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Everything Is Broken – Book Review

There is a Burmese phrase that perfectly described the limited amount of aid being delivered after the cyclone versus the enormity of the need: As the phrase goes, it was like tossing sesame seeds into the mouth of an elephant. – from Everything is Broken, page 46 –

The willingness expected of a soldier is encapsulated in the Burmese expression that a cup must be filled with water even if it is cracked or broken. As a Burmese man explained to me, “If a commanding officer says, ‘Get me a cup of water,’ the soldier must fulfill the order, whether or not the cup is broken. There are no excuses.” – from Everything is Broken, page 143 –

In May of 2008, a Category 4 cyclone dubbed “Nargis” reached the coast of Burma and charged through the Irrawaddy Delta (a flood basin for Burma’s main river). Hundreds of farming and fishing villages which were home to thousands of people were devastated. In some cases, 90% of the people living in a village were killed. But it was not the storm itself which shocked everyone, but the response of Burma’s government.

In neighboring Thailand, the U.S. government had loaded a C-130 cargo plane with lifesaving relief supplies that would have taken just under an hour to reach Burma, but the craft was not given clearance to land at Rangoon’s airport. The United Nations World Food Programme had three planes ready to fly in from Bangladesh, Thailand, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The planes were loaded with vitamin-fortified biscuits for hungry survivors who may have not been able to eat for some days and would be in need of instant nourishment. These biscuit-laden planes were also denied clearance. A flight from Qatar carrying relief materials and aid workers managed to land at Rangoon airport but was immediately forced to take off again without unloading any of its contents. – from Everything is Broken, page 8 –

The Burmese government denied foreign aid in the critical weeks following the storm – a time when most experts believe people might have been saved. Instead tens of thousands perished. Even when aid was allowed into the country, the regime restricted the movement of aid workers into the hardest hit areas, allowing only untrained Burmese employees to distribute supplies and provide assistance to the people in the Delta area.

Burma is controlled by a military regime headed by Than Shwe, an uneducated village boy who rose through the ranks to become the country’s top leader. Fueled by the need for complete control over its people, the Burmese regime ignores human rights, restricts freedom of speech, quickly eliminates any organized protests, and imprisons anyone who dares stand up against its actions.

Emma Larkin has been traveling to Burma over the last fifteen years. She writes under an assumed name to protect her contacts there. In Everything is Broken, she reveals the history of the Burmese government and how that history impacted the response to cyclone Nargis. Not only does Larkin cover the nationwide uprising against the government in 1988 (where soldiers shot into crowds of people killing an estimated three thousand citizens), but she also takes a look at the events of September 2007 when a mass protest by Buddhist monks ended in a government crackdown where monks and citizens were beaten, killed and imprisoned – made more shocking because of the revered status of monks in Burmese society. She also introduces readers to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Noble Peace Prize winner (1991) and Burmese opposition party leader (she won the general election for Prime Minister in 1990 but has never been allowed to serve), who has spent most of the last twenty plus years under house arrest because of her political stance.

But perhaps the strongest element of Larkin’s reportage is when she illuminates the people and culture of Burma. In the months following the storm, Larkin managed to travel through some of the most devastated areas. She spoke with villagers who had lost everything, and recorded their stories. She experienced first hand the grief and loss.

The dead had become indelibly etched into people’s memories and onto the landscape. The bodies of people and carcasses of farm animals that floated in the waterways during the weeks after the cyclone had now sunk beneath the surface, but at low tide the waters would recede and reveal anonymous piles of bones slick with the fertile, alluvial mud of the delta. – from Everything is Broken, page 196 –

In a country where speech is controlled, and even the peoples’ memories of events are rewritten, Larkin’s dedication to giving voice to the people of Burma is moving. The Burmese government does not allow for collective memory because to do so might give the people power to rise up. Larkin eloquently writes of the effect this silencing has on the Burmese people:

By maintaining a effective gag order on all public forums, the regime ensures that there is no space for any collective remembrance. Only the regime’s version of the truth remains to be seen or read. As a result, recent historical events – no matter how earth-shattering or all-consuming – are remembered only in private. Because people cannot compare their experiences easily or openly, past events become distorted and intensely personal. In isolation, these memories evolve into the kind of twisted secrets that can end up breaking people. – from Everything is Broken, page 219 –

Larkin is a gifted writer who writes with sensitivity and authority about a country which is divided by the moral, nonviolent principles of the Buddhist tradition, and the intensely oppressive rule of the government. The contrast between these two aspects of Burmese society is stunning. Larkin captures the beauty of the culture and the gentleness of the people of Burma in her narrative. Everything is Broken is not simply a summary of Burma’s history, but it is an exploration of a people who are still struggling to find hope in a broken society.

