The Other Side of the Wall is one of those curious books that you discover in the rounds of the bookshops in Yangon. I found it only once, in Innwa Books on Pansodan I think, and have never seen it for sale since. One of the pleasures of these book-hunts is in finding a gem such as this. A novel. In English translation. From one of Myanmar’s most respected women writers.
The story follows the young girl, Nhaung Khin Zaw, who, whilst travelling by sea from Dawei to Yangon, receives three premonitions: her father will die, she will marry a widower and death will come on her 24th birthday. As the first premonition comes to pass, Nhaung spirals into a depression of her own making and fears. She loses touch with the life continuing on around her, abandoning her future as pointless, seeing death within the distance. Concerned, her mother approaches a psychiatrist, Doctor Cie who tries the pierce the cloud of despondency that now governs Nhaung’s world while slowly questioning both her beliefs in the afterlife and his own growing bond of affection with her.
The inclusion of the ex-wife, Thi, so late into the narrative, jars a little. Though Thi’s own position to her impending death, one of acceptance, is clearly introduced to balance the deafeatism of Naung, there is little time left to explore the contrasts, ultimately leaving a character which is hard to grasp on to. Like the spectre of death that permeates through the book, Thi, is more ghost than substance.
Ma Ju fares so much better in the clinical sessions between Nhaung and Doctor Cie. While such tit for tat conversations could easily bore the reader, especially the repeated theological digressions on Buddhist attitudes to death, Ma Ju deftly dismantles and resurrects Nhaung’s state of mind in a way a good novelist only can; with complete authenticity.
Interestingly, the title page claims the book was translated in 1996, though with no mention of a publication until 2013. It’s possible the book had simply lain in Ma Ju’s draw, forgotten, but also likely the book itself was censored and the author has simply waited 20 years for a change in the times. While neither political nor critical of the state, I can imagine a censorship board having issues with the romantic tension between a respected physician and a patient many years his younger, much in the same way the Romanbot novel of 2014 stirred controversy for its depiction of sexual relations between teachers and students, though here Ma Ju has tackled this relationship carefully and with much thought to the underlying motives without resorting to graphic scenes. The fact I have only seen this book for sale once, I hope, is proof that a wait of twenty years was worth it. I certainly think so.
While self-publishing in the West has – unfortunately I might add – only recently gained credit as a viable route to publication, it has been a common practice in Myanmar for many years. Some of the more successful authors have formed their own imprints, steering the book from idea to print. Ma Ju Publishing is among them.
The front cover font is slightly out of focus and the image used could have been lightened to make it more clear. The pages are fresh but there are several textual errors inside which makes you wish someone had taken a second read before going to print. Though in and of themselves these inaccuracies do little in the way of distraction from what is one of the better novel translations I’ve come across in Myanmar. Curiously despite its publication in 2013 and after the abolition of censorship, the book retains the 3 National Causes statement required of all printed works under the previous administration.
The Book Matter:
Title: The Other Side of the Wall
Author: Ma Ju
Translator: Sheila Nath Desmond
Publisher: Ju Publishing House
Pub Date: 2013
Cost: 2500 MMK