- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING

By Amy Tan

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95, 474 pages

REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO

Amy Tan’s new novel, “Saving Fish from Drowning,” is proof that we can still retain a sense

of humor about things that have recently fallen into the too-serious-for-joking column: hostages, repressive regimes, even tropical diseases. This is the story of a clumsy and unwitting group of American tourists from San Francisco who find themselves the involuntary “guests” of a tribe of Karen people in Burma, or Myanmar.

The Karen have decided that Rupert, the adolescent son of one of the tourists, is actually the fabled “Younger White Brother” who, in their mythology, is supposed to “make them invisible, with bodies that no bullets could pierce.” The tribe imagines that this semi-deity will help them retrieve lands that had been taken away from them and live forever in peace and safety. It’s all because young Rupert dazzles tribe members with some funny card tricks, and that feat sets off a string of events that ends up with the 11 tourists in a remote, buggy area of the rainforest, isolated from the rest of the country by a deep, dark ravine.

Not sounding particularly funny yet? Amy Tan’s talent is in her ability to paint such vivid portraits that these characters remind you of the talkative seatmate on your last plane ride, the one who commenced to volunteer all sorts of personal information before you even buckled your seat belt. The characters are both cartoonish and realistic at the same time. For instance, there’s Harry Bailley, a dog trainer who hosts a popular television show called “The Fido Files.” Harry prides himself on his communication with animals, a gift that comes in handy at one point with some Burmese who find him abandoned by the side of a road. Harry is in the middle of writing his latest book, “Come. Sit. Stay.” Most of the Burmese speak a very limited English. No matter the circumstances, they tell the Americans they encounter, “Okay. No worries.” It becomes a meaningless refrain. One of the group’s tour guides is Miss Rong (pronounced “wrong”) who has a limited command of English, and no command at all of the dialects that might help her navigate the less-populated areas and avoid danger. She takes the group to the Grotto of Female Genitalia, where she forgets the English words for east, west, north and south. Instead she tells them: “Descend shady side, see temple grotto, ascend sunny side up, return the bus.” It ends disastrously, of course.

Wendy is a lefty do-gooder who imagines that all of the Burmese are trying to whisper her secret tales of torture. When she catches the eye of one woman in a marketplace, she follows her, only to discover that the woman is only offering to change money on the black market. And there’s Heidi, the germaphobic worry wart who brings on the trip an assortment of pills, masks and disinfectants that she hopes will prevent her from picking up some strange illness. It is Heidi who spies at an outdoor market a pile of carp just plucked from the lake. They’re still half-alive, with mouths still moving. She is appalled. The tour guide explains that the Buddhist tradition of fishing involves the idea of saving the fish from drowning. The fishermen “approach the fish with reverence” as they scoop them from the water. The fish, of course, do not recover from this act of kindness.

Dwight, another of the tourists, notes that “saving” the fish is much like what the United States does in other countries, “saving people for their own good.” That they end up dead is an “unfortunate consequence.” These words resonate later in the story.

But before that, there is a whole lot more in the comedy of errors mode: one person accidentally urinating on a small shrine, cultural misunderstandings, a fire that catches onto mosquito netting, dysentery, malaria, couplings. These folks play the fool in a fast-moving series of almost probable moments. Strangest of all is the novel’s setup. Rarely are we given such a detailed picture of the origins of the creative impulse. Amy Tan opens the novel with an apparently truthful tale of stumbling upon a woman who claims to have channeled the ghostly writings of a woman named Bibi Chen. Bibi was a real person, the author writes, who died in a mysterious way several years ago in San Francisco.

Apparently from details she had found in the records of the American Society for Psychical Research, Amy Tan came upon the automatic writing of a medium named Karen Lundegaard. “She had received in fifty-four sessions a rambling story that was part rant, part memoir” from Bibi Chen. The novel is described as “fiction inspired by” the writings. Bibi thus becomes the omniscient narrator, truly omniscient because she not only posthumously views her friends, the tourists, as they take the tour that Bibi had arranged for them, but also because she can read their thoughts and occasionally enter into their dream worlds. It is a clever devise to let Bibi control the story, whether the medium actually did transcribe the automatic writings of a ghost or whether Amy Tan was the victim of a psychic’s clever trick. Who knows? Maybe Bibi was involved in some automatic writing through Amy Tan’s computer as well.

Despite the book’s strengths, it falls apart in the last pages, as we see each of the tourists home and settled in a new, post-hostage life of humdrum and routine. When they are not stumbling through the rain forest or taking videos of picturesque villages, there’s a lot less to care about. Bibi, of course, gets the last word, in a beautiful farewell that in many ways sums up the picaresque feel of this book: “When all the missing pieces of your life are found, put together with the glue of memory and reason, there are more pieces to be found.” “Saving Fish from Drowning” is an entertaining, fast-moving read. Amy Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife” is an adept writer, and this time she gets us to think about cultures, language, love, ambition and spirituality.

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