Crossing the Mountain of Swords and Half Above and Half Underneath novels juxtaposed

By Dr. Myint Zan

water fire ying yang 72On 15 November 1973 and 28 November 1973 issues of the now defunct The Working People’s Daily (WPD) and The Guardian (English language newspapers), respectively, there appeared two book reviews of a novel written in the Burmese (as it was then called officially) language.
The book reviews in the two English language daily officially published by the then Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government was on the late Saya (Hsayar) Mya Than Tint’s (23 May 1929-18 February 1998) novel “m;awmifudkausmfí rD;yifv,fudk jzwfrnf Dah Taung Go Kyaw Ywei Mee Pin Lae Go Phyat Myi (‘Crossing the Mountain of Swords and the Sea of Fires’). (Initially this writer thought that the two different reviews appeared on the same date—28 November 1973 issues of The Guardian and The Working People’s Daily. After he checked the old newspapers at University of Mandalay library —to which he expressed his thanks to the kind library staff for their assistance—he discovered that the first review appeared in the WPD on 15 November 1973 and the review was written by the late Maung Tin Mya, one of the editors of the WPD and the review in The Guardian appeared on 28 November 1973.)
The review in The Guardian was written by Mya Zin (U Win Pe) himself a poet who also wrote, among others, under the pseudonym ‘Epsilon’ on matters concerning science in the WPD. Though the writer has photographed the reviews by Maung Tin Mya and Mya Zin he has not re-read them- as yet—as he does not want to be influenced by the reviews written over 44 years ago in writing this —though not quite-comparative ‘reviews’ of two Burmese books, the second one being (in Burmese) txufw0uf atmufw0uf Ahtet Ta Wet Aught Ta Wet (‘Half Above and Half Underneath’), written by the late novelist Maung Thar Ya (1931-2016).
Fast forward from November 1973 to August 2018. The first literary talk State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had with a selection of students from universities near Mandalay was held at the University of Mandalay on 11 August 2018. Two young students, during the discussion, mentioned Saya Mya Than Tint’s novel as their favorite novel. Again, in another literary talk with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that was held at University of Yangon on 28 August 2018, the novel Crossing the Mountain of Swords ‘cropped up’ in the comments and discussions.
The writer did read the English and Burmese languages reviews of Saya Mya Than Tint’s book when it appeared in 1973 but it was only in 1999 while living abroad that I have had the chance to read Crossing the Mountain of Swords in its entirety. (A signed copy of the book was kindly presented to me by medical doctor-writer Dr. Zaw Than who, among others, had translated Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—first published 1932).
This writer has not had the chance to re-read Saya Mya Than Tint’s novel and the sketches and comments below are from what he recalls reading it some time in 1999. To begin with a ‘bang’ so to speak and not with a whimper (in Myanmar saying ppcsif;aqmufeJYxGif;) ‘me thinks’ Saya Mya Than Tint’s novel is (somewhat) over-rated. He himself stated either in the Preface of his book or elsewhere that he wrote it (somewhat in haste, so to speak) ‘within 17 days’. Around 21 months earlier before Crossing the Mountain of Swords was published, Saya Mya Than Tint was released from incarceration by the then BSPP regime (can we use that term now?). Mya Than Tint was incarcerated from about 1966 to February 1972.
In most of the time he was incarcerated, Mya Than Tint was held together with other political prisoners (and they were political prisoners) on Cocos Island. No doubt Saya Mya Than Tint’s experiences formed parts of his descriptions of ‘island life’ for in the novel, the four protagonists though not political prisoners held on an island were marooned or ship-wrecked on a small island.
The efforts to escape from the island was made especially by the main protagonist (shall we say ‘hero’) Than Joung, a rugged and strong youth apparently of rural origin. Than Joung sacrificed his life (from my recall of the novel’s plot) when he died as a result of sharks’ attacks. Than Joung helped save his three other desert-island fellows, including what has been depicted as ‘the greedy, exploitative, selfish, factory owner’, the virtually ‘evil’ U Ba Yan.
Though Mya Than Tint did not apparently use the word ‘evil’, I would like to extrapolate it since near the end of the novel it was revealed that Ba Yan had raped or sexually molested the hero Than Joung’s mother and killed his father. (This is what I recall reading from the novel; in the off-chance that I got the plot of the story wrong, I will stand corrected.) If this plot is true, then Saya Mya Than Tint has over-dramatized (in Burmese Zmwfematmifvkyf) and perhaps even in the context of a novel it is taking too much of a ‘novelist license’ and that license was based on an ideology.
Indeed the novel is, if not almost wholly, then it is largely ideological. And, for want of a better phrase or term, it is based on the leftist ideology in vogue in Burma and to a certain extent most of the developing world in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and part of the 1980s. ‘Socialist/communist’ ideology seems to permeate at least parts, if not most parts, of the novel. (I realize that it is somewhat ironic that Mya Than Tint, a person who was incarcerated without charge or trial by a ‘socialist’ regime for apparently being a ‘leftist destructionist’, would also espouse a different type of ‘socialism’.)

In this regard, I definitely recall reading in the preface of Saya Mya Than Tint’s novel that as a general almost unexceptional rule (and the exceptions Mya Than Tint implied are few and far between and almost negligible) ‘capitalist’ class to which the ‘villain’ of the novel U Ba Yan belongs is generally (again for want of a better word ‘bad’) and the worker, the proletariat and the peasants ‘class’ to which Than Joung belongs is ‘good’.

