Along with poetry, short stories are the most popular form of literary expression in Myanmar. Many of the greats of the Burmese literary canon from the 1920’s onwards have dabbled in both. Which is why the lack of available English translations of these stories is such a shame. This collection by Ma Sandar is a much needed contribution.
The 20 stories roam across lower Myanmar, from the capital to the coast to unnamed villages. Ever-present is the women. The wife. The Aunt. The Daughter. The anchor of the family whose strength is often put to the test, a test she unfailingly passes but in doing so is presented as an unbroken caricature of the lot of the woman in Myanmar.
In ‘The Tenacious Housewife’, we see a family fall apart, unable to even feed or clothe themselves when Nyunt, the uneducated orphan falls ill; in ‘Mother’s Baht Gold Necklace’, the unnamed mother toils for the family after the death of her husband, struggling to provide she proffers hope that times could always be worse; in the ‘Sweet Juice in the Coconut’, the young Wai Wai hides the death of her mother from her younger siblings, taking on the parent role and foregoing her own life to ensure the family she now leads prospers.
The ceaseless self-sacrifice, the unrepentant duty of the parent to the child/child to the parent is a message less whispered and more flung at you with repeated insistence. It can be jarring at times. A wish emerges of an antidote to the perfect daughter, a rebel who doesn’t conform to the author’s perfect embodiment of devotion and obedience. That character never comes, or if she did, she may have been killed off. Death seems to come too easily for the author. To become a martyr for the family, someone has to die and it’s almost always the mother.
Though this collection is firmly fixed to a single track of thought, it is softened by a cast of supporting characters that weave a secondary strand of life; Mya Lay Khin stealing morinda leaves from her grumpy neighbour’s garden, her two nieces debating which Korean actor is the sexiest; Ko Peik Sa who salutes fallen trees after a storm. Depictions of market places, the techniques of haggling, and how not to be scammed by unscrupulous traders are perfect; the ways and methods of earning money, taxi driving, brick carrying, scavenging, joining the military, gold pawning would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the country. This is a collection undoubtedly of Myanmar, voices that deserved to be joined by others in the future.
A Today Publication House Myanmar series number 15. Standard quality from this house, with ivory, wood chipped paper and clear type. It’s a thick book (for Burma), running at just under 300 pages, which may explain it’s higher than average price. The front cover illustration is suitably relevant, a free-hand crayoned effect of market sellers. The translator, Mra Hninzi is clearly credited on the front cover and again on the top left of each verso page. It also holds a barcode on the back, becoming more common now in post 2013/14 publications.
The Book Matter:
Title: The Sixth Enemy and Other Stories
Author: Ma Sandar
Translator: Mra Hninzi
Publisher: Today Publishing House
Pub Date: June 2015
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Circulation: 500 Copies
Cost: 5000 MMK