Travels, both madcap and somber, into the terra incognita of Burma.
No, not Myanmar, insists British journalist Marshall (coauthor with David E. Kaplan, The Cult at the End of the World: The Incredible Story of Aum, 1996): the Taliban-like military dictatorship that has ruled Burma since 1962 coined that name as “part of an unpopular and cynical campaign against the country’s minority peoples.” The hook on which Marshall hangs his lively narrative is the familiar travel-lit ploy of following in the footsteps of some previous voyager, in this instance the encyclopedist, linguist, and explorer George Scott, “the last of the guilt-free imperialists,” whose careful gazetteering left no detail of Burmese life unturned. By this account, Scott was a thoughtful, generally likable fellow, as imperialists and data-gatherers go; Marshall uses his predecessor’s observations as a sort of tuning fork against which to sound his own. These range from the outright grim (the dictatorship’s vicious repression of Burma’s countless peoples) to Apocalypse Now–surreal (an orange-robed Buddhist monk, cell-phone trilling, poring over a number of recent copies of Guns and Ammo in the depths of the jungle) to the amusing (recounting his language-mangling efforts to make himself understood, he writes, “I had only a smattering of Burmese, but even that seemed like a small victory over astounding linguistic odds”). Balancing politically charged tirades and thoughtful ethnographic descriptions, Marshall never loses Scott’s trail, though it becomes quickly apparent that he did not need to follow it to write The Trouser People. He describes himself with self-deprecatory humor, but all the same Marshall emerges from these pages as an extraordinarily intrepid traveler and trustworthy narrator whose finely detailed account will want to make readers hop on the next plane to Rangoon to help overthrow the generals’ corrupt, narcodollar-fed regime.
Excellent from first word to last.