1777 Burmese disguises

Double Karma
by Daniel Gawthrop

Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2023
$24.95 / 9781770866836

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski


In many different ways Double Karma, by New Westminster writer Daniel Gawthrop, feels huge. Spanning decades, linking lives in the United States with lives in Burma (misleadingly called Myanmar by the military junta, as we learn) it is about conflicting and complex forces of religion and politics, the fates of millions of people, and the historic political figures who drive these forces. At the same time, it is a novel about not just externals, but also internals: it is a novel, above all, about identity — national identity, religious and cultural identity, yes, but also racial identity, sexual identity, and, in the most literal and psychological senses, personal identity.

And, far from the density and richness causing the novel to feel weighed down, it achieves the opposite effect. In fact, Gawthrop seems to mirror the conflicts and crises of history within the story itself: this is a novel of suspense and crisis, of frightening struggles, of imprisonment and torture, and of desperate escapes across international borders.

Even more, it is a novel of hidden truths, disguises, and secrets. The main protagonist, Min Lin, adopts two disguises and assumes two identities, the first one for practical reasons, the second one for survival: within the first few pages of the novel, he discovers he must act the role of a national war hero, a role he must keep hidden first from his fiancé, and, later, his husband and his father. To the world and to himself, for many years he also hides his identity as a gay man. And to add to the tension and confusion, the protagonist is long considered dead by those closest to him. To American bureaucrats he needs to concoct another fictitious identity, this time as feckless tourist wandering through Thailand for 18 months. When the protagonist describes himself as “a virtuoso of deceit…pulling off the most artfully dangerous fraud imaginable,” readers need no convincing.

Daniel Gawthrop. Photo by Aung Htwe Nyunt Saw

Even more dramatically, each of these misperceptions and illusions powers scenes of confession and discovery. Says the protagonist upon learning the long suppressed truth about his father, he is “a masterful liar, a fraud to his own son.” The results are devastating: “my world fell apart.” Later, revealing the most trenchant of his own secrets, he understands the shock he produces on those close to him by “the gravity of the deception.” He is not underestimating. And, of the many revelations that propel the novel, the most powerful is the one Gawthrop saves for the final pages, a revelation not just to Min Lin, but also to the readers.

To ratchet up the intensity of the storyline even more, the author creates a kind of lattice of associations and coincidences between what might at first seem disparate parts of a scattered narrative — and the effect is more striking because these can be life altering. That Min Lin should be face to face with his apparent double and about to be shot is an arresting coincidence, but the events that follow within minutes tighten the consequences of the coincidence. Similar convergences remind the reader that Gawthrop’s narrative is as tight as a drum. When, decades after his sexual awakening as a gay man through an incidental character called Sayed, Min Lin makes eye contact with an apparent stranger, the readers know exactly how to understand the line: “My heart skips a beat.” Similarly, a minor character called “Little Crow Eye” is, decades later, suddenly revealed to be a major power figure. In this novel, as Gawthrop demonstrates, no character, no incident can be assumed to be incidental. Min Lin calls his company “Karma Communications.” In mounting an exhibition of his photographs he hopes to improve his “karmic balance sheet.” Another exhibition he called Twins, echoing the “double” of the title. The last word in the novel is, similarly, “twin.”

And yet, as careful as he is to shape the action of his novel, the author, unquestionably, directs his real passion elsewhere. Those who have read any of Gawthrop’s previous books will recognize in this novel the same engagement with social issues, whether the monumental failures of Pope Benedict, the need to save the boreal forest, or, most obviously relevant here, the tangled issues involved in intimate relationships between men from East Asia and from the West. It will come as no surprise to most readers of this novel that the author has a substantial legacy of meticulously researched and closely argued journalism and non-fiction: at times, indeed, it seems that in this novel he can barely contain his desire to document.

Near the beginning of the novel, the chief protagonist Min Lin, reflecting on Burma, insists on the need to pay “attention to its geopolitics, its kaleidoscope of ethnicities, its history of colonial conquest, and its army’s hegemonic power” in order to ”see the causes of its tragically failed potential.” Surely the key word here is “see” — while Gawthrop is doing a lot in this novel, more than anything he is inducing his readers to see.

What and how readers see is guided by strategic narrative choices. In the first place, he has selected his main characters in such a way that each one has a distinctive foothold on a subset of knowledge: first, Thander is an activist student leader and a woman from an educated family belonging to the majority Bamar Buddhists; second, Min Lin’s father Ko Lin Tun is a one-time insider in the echelons of power in Burma and subsequently a history professor in the U.S.; and, most extensively, Min Lin is an eyewitness caught up in the bowels of the country’s turmoils. Gawthrop parallels this range of perspectives with a range of narrative methods. Some information is given through letters, some through almost Shavian discussions, and some, unembarrassedly, directly: in several of the most illuminating passages, Min Lin, clearly channelling the author, writes almost as a journalist or historian, any hesitations some readers might feel about writing that is so directed overridden by the depth of feeling and the power of understanding.

