One of the first things to strike me about Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons was the lack of Canadian reference. True, it is a memoir of her time in Burma (or Myanmar as I know it), but as a fellow traveler I find it hard not to compare countries I visit to Canada. In fact, Connelly spends more time comparing Burma to Greece than to her home for the first 17 years of her life (and the country which partially funded her trip there). But I'm not the patriotism police, I merely found it curious. For those who stick it out for the duration, readers are rewarded on page 425 with a bit of insight as to where the Canada avoidance comes from.
The second thing that struck me was how little I liked this book, not to mention--and I truly hate to say this-- the author. Did you ever read Corinne Hoffman's The White Masai? Admittedly, I have not, but I did see the movie and I had similar feelings watching that I as did while reading Burmese Lessons. I also had Pulp's Common People (the William Shatner cover) stuck in my head. Replace Common with Foreign in that song, and you'd almost have Hoffman's and Connelly's philosophy summed up. As if sleeping with a local and pretending it's love is somehow a superior souvenir.
Do I sound harsh and judgmental? I wrestled with that for 300 pages, trying my hardest to give Connelly the benefit of a doubt. She was young, I told myself (she was 27), and young people are supposed to be naive and make mistakes, that's how they learn. Enjoy the energy and freedom of youth, I said. But nuts to that. Her irresponsibility amounted to selfishness and I couldn't take it. Especially when
I had expected to read about Burma, not some silly pseudo-love story. One or two pages about the torture of Burmese dissidents and a couple hundred pages of the author having unprotected sex with a man she just met? Self-indulgent or what?
I can't believe this book has gotten good reviews. It even won the Governor General's Award? You people must be a patient lot.