Book Reviews


Letters from a Burmese Grandfather

by Randolph O’Hara

2013, 103 pp., 20 x 13 cm., softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-119-9 $12.95
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-119-0

Letters from a Burmese Grandfather

Book review by Dr. Stuart Christie

(The Hong Kong Arts Development Council)

There’s a poignancy and other-worldliness about Letters from a Burmese Grandfather, and not only because of the unfortunate death of this very fine book’s author, Randolph O’Hara, while the work was in production. The narrative is told in the first-person voice from the perspective of an aging Burmese monk living out his final years in an early nineteenth-century monastery. Written in an epistolary format, of letters written to the elderly monk’s grandson, the work blends the imparting of personal Buddhist wisdom with sharp historical hindsight about the early modern history of Myanmar, with the traditional culture based around the ancient capitals of Amarapura and Ava soon to be eclipsed by the ascent of British colonialism after 1824.
   For the general reader, specific ethnographic data about Burman culture will fascinate.
   The benign tone of grandfatherly reminiscence disguises the fact that the addressee of the narrative is not only the grandson but the uninformed reader who is likewise introduced to Burman culture (such as the marionettes, betrothal rites, the dedication of pagodas using specific Buddhist sutras, the ancient festival cycle, the founding myth of Dagon/Rangoon) with a high degree of nuance and detail, a clear testament to O’Hara’s research.
   And the research informing this otherwise gentle (almost lulling) series of letters, would appear to be outstanding, recalling as it does a time when Burman culture had achieved hegemony over regional rivals such as the Siamese, the Assamese, and the Arakanese during the final decades of the eighteenth century. The high-mark of Burmese power saw them over-run the ancient Thai kingdom based in Ayuthaya, and forced the Siamese to found their new capital, Bangkok, further south. The might of the monarchs at Amarapura also instigated subsequent British scheming into local affairs from their own commercial base in northern Bengal (India). O’Hara tacks artfully between historical pith and personal interest, ensuring that the history remains foundational without being>    It is this artful mix of history and solid ethnographic data with an intimate voice that makes Letters from a Burmese Grandfather succeed so well. The letter cycle concludes somewhat abruptly, making one wonder if the author had had sufficient time to conclude the work. But these are minor reservations which in no way detract from the striking and overall success of the narrative in conveying the complex reality of a far-away time with an immediacy and relevance for readers of the twenty-first century.
   Randolph O’Hara’s Letters from a Burmese Grandfather thus humbly consigns his people to the yoke of colonialism, even as the very same tale goes a great length in depicting what was so devastatingly lost in the way of everyday indigenous culture with the defeat at British hands.
   A final word as to the striking production values of the Orchid Press volume. Each letter in the book is introduced via a frontispiece consisting of the reproduction of a painting, or other pictorial representation, roughly contemporary to the historical events the old monk is recounting in each letter. For example, “Letter Thirteen” is introduced by an inset graphic of a stupa, surrounded by supplicants, which we learn is the pagoda enshrining eight strands of hair of the Lord Buddha.
   We here mark the exhortation the old monk makes to his grandson, and take it as our own. O’Hara’s final work is a fitting tribute to his long career as a writer about Asia and, as I suspect, to the specific details of the Burman culture he so clearly cherished. We learn a tremendous amount in this slim volume; even more significant, we are urged onward to learn even more. Happily, Letters from a Burmese Grandfather marks not the end of a writer’s career, or even the search for enlightenment inspired by the letters of an ailing monk. For the living, the letters spark interest in further study and reflection about the traditions of Burma, a delightful foretaste of the feast to come.

Dr. Stuart Christie is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University.

[Read a review from The South China Morning Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]