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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Smile as they Bow

Nu Nu Yi

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To purchase Smile as they Bow

Title: Smile as they Bow
Author: Nu Nu Yi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 146 pages
Original in: Burmese
Availability: Smile as they Bow - US
Smile as they Bow - UK
Smile as they Bow - Canada
  • Translated by Thi Thi Aye and Alfred Birnbaum

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing exotica

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Times . 17/10/2008 Kate Saunders

  From the Reviews:
  • "Here is a sliver of something truly exotic and intriguing. (...) It's a wild week absolutely dripping with atmosphere -- the details are unforgettably vivid." - Kate Saunders, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Little fiction has trickled out of Burma (Myanmar) for decades now, and Smile as they Bow is the first contemporary Burmese novel published in English by a major publisher. Long governed by a repressive regime that has, in many ways, stopped time in the beautiful country, Smile as they Bow is nevertheless not oppositional literature, with politics barely figuring in it. Yet it proves surprisingly revealing.
       Smile as they Bow is set around the annual festival held in the village of Taungbyon, honouring two brothers whose tragic deaths ultimately made them nats, revered spirits that the faithful come to pay homage to at this week-long festival. Where there are nats, there are also natkadaws, mediums that can foretell the future (or at least pass on what the nats say the future holds). Some of the natkadaws are old women, but at least here they are predominantly (male) homosexuals and transvestites, and much of the novel takes place in this gay milieu.
       The central figures are the aging natkadaw-queen U Ba Si, who is known to all as 'Daisy Bond' (yes: "The name is Bond. Daisy Bond"), and Min Min, the fresh meat s/he bought a few years earlier for 500 kyat, when s/he was 46 and the boy 16. A natkadaw's responsibilities include a grand appearance and show at the Palace, where the offerings are presented to the spirits, and the well-known natkadaws have wealthy patrons that let them do it up in style. Daisy Bond is still a leading natkadaw, and Min Min a fairly efficient manager, seeing to it that everything is properly organized. But Min Min has been showing signs of defiant independence, and when he falls for a poor girl with a beautiful singing voice, Pan Nyo, their relationship grows even more strained, Daisy Bond incredibly jealous (and, of course, worried that s/he's growing old).
       It's a fairly simple story, with much of the short novel devoted to the incidentals around the festival: the very old and devout who still make this pilgrimage every year, the small-time thieves and pickpockets, the politics around the pecking order of those involved in the festivities, and the whole gay scene. Switching perspectives and voices, Nu offers a very colourful canvas, and she's particularly good in presenting Daisy Bond and the life s/he's led. That same life-philosophy, a devil-may-care attitude, is widespread, as several characters enjoy the good life while they can, only to find themselves penniless soon later. Few plan for the future, reveling only in the moment. But it is colourful stuff, as Daisy recalls good times gone by:

Oh, the tales of natkadaw husbands on the sly and rich bitches on the make, the stories of foxy faux-gays and horny heiresses. But sooner or later the money ran out
       Near the end there's also some discussion of the festival itself, as one character notes that during the pre-colonial times the Burmese kings had banned the Taungbyon Festival:
They said that natkadaws were fakirs, that nat possession was a sham.
       Only under the British was it permitted again -- but the British, of course, had an agenda:
They weren't thinking about the happiness of the people or the country at all. No such good intentions. We Burmese were downtrodden and disgraced, enslaved by the British. We hated the Brits, so the Crown sought to create a diversion. They saw how we love festivities and entertainment, how easily we're distracted.
       And so:
The British sought to placate us by using our natkadaws as stooges. They didn't reinstate Taungbyon for natkadaws to cheat people, they reinstated Taungbyon to cheat the country.
       Left unsaid is, of course, that Taungbyon is now going stronger than ever -- and hence that the country is still being cheated. Indeed, though Nu does not criticize the current regime directly, by showing the conditions in Burma even around such an extraordinary event she shows a good deal of how much has gone badly wrong.
       Smile as they Bow is a simple story, but its lack of greater ambition is appealing. Nu Nu Yi's writing is solid enough, and there's enough here to make it more than just a bit of exotica. Hardly remarkable, it's nevertheless exactly the sort of fiction one would hope to see more of from this and other parts of the world, describing local slivers of life without trying too hard to be either 'literature' or to pack specific messages. Winning and worthwhile.

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Smile as they Bow: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Burmese author Nu Nu Yi was born in 1957.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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