Sendker, Jan-Philipp. “The Long Path to Wisdom: Tales from Burma”, with Lorie Karnath and Jonathan Sendker, Other Press, 2018.
Folk Tales and Stories
Having lived in several cultures during my life thus far I can tell you that the best way to adapt and learn about a culture is through stories. Jan-Philipp Sendker tells us in “The Long Path to Wisdom: Tales from Burma” that folk tales and stories “can grant us a glimpse into the soul of a people.”
Sendker brings us a collection of Burmese folk stories that help us to understand the beauty and fabric of Burmese culture. The stories transcend time, ethnicity, religion, and geographic borders and shape the culture of Burma through humor and tragedy.
Sendker and his two writing colleagues collected the forty-eight stories during visits to Burma (now Myanmar) over the last twenty years. The stories are for adults and children alike and “incorporate tragic tales of lost children and lost love, of failed revenge and eternal suffering, but also of faith rewarded, justice, love, and happy ever after.” Sometimes the stories’ lessons are clear while others are subtler and some are simply funny. Many of the stories will be unfamiliar but story readers will recognize certain characteristics of all folk stories readers of folk stories and not just in the plots but also in the wisdom they strive to impart. Some of the examples are a story about a town that didn’t lie and there is a story about a monk who struggles between his faith and his family, a boy who has a philosophical argument with a tiger who wants to eat him and a sad story about love lost because of a mix-up. We immediately see that these stories actually mirror some of our stories. Monks play big parts in the stories and culture of Burma and there is a story about a monk’s clever revenge on a dishonest couple. We have a story about nature and a man who, upon seeing the reflection of the moon in his water barrel late one night, desperately tries to rescue it. Faith plays a big part in the culture of Burma and this could explain the respect that is given to monks and their roles in stories. Burma also has a history of “nats” or spirits or gods and they also show the importance of faith.
Author Sendker gives us a lot of background in his introduction and he explains that Burmese people take it absolutely for granted that the stars exert influence over human lives and that there are dates and days that bring luck and others that invite disaster. In fact, the date and time of Burma’s independence celebration in 1948 was determined by an astrologer, as was the overnight decision to switch the traffic direction from left to right in 1970. The nats in these stories are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always powerful.
Sendker shares that he has observed in his visits to Burma that the people have embraced their newfound freedom wherever possible. I find it charming that the world of Burma we read about in the stories is foreign yet familiar. As I read the stories, I was reminded of the Yiddish stories that I grew up with and for story from Burma there is a story just like in another culture. The importance of stories is not just that they entertain but they teach as well.