Thandar’s embittered analysis of current forces at work within the regime’s ineffective lurches towards democratic reform is typical of one strain of writing: “Parliamentary democracy guarantees nothing. Tatmadaw [the military] will not allow Daw Suu to change the constitution. Even if she supports their policy in Rakhine, all it will take is one decision they don’t like, and they can launch another coup at any time.”

Burmese military (Tatmadaw) propaganda sign in “free Myanmar,” Mandalay, 2014. Photo credit Daniel Gawthrop

Such contemporary analyses are underscored by historical perspectives. Tracing the heritage of oppression back to British imperialism, Thander admits that Bamars [the Buddhist majority] have a long, sorry legacy of oppressing the Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin, and Kachin people”. Even more important, though, and through Ku Lin Tun’s historical knowledge, documenting, for example, the mini-coup of Ne Win in 1958 and the Panglong Agreement of 1947, he reveals that the current crisis with the Rohingya people (racistly called “Bengalis”) is the result of the military junta’s concocting a purported enemy: “today’s generals are talking a lot of garbage…. They are reinventing history for their own purposes.” “They have been turned into the alien “Other” by successive governments determined to make us avert our eyes from their poor management of the country, directing our attention instead towards an enemy that does not exist.”

One of Min Lin’s more passionate and affecting historically based passages illustrates especially well the way that Gawthrop infuses information-giving with personality while simultaneously grounding it in authoritative knowledge:

Over the years, the Tatmadaw have killed hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers along the border areas. Perhaps a million. I tell her I know this — that I have read about the infamous “Four Cuts” policy, in which the Army blocked rebel groups’ access to food, funds, intelligence, and popular support for independence while terrorizing the people…. In Kachin State, I’ve heard, Christian churches and villages are routinely destroyed, and the people slaughtered, raped, or left homeless, all for the crime of not subscribing to Buddhism.

This emphasis on Buddhism is especially telling because clearly one of the issues Gawthrop wants most to expose is the role played by Buddhism in the Burmese tragedy. First, he makes sure to document the image of Buddhism popular in the West through Min Lin’s eyes: “…in Rangoon I could only see the Buddha through the rose-tinted glasses of a tourist: bedazzled by the glitter and gold of the city’s finest temples, mystified by the inscrutable wisdom of its senior monks.” Imprisoned, Thandar, a Buddhist herself, echoes, more edgily, the principle that Buddhism encourages a kind of political passivity: “As good Buddhists, the three of us had little choice but to endure our respective sufferings with humility and grace.”

In many ways, though, such statements seem put in place so they can be exploded. When it comes to the crunch, the author — both through Thandar and her awakening skepticism, and, more vehemently, through Min Lin — doesn’t hold back. “Since when did Buddhist monks, the gatekeepers of a peaceful religion based on metta, or loving kindness, become the standard-bearers for fascist racism?” Min Lin asks bitterly. Since when, indeed? we must echo.

It is in keeping with the book’s deepest need to bear witness, though, that, through Min Lin’s photojournalistic eyes, the author delivers a harrowing account of one atrocity after another driven by Buddhist racism. What Min Lin sees in his dangerous trip to the north in 2012 illustrates only too well what is probably at the novel’s core: “a blood-curdling scream behind me cuts through the angry crowd noise…. then, moments later, a gust of wind hits with a sickening stench … burning human flesh. A Muslim man has been torched alive in the street, his body flaming as a cheering Buddhist mob stands by.”

Daniel Gawthrop at Kandawgyi Lake, in Yangon, 2013. Photo credit Daniel Gawthrop

As much as Gawthrop directs anger towards the Buddhist mobs, though, it is the military, the Tatmadaw, that draw his deepest anger. Documenting their ingeniously appalling methods of torture, he simultaneously exposes the complacent cruelty of the generals and their joyous sadism. The slaughter of dissidents is but the occasion for “loud triumphalist cheering and idiotic drinking games”. Repeatedly, the virtually defenceless populace is treated to the “full force of the Tatmadaw juggernaut, with its giant battalions launching wave after wave of deadly assault.”

And to give such broad patterns of abuse additional documentary edge, Gawthrop anchors his narrative in real political figures: Ne Win, socialist dictator from 1962 to 1988, Khin Nyunt, (prime minister arrested in 2004), and Than Shwe, head of state 1992 to 2011. More extensively, though, Gawthrop penetrates the clouds of western media stories around the celebrity figure of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meeting Min Lin in the early pages of the novel, she reappears frequently as the failed saviour of democracy, either because she is hamstrung by the generals or, worse, because she betrays the very principles for which she stands. Initially setting the tone with her “flawless English and an upper-class British accent”, “The Lady” subsequently fails to stand up for communities evicted without compensation for a copper mine “megaproject”. Even more problematically, her now well-known disregard of the abuse of the Rohingya brings her repeatedly under the glaring light of Min Lin’s — and Gawthrop’s — rhetoric: far from being a deserving Nobel laureate, “She is not a true democrat but an elitist; an upper-class politician who’s out of touch with the people and doesn’t care about the peasantry.” Min Lin, staggering under “impotent rage”, can lash out even more directly: “After being globally revered for so many years, how could The Lady have turned out to be just another garden-variety bigot? A blue-blooded ethno-nationalist?”

