Monday, July 7, 2014

The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham

Ages ago, I fell in love with Damien Rice through a radio program that aired on Sunday mornings featuring acoustic music.  I bought his first and second CDs, then his live CD, his third CD, and even Lisa Hannigan’s CD because she was featured in some of his music.  Online, he and Lisa Hannigan offered a special EP of the song “Unplayed Piano” to raise money for the Free Aung San Suu Kyi who had been placed under house arrest in Burma for trying to stand against the military that was in power.  I knew nothing about the woman, little about Burmese history, but this song introduced me to a woman who insisted on applying the ideas of pacifism in facing a political power that only seems to understand violence.

The Lady and the Peacock:  The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham explores the life of a woman who was born into greatness.  The book begins with her already imprisoned in her home, placed there by the opposing political party in an election that was supposed to be rigged in their favor.  Popham then goes back in time, telling the story of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, who was himself assassinated for trying to bring democratic ideals to a nation that was forced into a military dictatorship and only recently emerged from decades of violent control.  When her father is murdered, her mother and siblings move away from Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi eventually ends up in England where she gets an education and meets her future husband and father of her two children. 

The biography reads like a non-linear story as we see Aung San Suu Kyi go from a being superficially interested in her country of origin to being deeply committed to improving the life of every citizen there.  Following in her father’s footsteps does not come easy, nor is it without its dangers.  The government in power won’t give first her sons and then her husband visas to visit her, leaving her isolated and alone in a house where she fills her time with mediation and practicing the tenants of Buddhism.  Although the reader is aware that she is not only released (in 2010) but now n office (since 2012), the journey of how she is put under house arrest and how the Burmese people continued to look to her as a source of inspiration and change. 

There are some peculiar choices made by Popham who, quoting from the journals of Ma Thanegi, has no problem abbreviating passages, indicated by the use of ellipses, but makes a point of including descriptions of the longhi and jackets Aung San Suu Kyi wears during her tours of Burma.  Ma Thanegi obviously cared about Suu Kyi’s appearance and, by implication, so does Popham, who goes to the trouble of suggesting that she was probably the first student to wear Burmese attire to classes at Oxford.   Does this matter?  Even if her friend included these details in her journal, why are they so essential to a journalist writing about a woman who in inspiring not because of how she looks but for who she is?  I found this very off-putting.  Popham does seem to judge those who accuse her of being an unfeeling woman and mother for focusing on the needs of her country over the needs of her family but then he actually suggests that perhaps if Suu Kyi’s mother had been home, and not working, a sibling might not have died by drowning in a pool. 

Because of Suu Kyi’s desire to remain a private person, much of her personal life remains a mystery, only shared through the stories of those around her.  Unfortunately, one of her so-called friends, Ann Pasternak Slater, seems more frenemy than fond and much of what she has to say about the woman the author clearly admires is spiteful and unkind but it hardly has the same weight of a more discerning critic who might find some of the Pulitzer Prize winning woman’s choices less than productive.  Popham does go to the trouble of explaining some of these seemingly futile choices; even so, he does this with an apologist’s bias, eager to undercut any criticism with laud and praise.

To be fair, the prose is somewhat ponderous.  Popham is a journalist, after all, and avoids being too poetic, sometimes falling into the prosaic.  Nonetheless, he lays out Aung San Suu Kyi’s story moving from the not-too-distant past to the further past towards the present and then back again into the past before moving back into the present, all the while giving some details of Burma’s more immediate history.  The book could have easily become mired down in centuries of history.  The author has chosen to focus on those events that most affected the life of this woman—her father’s military service, Burma during World War II, her father’s assassination, her mother’s service as an ambassador in India, etc.  All of these things that lead this inexplicable woman to an inevitable place in her nation’s story.  Some may see this narrow focus as a detriment to the book over all.  I found it to be an interesting, not always engaging, look at one woman’s life, the events that led up to and surround her story, and a fascinating glimpse of a nation that too often goes overlooked because it is not as major a player as so many others.  

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