The Rebel of Rangoon
The Rebel of Rangoon is journalist Delphine Schrank’s portrayal of the Burmese pro-democracy resistance as seen through the eyes of some members of that ‘diffuse and ragged multigenerational movement, an oft-dismissed band of hard-bitten oddballs and dreamers’. In an unusual departure from typical reporter mien, Schrank foregoes the dry dispatch of information and attempts to ‘look outward, with their eyes, through their hearts’: she largely eliminates herself and her experiences from the picture in favour of a shifting third-person subjective voice that brings the events depicted to startling colour. Her sources run through alleys lined with ‘centenarian tamarinds’ and hold ‘fragrant leaves’ to their nostrils, have ‘fits of giggles’ and stir pots of ‘curry bubbling over burning coals’, their stories all the while interspersed with childhood memories, portraits of activists, family members, and friends, as well as brief interjections of Burmese history and politics. Schrank’s brilliant sensory depiction of dramatic and dangerous political times is nothing less than gripping.
Schrank’s unusual reporting choices succeed in illustrating her sources as real and whole people, with loves, dreams and aspirations rivalling the character development of even the most skilled novelists. However, her decision to ‘do away with the filter of a stranger, of a foreign journalist’ raises some questions about the reliability of her narration: for example, where she represents thoughts verbally disclosed to her as simply occurring in her subjects’ minds and erases herself from scenes where she must surely have had some effect on the interactions recorded. However, entering the heads of these ‘oddballs and dreamers’ serves an ulterior purpose: it is a moving reminder that the struggle for emancipation is not merely the province of a few great men, or the impersonal, inevitable effect of technological advances. The Rebel of Rangoon is a testament to the enormous change that can be achieved by even the most downtrodden when they believe what they’re doing is right.
Words: Mònica Tomàs White