The soap opera of the characters overwhelmed the theme by the time I turned the final page. There were so many players: the narrator Bibi Chen, the twelve tourists, the myriad of characters in China and Burma, the Lord’s Army tribe. Bibi’s omniscient narration bounces around between characters, story lines, plots and subplots. It is all very interesting but in one fell swoop the Big Idea weaving them all together is a little lost.
So let’s break it down.
The title is from a story told within the novel. While I am terrible at choosing titles for my stories (see my sidebar of published short stories), I trust that other authors are much more particular and purposeful with their titles.
A pious man explained to his followers: “It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. ‘Don’t be scared,’ I tell those fishes. ‘I am saving you from drowning.’ Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.
Elements of this parable are repeated throughout the story. The tourists want to help the oppressed Burmese people they encounter. They give away bunches of money at times. It begs the question over deed versus intent. I think the tourists even have a debate about it.
Just because I think I know the ‘right’ way to do something doesn’t mean it is the right way for the person I introduce my idea to. The American spread of democracy was one of the examples in the novel. We have a history of imposing our ideals on other nations, not always to planned results.
An Australian reality show and a dog trainer with a TV series also come into play. I think Tan used these details to comment that the grass is always greener on the other side. Using media bites the TV dog trainer in the butt even as it helps his cause of finding his friends. The reality show concept is wanted by the Lord’s Army but that doesn’t end well at all.
People think they know what is best. And maybe they do – for them. But tourism and international travel certainly throws into relief that one’s beliefs do not always translate as easily as the verb to be.
What ties these two ideas together – faith in one’s personal beliefs and the faux reality of media and television and life – is the concept of fiction.
The truth is, I’ve always preferred the old fictions about any ancient land. I read to escape to a more interesting world . . . I have loved works of fiction precisely for their illusions, for the author’s sleight-of-hand in showing me the magic, what appeared in the right hand but not in the left . . . That’s what we visitors love, a rustic romanticism and antiquated prettiness, no electric power lines, telephone poles, or satellite television dishes to mar the view. Seek and you shall find your illusions through the magic of tourism.
We choose the illusions that sustain us. Reality can be too difficult at times and escapism is necessarily available twenty-four hours a day. So beyond books with made-up ideas, we find the truths that make us happy and safe. And everybody wants to feel that way.