Peter Olszewski’s memoir of a year spent living in Myanmar is a fascinating, intimate personal account of day to day life in this politically tormented country
As I’m travelling to Myanmar myself soon, I found Peter Olszewski’s Land Of A Thousand Eyes: The Subtle Pleasures Of Everyday Life In Myanmar a fascinating introduction to everyday life within the country. Most books about Myanmar focus on listing the Myanmar military junta’s atrocities against its own people. Peter Olszewski instead simply documents his life and exploration of Myanmar during the year he spent in the country. This is not to say that Olszewski does not understand or appreciate the nature of the regime – but he does recognise that many other books have documented and continue to document Myanmar’s political nightmare and that, crucially, the people of Myanmar should not be confused with their government. Therefore this is a book that simply talks about the people Olszewski encountered while living in Yangon, working as a trainer of journalists on a local newspaper.
A skilled writer, Olszewski is adept at stringing together small vignettes of his life in Myanmar, from the mundane to the dramatic. He documents the battles his newspaper had to fight just to stay in operation, the streetkids he befriended, the ever more exotic food that he sampled before caving in for a cheeseburger, and, perhaps most dramatically, having to endure a kidney stone operation in a poorly equipped Myanmar hospital. His narrative speeds along, fuelled by Olszewski’s sense of wonder about his surroundings and his sense of humour too. There is a spectacular moment of Engrish from fantastically named U Why Not, a Myanmar antique dealer Olszewski hired on the basis of his name and his business card, which reads – “Attentiveness, courtesy, generosity… I also lie”.
For all Olszewski’s deliberate playing down of discussing Myanmar politics in his book, his narrative cannot helped but be shaped by those politics, and his daily routine is continually impinged upon by censorship from the military. Buying the simplest item or making the shortest journey can become an epic quest thanks to the crippling poverty of the country. Olszewski accepts all of this without rancour, and is acutely aware of his deeply privileged position as an expat, incredibly rich within this country and able to leave whenever he wants. Indeed, much of Land Of A Thousand Eyes is about the simultaneous friendliness of the Myanmar people and the near impossibility of really integrating within their seemingly enigmatic culture as a Westerner. (The book’s title refers to how Olszewski is constantly watched, not just by the state secret police who have informers everywhere, but by the Myanmar in general, intrigued by what the big white buffalo will do next).
Olszewski’s demonstrates a good grasp of the complex issues facing Myanmar, and the ongoing controversy over whether the West should wholly boycott the country, but doesn’t let discussion of these issues weigh down his narrative. While he doesn’t say it directly, Olszewski’s attitude seems to be it’s too easy to take the moral high ground as an excuse for inaction when it comes to Myanmar, and Olszewski has the self belief to think his small contribution working at the newspaper and with his fellow Myanmar journalists is better than writing articles condemning the country from outside it.
Land Of A Thousand Eyes is a welcome addition to the canon of books about Myanmar, and its different perspective is important for remembering there is more to Myanmar than just the military junta. Separated by language and culture, Olszewski can only give his impressions of Myanmar life and his attempts to understand them – and it’s precisely the way he writes out the book as a continuing voyage of discovery in Myanmar and self-discovery about his own life that makes it a fascinating book.