Books: A Lighter Look at Suffering

Amy Tan means well. But she knows that's not enough. So she did what she does best and wrote a novel about her dilemma. "Saving Fish From Drowning" is not your usual Tan story. It's not about mothers and daughters or the Chinese-American experience. Instead, it's a comic novel about an American tour group kidnapped by Karen tribesmen in the decidedly unfunny military dictatorship of Burma. Completely sympathetic to the plight of those who suffer under the dictators, Tan knew when she started the kind of book she did not want to write. "There were books out there that I never would have read about Burma," she said in a recent interview in her New York loft. "Very important books about what was going on. I never would have read them because they were depressing. They start off depressing, and in the middle there's more that's horrible, and at the end there's the complexity of what this horror is like and I'm left feeling, Oh my God, I'm so sad, there's nothing I can do."

Tan gracefully sidestepped that impasse by writing about what happens when colliding cultures misinterpret each other. The Karen kidnap the tourists because they mistake an American teenager who does card tricks for the young god they believe will save them. But it's never so simple as savages versus Western sophisticates. From their mountain hideaway, the Karen engineer their salvation by wangling their own reality television show, "Junglemaniacs!" "Saving Fish" never ignores the suffering that Tan saw firsthand on her own journey to Burma in 2000. The horror is always there, a melancholy counterpoint beneath the comedy that carries the story. Think Evelyn Waugh without the viciousness.

Tan fans will find one welcome reminder of her earlier work in the voice of the narrator. "I knew I wanted an omniscient narrator who could go into the minds of other characters," she says. "I wanted that voice to be smart but not totally self-aware. That eliminated God. Finally I decided on a dead narrator." Bibi, the Chinese-American art dealer who organizes the trip, dies before it begins, and then accompanies the travelers as a disgruntled ghostly witness to their foolishness. "Shortly after my mother died, I decided the voice would be hers: unintentionally funny, totally honest, astute about other people but sometimes blind to her own failings, doing good deeds but wanting the credit." The result is a book that's easy to read and hard to forget.

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