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From the Land of Green Ghosts, by Pascal Khoo Thwe, is a moving and factual biography of the author's transition from a member of a remote Burmese Village Tribe to an English Student at Cambridge University UK.
The author was born in Burma in 1967 and spent the first 22 years of his life there, before moving to Cambridge in 1989, after a meeting with a Cambridge don a year earlier. The coincidences and likelihood of such a meeting to happen in the way it did (and as the reader will learn as the story unfolds) seem almost too insignificant to understand, never mind measure.
Pascal is a member of the Padaung tribe; and as we learn of his early years with his parents and grandparents, and their tribal values, including the importance of storytelling on culture and beliefs; it is difficult to imagine such an existence so removed from Western society.
The Padaung tribe are an extremely remote tribe and their beliefs are founded completely in ghosts and folklore, never having experienced any kind of modern living. The tribal women are noted for their elongated giraffe necks, possibly an optical illusion due to their tradition of wearing many rings around their necks and their arms.
Pascal is somewhat of a celebrity in his village and in his family, of which he is the oldest of 11 siblings; when he gains a place at the University of Mandalay to study English. However as he joins the university, the country is under threat due to the rise in dictatorship. At the university, students are not challenged to think and express opinion, but rather expected to learn and regurgitate exam answers in a parrot fashion. Pascal has to adapt to this city living, despite a rocky start, and does find himself working in a Chinese Restaurant, through which a series of coincidences he manages to meet Dr Casey; a meeting which in due course will change the shape of Pascals life forever.
As you read through this book, and learn more of the history that makes up Burma, the more you appreciate the depth of differentiation between the worlds peoples. Here is a tribe, which few will have heard of, with believe in a spirit world, yet somewhere along the way their beliefs have started to include Catholicism albeit with a very sketchy understanding, an appreciation of which is given by Pascal after the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978. Rome was a place as far removed from Burma as was Heaven and Pascal believed they were next door to each other!
The rise in dictatorship and the repeated demonetisation of the currency were to have a serious impact on the wealth and wellbeing of the people and economy of Burma. Many of the student rebels were murdered, including Pascals beloved girlfriend and it is this event which understandably seem to tip the normally subservient Pascal to a new height of rebellion and unlikely leadership against the government and months on the run between the border of Burma and Thailand.
In the midst of this, Pascal knew that his friend Dr Casey may have the solution and in a turn around of events (not giving anything away, as this is known from the summary on the back cover!!), Pascal finds his way to England to study at Cambridge and face a whole new set of challenges, both for the home and family he has left behind and adapting to a new life in England merely ten years before the beginning of the 21st century.
Many of the Padaung tribe are now living as refugees in Thailand; having had to flee Burma when the situation became intolerable, and in some way are even being dictated to by the church not to wear the rings which are a symbol of their tribe.
This book is a fascinating and moving autobiography as well as an excellent insight into the affairs of a remote land and peoples. The deep rooted beliefs of the tribe are interesting and awe inspiring, to say the least, when you consider that the grandparents could literally take years to explain their beliefs to their offspring by way of storytelling. The sequence of events that leads to Pascal studying at Cambridge University is also remarkable, and is a reminder of how coincidence plays such a role in shaping our day to day lives.
On the downside, the hardship that is suffered as a result of a dictatorship is an unfortunate but perhaps necessary reminder of the evil that exists in the modern world even today and for me, like many similar books I have read recently, is a reminder that most of us should count our blessings if not our sorrows, as true hardship is something which thankfully many reading this even today will never ever experience.
Recommended to those who generally appreciate the subject matter, although a relatively short and not a difficult read, it is certainly not the lightest of content either.
296 Pages. Published by Flamingo. UK list price is now £8.99, with 20% off available at Amazon and other on line stores, or available for £4.50 from the Marketplace. This is the authors first book.
Khoo Thwe, born in 1967, debuts with a remarkable portrait of his childhood in Phekhon, the only Catholic town in Burma, among the Padaung people, a subtribe of the Karenni known for what outsiders call our `giraffe women' because of their necks being elongated by rings. Modernity seeps into Phekhon slowly-only in 1977 did the locals learn, along with news of Elvis's death, that Americans had landed on the moon. The Catholic and animist fables that the author and his 10 siblings live by would be the emblems of a fairy tale life were it not for the violence and economic crises of the dictatorship of General U Ne Win. Khoo Thwe enters Mandalay University during the years when thousands of student activists were killed or imprisoned by the government. A charismatic student organizer, he is forced in 1988 to flee with fellow students to the jungles on the border of Thailand, where a stay with a Karenni rebel group makes him realize they too were more interested in claiming leadership than in actually giving lead. But while a student, the author, working as a waiter, met John Casey, a Cambridge don who organized a miraculous rescue of the young man. Khoo Thwe's story ends with his studying English literature at Caius College, Cambridge. It is a heartbreaking tale-he is not able to return to Burma and only meets his family at the Thai border for a few hours years later-told with lyricism, affection and insight.