I’ve often struggled to reconcile the titles of Burmese books in English translation to their content. A lot of the time I see no connection, no matter how hard I try to make it fit and just assume that in the original Burmese it makes sense.
The Bamboo Clapper Essays by Win Pe is no different. A bamboo clapper is a musical instrument, made by slicing a length of bamboo down the shaft, stopping a few inches from the base and then slapping the two splits together. I am unsure of what the significance is to what follows.
The book is a collection of fifty short articles published in the mid to late 1960’s in the Working People’s Daily newspaper. While most anthologised articles from Myanmar rarely have a thematic identity, this particular collection is an extreme jumble of thoughts.
In ‘Burmese Verses’, the author prophetically laments the lack of English translations in Burmese poetry, envisioning a future where ‘Our poetry is relatively unknown to the world. This is on account of a rarity of translators. They should be found and encouraged. The work is essential. Here lies a gap in presenting our country to the world.’
‘Burmese Verses’ is followed less than 20 pages later by ‘A File Cleaning Service’, in which Win Pe predicts the rise of a new type of office worker, one who will sweep a business clean of unwanted and outdated papers. We then get a mish-mash of writings on archaeology, astronomy, the cubic volume of a brain, damages to golf courses, ancient Egyptian poetry and the coconut. In ‘Kitchen Tools’, the author advises housewives on the most useful cooking equipment, while in ‘Keeping Records’ he notes the best methods of keeping track of a household income, (an itemised ledger detailing quantities and prices of things consumed).
With little to connect the dots, the collection is too vague to be read for long, though, thankfully, there are moments of interest.
The summary of the voice shift in literature between Yangon and Mandalay (which occurred at the time the author was writing) is well drawn and concise. His article on the railway system hints at a criticism of the government’s lack of duty of care for its citizens, while in others, there is a small glimpse of the struggles his readers must be facing in the new socialist regime. In Keeping Records, Win Pe jokes on the quantity of documents you must store to keep your house in order, including a radio licence for dry cells batteries for a torch and a cooking oil ration slip for cod liver oil.
In the foreword, the editor – Win Pe’s son – explains the painstaking process in searching the archives of the newspaper to find articles written by his father, before scanning and typing them up. Perhaps the articles included were the best to be found, or the editor was keen to show the breadth and variety of Win Pe’s work. It could be the censorship policies at the time constricted the author in what he could safely write on, (though these polices were not as harsh as the 70’s and later) or, as a daily newspaper, he struggled to find suitable content to fill. It’s also possible that these haphazard advice columns were popular and he simply wrote for the market.
Whichever it may be, as a diversion into the mind of Win Pe, a vivisection of what makes him tick, the collection is certainly a success. As a window into Myanmar and the people in the 1960’s, a time of huge political and social change, it reveals little.
The Bamboo Clapper and other Essays stands out for it being published in hardback form. A rarity in books from Myanmar. And even more unusually it is covered in a dust jacket. The jacket fits the book snugly, with a clean front end design and quotes from Win Pe’s other works on the rear. The front and back flaps are empty of text or design but fold neatly around the boards’ edges. The paper has been adhered to the boards fairly well though the front and back endpaper perhaps slightly too far from the spine which it makes it difficult to open the pages to their fullest extent. The paper quality itself is ivory hued and thick but grainy and rough under the fingers. Inside, the book is attractively illustrated with full and half page free hand drawings consistent in red, white and black.
The Book Matter:
Title: The Bamboo Clapper Essays
Author: Win Pe (ed. by Thet Win)
Publisher: Seikku Cho Cho
Pub Date: December 2015
Cost: 3000 MMK