In a society where nothing can be taken for granted, distorted truths, half stories, and private visions are, by necessity, woven into the popular narrative of events. Burma is a place where the government hides behind convoluted smoke screens. It is a place where those who sacrifice themselves for their country must go unrecognized and can only be lauded or remembered in secret. It is a place where natural disasters don’t happen, at least not officially, and where the gaping misery that follows any catastrophe must be covered up and silenced. In such an environment, almost anything becomes believable. – from Everything is Broken, page 258 –

Everything is Broken is a difficult book to read. It uncovers the suffering and desolation of a country and its people. But it also offers up the beauty found in Burma – the beauty of an ancient culture, of the people who find ways to keep going in spite of the oppression, and of the stories of redemption and hope which cannot be silenced. Emma Larkin’s book is a must read for those who want to know the truth about Burma and its people, and for those who do not want to close their eyes to the injustices in the world. Eloquent, marvelously crafted, and expertly researched…Everything is Broken is highly recommended.

Read my TLC Book Tour where I provide video and links to websites, and a call to action re: Burma.

Read other reviews of this book:

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher through a TLC Book Tour for review on my blog.

10 Comments

  1. June 9, 2010    

    I once saw a movie called .. Rangoon? I must have been 15 or younger. Not sure. But I remember feeling very affected by it. I fell in love with Burma and its people, and for the first time, understood what was happening there. It’s so gut-wrenching. Staying in India, we hear Burma on the news almost every day. I didn’t notice this book yet, but I’ll adding it to my must-read list. Lovely review!

  2. June 9, 2010    

    I love to read books like this, even though I find them disturbing. I think it’s important to read them, though.

  3. June 9, 2010    

    I mentioned this on another tour stop of this book, but the situation in Burma sounds a lot like what’s going on in Sri Lanka, especially after the massive tsunami that destroyed the area. Sri Lanka is also an area of political unrest, and it’s people are marginalized and neglected in some of the same ways that you describe the Burmese. I think I am going to have to read this book. It sounds like I could learn a lot and it also might tie in with the information I have been reading about some other surrounding areas. Great review!!

  4. June 9, 2010    

    I read about Aung San Suu Kyi in my masters classes. I am glad that another book is bringing light to her struggle and her strength-and that of the people in Burma. Thanks for the great review.

  5. June 9, 2010    

    Brilliant review! It was so well written and informative. What a tragedy … and what a pity that this horror seems to “fly under the radar” so to speak … I can’t say I’ve heard ANYTHING about Burma ever. (Not that I’m the most informed person but still .. you tend to hear about things like this). It sounds like a very difficult read … but a necessary one.

  6. June 10, 2010    

    Aths: I’ve heard that Burma is beautiful. I thought Larkin captured the beauty of the country through the culture of its people. It is so difficult to read books like this, but I also think they are important.

    Kathy: I (of course) agree!!

    Zibilee: Yes, I think the comparison to Sri Lanka is apt. I don’t know if you’ve read The Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman – but it is set in Sri Lanka and is an excellent novel which made my top ten for 2009 list. It specifically looks at human rights issues around women…

    Jen: You’re welcome. The videos I watched of her were so moving – she has this very zen-like quality about her. I couldn’t help but think how different things would be in Burma if the government followed the will of the people and allowed her to lead them.

    Jenners: Thank you! I was also pretty much ignorant on what was happening in Burma until very, very recently…it has made me want to learn more.

  7. June 10, 2010    

    What a fantastic review, Wendy. You said everything I wanted to say but so much better than I did! I agree – this book is fantastic and a total must read.

  8. June 11, 2010    

    Thanks, Heather…but don’t shortchange yourself – your review was great! I agree – a must read.

  9. June 17, 2010    

    This sounds like a truly haunting book, one that is definitely worth reading.

  10. June 20, 2010    

    Heather: It *is* haunting…it disturbed me, but I’m glad I read it.

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