Un(?)connectedly, this writer is reminded of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pronouncement on 27 August 2018, in a meeting with ‘business leaders’ or the entrepreneurs (the word ‘capitalists’ and other synonyms have been officially eschewed for a few decades now), that they can also make (great) contributions for the welfare and uplift of the society and country.

This writer cannot help but ponder whether Saya Mya Than Tint, who passed away in February 1998 and who did witness the fall or at least decline of Burmese (way to) socialism as an economic and also — to a lesser extent — political doctrine, would still have adhered to this ‘capitalists almost all bad’ and ‘proletariat almost all good’ binary ideological thinking in his later days. One also wonders whether the young students at the literary talks who admire the novel as well as the entrepreneurs who might have read Mya Than Tint’s book would agree — or not — with the particular classification or ‘dichotomy’ that Mya Than Tint espouses.

It seemed that Mya Than Tint’s novel is ‘liked’, indeed admired, across age groups. It not only impresses but also inspire at least two young students, aged apparently in the early 20s, but those who are older by more than one and a half generation, also.

Several months ago, the ‘legal columnist’ U Han Nyunt (Law) wrote a short piece in a Myanmar language article (regarding law) praising the book. When I telephoned U Han Nyunt to express my (to use a legal term) ‘demurrers’ from the unexceptional positive review of Crossing the Mountains, he said all he wanted to do is not to praise the book on a political or ideological basis but to exhort youth and others to emulate the steely determination (shall I say again) exhibited by the hero Than Joung (perhaps ‘martyr’ also since he gave his life so that his fellow humans would escape) if need be by ‘crossing a mountain of swords and sea of fires’. Perhaps that was also the main reason or rationale for the younger generation students’ admiration of the novel.

If that be the case, i.e. to inspire youngsters (and middle-aged and elderly persons alike), then William Ernst Henley’s Invictus, poem translated into Burmese by the late journalist U Nyo Mya (1914-October 1985) with the assistance and guidance of the late Sayagyi Minthuwun (10 February 1909-15 August 2004) could be a shorter reference or exemplar. I understand that Invictus is or was taught in second year English major at least at the University of Mandalay English Department and the Burmese translation, first published in Oway magazine in the mid to late 1930s when Ko Aung San was the Editor, can also be found in at least a few libraries in Myanmar (if the old magazines are not kept locked!).

In contrast to Crossing the Mountain of Swords, I have read twice Saya Maung Thar Ya’s Ahtet Ta Wet Aught Ta Wet (‘Half Above and Half Underneath’), the first time when it was published around 1970 and the second time in the late 1990s. It is much less well-known than Mya Than Tint’s book. At least some of the young persons in their twenties and even early thirties who have some literary interests that I have met have not even heard of it. The University of Mandalay library does not have a copy.

Like Mya Than Tint, Maung Thar Ya was also incarcerated albeit not by the BSPP regime but by then Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government from 1953 to 1955. During the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) era, around July 1999, he went to self-imposed ‘exile’, first in Thailand and India and then in the United States, where he passed away in 2016.

Half Above and Half Underneath is a novel about fish mongers. Maung Thar Ya’s national literary prize winning novel for 1969 was in Burmese language Mat Tat Yat Lo Lan Hmar Ngo (‘Standing in the Road, Crying’: about a day in the life of a taxi driver). The title of ‘Standing in the Road, Crying) novel is a ‘clever’ (or is it brilliant?) use or incorporation of a nursery rhyme. (Incidentally, Somerset Maugham’s initial title of his ‘masterpiece’ Of Human Bondage, first published in 1915, was ‘Beauty from Ashes’. Maugham wrote that he changed the title taking it from a heading of a Chapter of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s posthumously published tome Ethics. How lucky Maugham was to incorporate Spinoza’s phrase into the title of his novel!)

Maung Thar Ya, unlike Mya Than Tint, did not ideologize so to speak nor (to be somewhat pompous) ‘pontificate’ about how oppressed the poor fish mongers were. The protagonist of the novel was Thin Thin Kyi (a ‘fish mongeress’?). Even though Maung Thar Ya portrays her and her fellow fish mongers’ predicament, foibles and shenanigans, he does not — at least not entirely — portray her as a ‘victim’ of a ‘capitalist system of oppression’. At least to this reader, Maung Thar Ya does not write solely or largely from an ideological ‘oppressive capitalist’ v ‘innocent and clean fish mongers/ fish mongeress’ dichotomy (so to speak).

It might be protested that the orientation and direction of the two novels are different. This writer is aware that it is. Still, as far as the main protagonist of Crossing the Mountain of Swords and Half Above and Half Underneath — Than Joung and Thin Thin Kyi respectively — are concerned they can generically be classified as emerging from the ‘proletariat’ class.

At the end of Maung Thar Ya’s novel, Thin Thin Kyi was raped and her earnings also exploited by ‘other’ fish mongers. Though I do not recall off-hand either the opening or closing sentences of the novel of Mya Than Tint, I do recall those sentences from Maung Thar Ya’s novel.

That perhaps is an indication that, at least to me, Maung Thar Ya’s novel, published around 1970, has affected me more than Mya Than Tint’s novel, published two to three years later in 1973. Though I would not say that either novel is in the deep sense of the word ‘affecting’ for me, I personally would choose or ‘prefer’ Half Above and Half Underneath to Crossing the Mountain of Swords.

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