tiger beer’s flowing and the bar girls are showing.

He and his much younger, handsome writer pal Hart have shared a brief moment of minor fame with their 1996 collaboration on The Art of Chin Ways, a coffee table book about an indigenous community straddling the Burmese-Indian border. But now, thanks to a lucky discovery on Sloan’s previous solo trip to Burma, the two are on their way back.

Walcott, before leaving Rangoon airport, literally stumbles upon a camera that had been stashed between two check-in counters. After stuffing away the camera and developing the film back in Bangkok, he finds 18 shots of Aung San Suu Kyi taken after an attempt on her life in 1996, plus a single, sexy pose by a Burmese girl bearing a blue scorpion tattoo.

The photos were taken by Kazuo Takeda, a Japanese newspaper reporter who later died in a mysterious roadside accident in Japan. The man’s father exacts a promise from Walcott to give the 18 shots to Aung San Suu Kyi and warns him to get rid of the one of the girl with the tattoo. Walcott finds an opportunity to keep the promise: the famous NLD leader is about to be released from house arrest.

Using a side trip to Moulmein to search for ancient Mon relics as an excuse to deliver the photos, Walcott invites his old pal Hart on a trip whose real purpose is to learn the story behind the girl with the tattoo. Along the way, they meet Sarah, an exotic anthropology student from Vancouver who serves as a kind of globalised version of the Patricia Arquette heroine from John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon. Hart wins the battle for her affections, but all three share a bond.

The strengths of Waiting for the Lady lie in its weaving of the personal drama of Kazuo’s photographs with the history of Japanese presence in Burma during World War II. Moore’s passages on the “comfort girl” trade are well drawn, and the barren, dusty roads of the Burmese countryside are a fitting backdrop to the sadness that unfolds through characters such as Khin Aung, an 84-year-old doctor who describes his autopsies on the bodies of Aung San, the students murdered in 1962, and his own son.

What diminishes the book are the clunky metaphors and tiresome sex imagery (“The total resolve of the Burmese army reminded me of my wife”, “Blue Island, a rim of land against the horizon as neatly manicured as a Patpong whore’s eyebrows”) that too often trivialise Moore’s subject.

As for “The Lady” herself? Aung San Suu Kyi’s character is discarded by the half-way point—used up and cast off like some cheap, cardboard cutout whore from one of Moore’s earlier novels. By the time we get to the press conference following her release from house arrest, just before Sloan gives her Kazuo’s photographs, what is the question Sloan is dying to ask the once-shining hope of Burmese democracy?

“What colour are your panties?”

No doubt, the folks at SPDC headquarters in Rangoon will be rolling in the aisles over that one. But could such a vulgar insult be interpreted as a deliberate critique of the NLD leader’s ineffectiveness in boycott-crippled Burma? Not likely.

But then, much of Moore’s comedic appeal is based on satirical caricature. One of his favourite targets here is the pseudo-writer. Jokes about newspaper proofreaders are an oddly recurring theme throughout the book and, like an extended David Letterman joke, become irritating. The hint of bitterness is also ironic: Waiting for the Lady includes more than a dozen glaring typos—not including on the dust jacket, which spells the protagonist’s name as both “Walcott” and “Wolcott”.

While Moore occasionally captures the Orwellian nightmare that is Burma (particularly in his passages on Ne Win and the chillingly-named Drug Elimination Museum), it would be stretching things to say, as the promotional blurb for this book does, that what George Orwell and Graham Greene “did for their times, Christopher G Moore does for ours.”

Serious writers don’t make such comparisons. Rather, they wait for reliable sources (the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books) to do it for them.

Moore writes a decent potboiler. But Greene? Orwell? I’m afraid he’s a few Tiger beer empties wide of that mark.

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