Sara Wheeler

Burma Discovered through a Shapely Basket

Under the Dragon: Travels in a Betrayed Land


HarperCollins 208pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

In 1988 Rory MacLean got on the wrong plane in Hong Kong and went to Burma by accident. The year after that, the dictators put down a popular uprising by killing more than five thousand people, and the State Law and Order Restoration Council switched the country’s official English name to Myanmar in an attempt to obscure their actions. Recognising that the Burmese people were not consulted, and to register a protest at the brutal regime, MacLean retains the country’s original name in this book about his return to the country a decade later.

The author of two previous travel books (Stalin’s Nose and The Oatmeal Ark), MacLean stayed in Burma only a week on that first visit, but it left him with a longing to know more. Back at home in London, he and his wife fossicked around in the British Museum’s ethnographic collection, housed in an unlikely East End warehouse. Their imaginations were gripped by a shapely basket brought home from Burma by James George Scott, a late nineteenth-century Frontier officer and the author of an authoritative book on the Burmese. ‘It seemed to me’, concluded MacLean, ‘that the search for a basket like Scott’s would really be an attempt to understand the forces that weave people together.’

Under the Dragon, in other words, is about a quest for the origins of a basket. The search gives the story its shape and its meaning, but is it a solution to the eternal problem of the travel book: how to provide a convincing raison d’être for the whole caper, a pattern in the carpet? I am not sure.

The MacLeans went to Burma for a month, and the heavy duty expected of their humble basket is buttressed by the fact that the wife is herself a basketmaker. The pair go to Mandalay, Lashio, Hsipaw and the old Palaung capital of Namsham, latterly a British tea station, travelling by train, bus, jeep and a 1954 Austin 30. All is not plain sailing.

MacLean deploys a familiar and reliable format, spicing his own story with digestible chunks of history and marbling it all with direct speech. The shortness of his stay is a problem, so he pads the material with a sequence of ‘case studies’ written like short stories. Each focuses on an ordinary Burmese, and illuminates the horror of modern Burmese history.

A lot of the dialogue is banal (‘The church looks beautiful,’ admired Katrin. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many flowers’). And MacLean’s thrillerish sty le (‘Static. Hiss and whistle. Distant voices trained through the crackle…’) is not altogether successful. I had the feeling that he thought he was making his book more commercial by leaning in this direction. He also goes in for some unfortunate description linking his profession with his wife’s (‘she wielded secateurs where I tried to cut adverbs’). But this is not the nadir of analogous basketmaking in the book, alas. Once MacLean gets into his stride there ‘s no stopping him. ‘A basket’, he proclaims confidently, ‘weaves together disordered strands to create a new form, becoming a vessel that guards against disarray and uncertainty.’ There is nothing for which the obliging basket cannot do service – even a ‘lover’s embrace fulfils the same longing for completeness’. Sex as basketry? Read on:

She felt the white heat blaze out of him. His broad limbs wrapped her to him, pulled her body hard onto his own. In front, behind. Leave the end. Lay in a new strand. He rose inside her, so deep that she thought she might burst, weaving himself into her flesh.

The clear winner, I predict, of this year’s prestigious Literary Review Bad Sex Prize. The MacLeans’ arduous journey fails to locate the origins of Scott’s basket. But at the end, indulging in a spot of R&R at Inle Lake, Burma’s only real tourist destination, the pair chance upon an identical basket on a market stall and learn that it was made by a member of the Pa-O tribe, ethnic cousins of the Karen and one of Burma’s twenty-one distinct racial groups.

MacLean is good on the pitiless trajectory of People’s Councils, quotas, corruption, shortages, strikes, murderous repression and unyielding heartbreak that is modern Burma. Also on how the influence and identity of Buddhism fortifies the Burmese spirit in the face of terrible hardship and injustice. In the final pages he meets Aung San Suu Kyi, the remarkable woman who has defied the regime for so long.

‘It seemed to me’, writes MacLean near the end of his book, ‘that maybe the only way to redress the balance was by listening and seeing, by trying to understand the betrayals, by accepting responsibility for preserving their memory, and stitching the past to the present to find a new way forward.’ He has honourably discharged this responsibility, and I admire him for it. The heroes of the volume are the Burmese people, mindful at all times of bama hsan-chin, a standard of good conduct that honours a knowledge of the scriptures, respect for elders, discretion and modesty. Under the Dragon speaks eloquently for them.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter