On the Shadow Tracks: a review

On the Shadow Tracks: a review

Eight years ago, about a year after moving to Yangon, a group of us had dinner one night as a sendoff for our friend Clare. She was leaving the following morning on a rather esoteric tour of some unknown railways she had seen on an obscure map and wanted to learn more about. We didn’t really question it - she was a journalist, always rootling around for answers to arcane questions, so we packed her off and knew we’d hear little about what she found until she got back.


Her journey was to take three months, and cover 3000 miles of hidden railways. We worried about her severe nut allergy and how she’d manage it in rural areas where she didn’t speak the dialect. We hoped she’d be ok when for long periods she’d have no signal. But we couldn’t worry more beyond that as we didn’t really know what she was doing, and even after her return knew little of what she had seen, heard and felt.


The answer is in her book, On the Shadow Tracks. It is a beautifully written, sensitive travelogue which probes into the extremely complex history of Myanmar. Her narrative lollops and clatters along barely-used, abandoned, and sometimes hotly contested tracks, introducing us to her companions and their stories, and unpicking the country’s knotty historical politics. She communicates the realities of the country’s complicated past and often-painful present with easy clarity, deep sensitivity and relieving humour.


Myanmar is a country which many have never heard of, and few have more than a cursory knowledge of or interest in. Despite being a key corner of the British Empire, its importance as part of that legacy has waned in the west. Clare’s book reframes the country’s present within the context of its colonial past. It is a place where breakfast might be “beef porridge, biscuits and hot rice wine,” a bizarre blend of British, Burmese and localised ethnic custom. Where priests (another British import) drink whisky at dawn. But more significantly, where a “modern nation, or something like it” has been built “with the same manual” left behind by the Brits.


Recent headlines from Myanmar are, as Clare explains, “major escalations in a long-running conflict,” a conflict with roots that go much further back than the second world war, or the ensuing decades of socialist government. She explains how the arrival of the British, or the behaviours which were normalised under their rule, remain systemic today. Her interactions expose again and again the traumatic impact that the “unfinished struggle for autonomy” has had on both sides of the civil war which groans on today across the country, and “the dangers of erasing history, of forgetting where power comes from, and who holds it, and how it is used.”


The book does the opposite of a travel brochure about Myanmar. It is of course full of beautiful passages about “sun-streaked stations”, sprawling paddy fields, “figures in conical hats and water buffalo” and the “dreamy world of temple bells and floating monasteries” which sits on the surface, but the pervading tone is an extremely accurate rendering of the subcutaneous disquiet which hums beneath; the feeling of being “stuck in an unsettling dream.” She does not honey-coat the country, but rather paints a raw, sensitive and painful picture of the reality for many in Myanmar today.


For those of us who lived in Yangon during its decade of relative freedom and hope, this book is a gift. Clare has recorded the essence of what it looked and felt like to live there: “the heavy, sweet scent of the trees,” fond familiar visions of teashops where “customers, mostly men, were shouting over one another…with cigarettes hanging from their mouths...others were quietly reading the papers, or holding hushed conversations over rounds of tea.” She brings to life the wonderful characters we know and miss: teachers who “punctuate [their] speech with English idioms,” a kind man captured mid-conversation “taking out a small comb and plastering his hair across his head,” a sweet explanation from another of how “when I drink [whiskey] my chest gets hot, and I see moons and stars.” She includes the charming idiosyncrasies that delighted us daily: a tunnel “which was flanked, improbably, by Tuscan columns,” being asked to wait in “a windowless room…on a teak throne fitted with a crimson velvet cushion,” boarding a lauded Special Express train to find it “identical to any other train service in Myanmar, except there were fans in the ordinary-class carriages, and young men dressed in uniform, who handed around laminated menus before we left the station.” She has given us a written distillation of the wonderful, heady, complicated and intense experience of living there, delivered as if we were once again climbing onto the roof together “to look over the decaying city.”


This is a fearless, phenomenal book. Myanmar is a place where “history weigh[s] so heavily…that decades of it ha[ve] to be explained before any conversation with an outsider could even begin.” On the Shadow Tracks is an excellent start.

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