Standing up for Burma

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian, and Rambo IV.

 

What’s the worst outcome of watching Rambo IV? Sitting through 92 minutes of slightly hackneyed action film? Wrong.

At the weekend, I sat next to a man who had been questioned in court over possession of Rambo IV. Because the film chronicles Sylvester Stallone’s attempts to free Americans from a dictatorial regime in Burma, it was understandably unpopular with the dictatorial regime in Burma. And so the Burmese comedian Zarganar was imprisoned for owning it.

This was one of four stretches he spent in prison, on trumped-up offences ranging from having an email account to criticising the junta’s slow response to the deaths of 140,000 people in Cyclone Nargis. In November 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to a mere 35.

In the flesh, Zarganar exudes a sense of calm. He arrived at the theatre on Sunday, with the rain ankle-deep outside, in sandals and a long robe. He shaves his head but lets the hair from a mole on his chin grow inches long. His English is slow and precise. His timing is impeccable. His real name is Maung Thura, and his stage name means “tweezers”: a Burmese proverb says that “zarganar pulls out fear”.

Puns and bunting

Zarganar is credited with revitalising anyeint, a traditional Burmese form of cabaret – pretty dancing girls interspersed with satire and song. But for many years he was unable to practise his craft: he has been banned from performing comedy repeatedly, the latest occasion being in 2006 for talking to the BBC.

This worried me, because I had been seconded as a last-minute guest to the topical comedy panel show No Pressure To Be Funny, at which he was making a rare appearance on stage (he spoke at the Secret Policeman’s Ball in March about Amnesty and the need for freedom of speech).

As it turned out, almost miraculously, Zarganar’s sense of humour translated to Britain. You wouldn’t expect this: the 51-year-old is known in his home country for his mastery of puns, helped by the Burmese language being tonal and monosyllabic. While Mr Bean’s pratfalls resonate around the globe, verbal humour is a tougher proposition – and yet Zarganar owned the room.

He spoke a little of his time in captivity: of how he collapsed from high blood pressure and was left outside overnight, his jailers not caring if he lived or died. He was released on 12 October 2011, along with 200 others, but many others remain in prison and a state of emergency was declared in the western state of Rakhine on 10 June following sectarian violence.

What was Zarganar’s bravest joke that night? “I think your queen is like your government – old and weak,” he told an audience that had barely finished taking down the jubilee bunting.

He wouldn’t have been allowed to do that material on BBC1 last weekend, I reflected. But then I suppose that once you’ve been given a 59-year jail sentence by a military junta, a sniffy editorial in the Telegraph doesn’t quite hold the same terror.

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder