Golden Earth: Travels in Burma
By Norman Lewis


Golden Earth is not a good book. It is not even an excellent book to while away long summer afternoons with. Instead, it transcends the genre of travel writing to assume its true place amongst the great literature of the last century. Reading anything by Lewis is always a quasi-religious experience. With a few well-crafted words and a humane lightness of touch that most authors dream of achieving, he transports you to worlds so strange and different that you find yourself compulsively turning pages until you close the book with a contented sigh. He writes with a degree of fluency and wit that makes writers like Thoreaux and Chatwin seem pedestrian by comparison. It's criminal that his name isn't better known and that his books aren't on any school syllabus. As a writer, he seems to lack the ability to write a bad phrase and even when describing the most horrendous of experiences he writes with breath-taking confidence. One reviewer described his writing as, '...an absolute mastery of concise communication, rejecting of the modern malaise of frippery, affectation and redundant usage. Through a self-effacing eye he draws only details most vivid, and his penchant for the singular circumstance rivals that of any clandestine agent. And all this set off here and there with trace elements of irony and understatement.'

This book was first published in 1951 and describes the author's travels and tribulations around Burma - a country that even today lies shrouded in mystery and intrigue. At this time the world was changing rapidly - the People's Republic of China had just come into existence and there was much talk of a 'bamboo curtain' being thrown around much of Asia. Fearing that much of the region would soon vanish into obscurity and red-tape Lewis set off to see this part of the world for himself.

Burma, "...as a dark stain into the midnight sea," captured with its regal pagodas, oriental crowds, fishermen and monks appears to be a magical place. Recently independent yet still quaintly colonial, it's a country of striking contrasts. Lewis's reflections are almost poetical as he wanders this strange land. "The swan like movements of white robbed Vietnamese girls floating in bicycle" whilst Buddhas studded with diamonds appear to him to be "seated uneasily on the back of a tortoiseshell hairbrush".

Perhaps the greatest delight in this book is that whilst Burma is so mysterious and fantastically different (three-day festivals of dance and puppetry are held to celebrate a son entering a Buddhist monastery whilst railway officials share communal baths and call each other 'old boy') Lewis remains unflappably calm. He is the traveler we would all like to be: he is knowledgeable, witty, worldly-wise, deeply interested in real people, unshakable and capable of being very, very funny. Even when wracked with malaria and skulking around the jungle looking for communist insurgents (purely for fun you understand), the ability to present Burma as a wondrous place never deserts him. Other writers might labor the deprivation and squalidness of the traveling conditions but Lewis not only seems to rise above it but actually embraces it and displays a sang-froid which is both (intentionally) comic and moving. For example, when hunting communists with his host deep in the jungle, he is forced to camp rough deep in the trees. The enemy is close at hand and everyone is nervous. Dryly he notes, 'woke up in the night to gun-shots...was only our guard blowing one of his toes off. Slept well the rest of the night.'

The rest of Lewis' travels, by boat, bus, government truck and train take him deep into the country's soul. When not describing the many fabulous pagodas, learning sufficient Chinese to order food ('the waiter was very impressed. He asked me where in China I was from...') or poking around the native markets, Lewis tries to bring together, in a most readable form, the many strands of Burmese history and explain the best way of being speared alive (apparently one needs to accept this with stoic calm for if the spear misses all vital organs then a slow lingering death results) and the ancient art of blessing buildings by burying people alive in the foundations. Lewis at this point wonders, quite correctly, if anyone ever avoided this most barbaric form of sacrifice by saying: my ghost will not want to hang about and protect my murders if you intern me in the foundations. He never quite gets to the bottom of this strange, yet widely practiced custom, but never shies away from digging out more evidence of its practice.

Clearly Lewis has a deep-felt affection for Burma and his portrait of the country is one of compassion and respect. Not a single phrase in this wonderful book suggests anything apart from an overwhelming sense of blissful content. Unlike many other travel books, where the author wishes you to marvel at his pioneering spirit or ability to delve deep into emotional reserves, Lewis paints a true and honest picture of Burma and its people and remains true to his stated desire of producing 'revealing little descriptions' and thinking of himself as 'the semi-invisible man'.

Lewis' book is essential reading for anyone who aspires to write, travel or understand the world in a deeper context. His breathtaking clear prose and deep love for his subject leave the reader profoundly moved. This is the standard against which all travel writing should be judged. 

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1999 Myriam Grest Thein