James Hla Gyaw wrote himself into history with his story of ‘Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma’. Prior to its publication, literature in Myanmar was the reserve of monasteries and palaces. ‘Jatakas’, stories based on the life of the Buddha were (and are) perennially popular, as were long-form poetic homages to Kings and Queens and dramas exploring intrigue and mystery in the courts. Then along came James Hla Gyaw.
Often alternatively described as the first modern Myanmar novel or the first popular novel in Myanmar or the first novel in the Burmese language, James Hla Gyaw felt compelled to present his work in the fly leaf to the 1904 first edition as ‘a novel in Burmese being the first of the language’. In this first and so far only, 2014 English translation, this has been emended to ‘a novel in Myanmar being the first in the language.’
Whichever accolade may be true (and it would seem to depend on your definition of ‘novel’) James Hla Gyaw was writing at a time that straddled a period of upheaval and confusion. Great Britain had recently annexed Upper Burma, bringing the country into the imperial fold and reducing it to a mere province of India. English novels and short stories arrived on ships and late 19th Century translators began to bring these stories to a Burmese language audience. James Hla Gyaw, as a student of English Literature, must have been familiar with these works and like his contemporaries, used them as a thematic inspiration for his own writing, in this case, Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.
Crafted over 36 short chapters, Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma follows the life of Maung Yin Maung in 1840’s Myanmar. The adopted son of a wealthy trader and arranged in marriage to Ma Me Ma, Maung Yin Maung learns to love his new wife, only to be torn away from her by a rival suitor. Beset by a series of trials on his road to redemption, he sets out clear his name and reunites with his wife many years later.
Though written only 20 years after the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty, Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma is a stark reflection on the shift in power and patronage of the arts from the Court of the Kings to the hands of the rising, wealthy middle class. James Hla Gyaw’s novel ensures the characters are recognisable to these new patrons; the merchants, traders and successful farmers and expands to a class of society often overlooked or parodied in early forms of literature. Maung Yin Maung himself takes on the guise of a beggar and travelling magician.
James Hla Gyaw doesn’t abandon the influence of several centuries of Burmese literature in its entirety though. In the original Burmese language first edition, he employs a sentence style familiar to earlier works, of long, compound-complex sentences; the shorter, more action oriented sentence structure of the influential 1920’s still more than two decades away. In Maung Yin Maung the man, James Hla Gyaw satisfies the embodiment of a ‘good’ Buddhist and Burmese. Maung Yin Maung, unlike Dumas’ Count, refuses to take revenge on those who have wronged him; he brings medicine to a choleric monk at great risk to himself; he protects and loves his parents; he studies at monasteries to better himself so he can better others.
Though written as a novel, Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma, can often read like a record or sequence of events rushing to propel the narrative forward. James Hla Gyaw apparently made use of a familiar Western literary device by claiming he had simply amassed and published a collection of papers left behind by Maung Yin Maung after his death. Only at the beginning of a few select chapters, does James Hla Gyaw’s own narration enter. Here, somewhat unnecessarily, James guides the reader on what has just happened and what is to come in the chapter ahead with slight reflection on the character of Maung Yin Maung and the hapless situations he finds himself in.
Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma is an experiment; a writer testing the limits and scope of a new mode of story-telling. That it influenced a new era of Burmese language literature is undoubtable and rightfully should have its place in the list of globally important books. Tun Aung Chain has created an exemplary translation to a classic book and one Myanmar should be proud of.
The Myanmar Knowledge Society have done a great job with this edition. Though the paper quality is slightly impure and has mottled over the 3 Monsoons since it was printed, the binding is strong and the cover is thick. They have included a useful small glossary at the front and more interestingly, scans of the illustrations from the original 1904 edition: 12 photographs of actors posing scenes from the novel.
Title: Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma
Author: James Hla Gyaw
Translator: Tun Aung Chain
Publisher: Myanmar Knowledge Society
Pub Date: 1904 (1st Burmese Edition), 2014 (1st English Ed.)
Circulation: 1000 Copies
Price: 5000 MMK