Book Review: Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan

Saving Fish From Drowning

I love to travel. My job frequently takes me to strange, foreign lands, places like Korea, and Japan, and Texas. Travel Rule Number One: The trip never goes according to plan.

I also like Amy Tan. Any author of note who keeps a wall papered with rejection notices understands the illusory nature of success and fame, and that’s a good quality. She has a nifty lecture on creativity posted at TED…check it out, and keep your eye on that suitcase.

In Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan chronicles the misadventures of a group of tourists on a journey to experience the art and culture of Asia along the old Burma Road, from the Himalayan foothills to the jungles of Myanmar. It’s a diverse group, including a British television celebrity, a mother and daughter, a father and son, and two young couples.

Their problems start immediately. The group’s friend, art mentor, and tour leader, the dynamic, eccentric Bibi Chan, dies suddenly, under mysterious circumstances. We experience the trip through her eyes, as she observes from the spirit world with an odd mingling of amusement and detachment. Her substitute, Bennie, is enthusiastic, but sadly inexperienced. The tour group realizes almost every nightmare of the novice traveler—disastrous schedule changes, mechanical breakdowns, lodging significantly worse than advertised, inadvertent violation of local taboos, food poisoning, unscrupulous guides, untruthful translators, tropical diseases, and, finally, kidnapping. As the unwilling “guests” of a Burmese Karen tribe that believes one of the travelers is the second coming of their messiah, it’s unclear if our heroes will ever be allowed to leave, or if the government forces hunting the Karen will find them and decide to shoot first and ask questions later.

Ms. Tan has written a complex tapestry of a novel that is simultaneously an exotic travelogue, a hellish tourist nightmare, a political commentary, and a rumination on the nature of life and its many improbable coincidences. As for the enigmatic title, I’ll leave the explanation to the author. It’s in that lecture I mentioned earlier.

Her descriptions of the land and people of Myanmar and south China are beautiful and haunting. This is an area of the world most Americans have never and will never see for themselves, and frankly, I didn’t know much about Myanmar/Burma myself, beyond the fact that it’s governed by an authoritarian regime, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was recently put on trial there for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest. I also remember reading a news article about the Karens and a pair of cigar-smoking child prophets who make an appearance in Ms. Tan’s story, but other than that, it’s always blurred into the rest of Southeast Asia for me. I wouldn’t say this story motivated me to pack up and trek down the Burma Road, but Ms. Tan’s vivid imagery made me feel like I was taking the trip along with her hapless tourists.

The tourists are an interesting bunch of characters, from the condescending British “dog whisperer” to the hypochondriac young woman whose obsessive health precautions are ultimately vindicated, to the brooding teen whose affinity for magic tricks connects him to the history of the Karen people in a way that seems more than mere chance. Likewise, most of the people they encounter along the way aren’t quite what they seem to be. Scruffy-looking old people might be powerful shamans, a local tour guide could have ties to the Karen resistance, and a drunken expatriate hotelier may or may not be working for the CIA. I could tell you, but I’d have to…well, you know.

The tourists’ difficulties threaten to veer into cliche’—we get the obligatory gastrointestinal disruptions, grumbling about Asian-style hotels and toilet facilities, and yes, Ugly American, when the locals shift into their native tongue, they are talking about you.  Bibi Chen’s commentary from beyond the grave comes to the rescue, as she alerts us that when the tour group enters these ancient lands, the rules change. There are spiritual forces outside the experience of Western civilization to contend with, and these forces aren’t very nice. The tourists blunder from one “coincidence” to the next, blissfully unaware of the larger forces, natural and supernatural, swirling about them.

Things are tied up pretty neatly in the end, even the circumstances of Bibi’s untimely death, though she observes, as the story concludes, that life is ultimately a mystery—she thought death would be the end, but there was more to come. As closing summations go, that’s not bad.


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