|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Saving Fish from Drowning
Putnam Adult (2005)
How much do intentions matter? That question is central to Saving Fish From Drowning. Amy Tan takes us on a journey with a group of tourists who are by and large well meaning, but who are an example of how not to behave in unfamiliar territory. Their actions begin a series of events that may be fate, or may not, that may be acts of will or chance, depending on one's perspective. Which of these apply is something that the narrator Bibi Chen, an art collector/dealer who should have guided the group, ponders.
The group is told that Chen was murdered shortly before the trip. They decide to go despite this, with a less experienced guide in her place. Travelling through Burma they are kidnapped and embroiled in the politics of the region, with only one of their number free to try and rescue them.
Some darkly comic moments are posted by being in a different environment with a different set of cultural values and expectations. Much is lost in translation for both the tourists and the locals. It becomes clear that what has remained a peculiar cult in one place could well have gone on to become one of the world's dominant religions, but for a slight shift in events. Consider the real example of the dendrites that William Dalrymple mentions in his book From the Holy Mountain. It is hard to believe that anyone ever decided to live in trees as an interpretation of Christianity, but imagine if that sect had taken off?
The tribe who abduct the tourists are convinced that one of them is the "Younger White Brother" who will save them. What appear as card tricks to his group look like definite evidence of magic to the tribe. This is not to suggest the tribe are naive, it is just another case of the sort of misconceptions that occur throughout the book. The tourists make similar errors of judgement.
The involvement of the media complicates things too; indeed, it changes the course of events. One of the characters is a British born television presenter, the news media and an aspiring documentary maker are also involved, all of them blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is not. The power and influence of television extends to most of the planet now and we rarely question its role, in her novel, Tan watches its workings with a critical eye.
Like Tan's other novels, there are mother/daughter relationships in this story, but they aren't the main focus of the narrative.
My only minor gripe is the speech of the British characters: it is just slightly off. Despite being seasoned with quid and bloody and other turns of phrase unfamiliar to an American ear, it doesn't quite ring true.
Otherwise it is a deceptively easy read, while being subtle, and not polemical.