Min Lin’s fury here is a stirring reflection of the way the author has managed to bring the political turmoil of Burma into sharp focus by integrating it into the profound changes within the three main characters. And, in dramatizing the nature of these changes, Gawthrop makes full use of shifting narrative points of view, particularly when one character illuminates (or, occasionally, misunderstands) another character’s changes.

Thander, the student leader, full of fiery determination and high democratic ideals, is, understandably, somewhat bruised by her prison experience — but, remarkably, shows real heroism in not taking an easy way out. All the more unsettling for the reader, therefore, is Gawthrop’s decision to show her initial admiration of Min Lin blurring, during her time in prison, into dismissive rejection: “The selfless commitment and raw courage required for the violence of armed resistance seemed beyond his capacity.” Having given us Min Lin’s perspective earlier in the novel, Gawthrop allows the dramatic irony to fester. Even more disquieting is the author’s decision suddenly to have her reveal bigoted views towards the Rohingya. That these perspectives later go through radical change not just elevates the drama of the novel, but also reaffirms one of its central thrusts — the importance of documented knowledge.

The changes that will come to Min Lin’s father are even more arresting, in part because they reach back to his role in the Burmese government before his move to Los Angeles and in part, on a personal plane, because they connect with his homophobic attitudes towards his son. Discovering his son’s orientation, he begins “wallowing in regrets about how he had raised his son.” The way in which Ko Kin Tun changes and the reasons for his change link, in turn, to the nature of identity underlying the whole storyline.

Gawthrop has made equally considered choices in selecting Min Lin as the main voice of the novel and the main vehicle of change. Even from the limited perspective of a newcomer to Burma, Min Lin’s is a voice that engages. Generally calm, unaffectedly confessional when it matters, his voice changes timbre as he comes increasingly engaged with the student protests and the violence they suffer, as his relationship with Thander develops, and most strikingly when, in order to stay in Burma, he has not just to mask his identity but make harrowing choices that require seismic shifts in his core values.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, 2013. Photo credit Daniel Gawthrop

Never self-aggrandizing, though, Min Lin maintains a refreshing vitality — a quality his voice never loses. Reflective and sensitive, he is just as often wry to the point of sarcasm. During a moment of terrifying self sacrifice, for example, he can say, “Was this how I was to die? On some shitty little mountain range in Southeast Asia, fighting someone else’s battle?” In another way, later, temporarily trapped into a different role as a military official, he delivers an eloquently ironic attack on the “ghoulish collection of mostly overweight, post-middle-aged military men, their uniform breasts bursting with unearned medals that gleamed in the sun.“ Importantly, though, his parallel developing capacity to turn inward gives rise to some of the most affecting passages of self-analysis in the book. He can say of his discovering his identity as a gay man, “I felt like I’d come home at last.” On the other hand, he can lash himself with “shame” and “self-loathing” at choices he has made under the pressures of Burmese military might. Having returned to Burma after a hiatus of decades, he lacerates himself for his choice: “I could also go mad with self-loathing because of the wilful stupidity that landed me here.”

Daniel Gawthrop at a launch for a previous book

The most essential fact, however, is that the author has made Min Lin a photographer. At points in his career, a largely commercial photographer, he demonstrates that his shifting attitudes towards his purpose as a photographer shapes the whole novel and resonates far beyond its narrative conclusion. His trip to Burma in 1988 was driven in part by his desire to explore, through photographs, his cultural roots.

Significantly, though, his later desire to return to Burma comes after photographic work he does in Los Angeles. An exhibit called Twins explores the “nature of identity”, thereby underpinning the major thrust of the whole novel. Through another exhibition, this one called Fathers and Sons, he so touches his father that the relationship between the two men is fundamentally altered and enriched. But what brings him back to Burma so many years later? Again he wants to photograph, but now with a heightened sense of purpose: “Going back now and photographing the Rohingya people, documenting their lives and struggle might go some way to improve my karmic balance sheet.” The “karma” he speaks of here, indeed will be, in ways he doesn’t yet know, “doubled.” More important, photographs he takes on his second trip to Burma signal not just his own changes but — crucial to the import of the whole book — changes in others. Through the photographs he shows Thander documenting the horrors suffered by the Rohingya, he breaks through the prejudices and lies which she has been fed her whole life.

The truly wonderful irony, though, is that what these photographs have done to those who see them is, in effect, what Gawthrop’s literary version of these same photographs does to the minds and hearts of his readers. Having seen what we have seen of Burma in the pages of this remarkable novel, we readers, like Thandar, Ko Lin Tun, and like Min Lin himself, can only be deeply affected. When in his Acknowledgements the author speaks directly to his readers, “please donate to one or more of the organizations assisting Burmese residents and refugees, including those aiding the Rohingyas,” it is difficult not to appreciate how much we have been privileged to have read a novel that matters. That the voice that makes the appeal is so measured and purposeful says it all.


Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the University of Victoria. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), and Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Lyndon Grove, Ihor Holubizky, & Brent Raycroft, David FushteyAaron BushkowskyDevon FieldPirjo Raits, and Vince Ditrich for The British Columbia Review. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay. Visit his website here.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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