Burma’s boy soldiers are the focus of Toni Davidson’s sad but electrifying comeback novel. Kidnapped by the country’s national army Tatmadaw Kyi, these boys are meant to cover the lack of adult recruits. Beaten, humiliated and given guns, the kid militia are forced to raze villages (even their own), causing a tide of broken families and displaced persons.
The title says it all. Its chillingly enigmatic phrase is lifted from a Human Rights Watch publication My Gun Was As Tall As Me: Child Soldiers in Burma by Kevin Heppner who toured the borders of Thai-land and Burma in 2002. ‘This thoroughly researched report details the harrowing and malicious use of children as coerced actors in the theatre of war’, Davidson states in the acknowledgements. Theatre is a good word to keep in mind because what Davidson has written is dramatic, full-scale and alive.
What’s immediately striking is the blend of contrasting climates. The novel opens in the Alps, where the son of a famous humanitarian tries to commit suicide in the snow. Why snow, one wonders. Perhaps it’s to provide a sharp yet comforting alternative to the dangerous heat of the Burmese jungles. Though Tuvol lies down in the same Alpine gully in which his parents once made love, he is rescued, saved by the sharp-tongued, NGO worker Dominique, with whom he falls for and follows to her clinic in Burma.
Parallel to Tuvol’s idealistic and indulgent narrative is a vicious and mystical one. The village in Burma’s Papen Hills is home to twins Lynch and Leer. Robust and intelligent, the long-haired boys had their tongues cut out by their mentally fragile mother. After her death, their stooped father Verlaine raised them alone. Lynch and Leer are delightful. They are constant mirrors of each other, shrugging in unison and speaking with their hands. Davidson focuses on their collective strength: ‘The boys nodded and put their fingers inside each other’s mouths. This was their sign of togetherness. This was what made them the same’. The village sees the twins as supernatural beings, a way of making sense of their deformity.
One day the twins’ playmate Jaffe comes back thin and scarred. Lynch and Leer welcome him home. Jaffe spills his story about the Sa Sun Tay camp: ‘If you cried the guards would come and beat you. If you got beat you would bleed and there was no medicine. Wounds just got worse and some of the kids got really ill. Two died.’ But Jaffe has returned with a plan. Soon a grenade whistles through the air and soldiers emerge from the bushes. As Verlaine grimly concludes: ‘Jaffe, our son, it is now clear returned only to betray us. If you see him slice him with your panga’. Such treachery provides a shocking entry into the cruel manipulation of Burma’s national armies.
Some writers would be reticent in their depictions of violence. Not Davidson. Jaffe’s home-front attack, along with other sadistic episodes, is described with precision and intensity. There is a horrific beauty and sense of choreography in Davidson’s unsparing war visions as he counts the shots: ‘Pewle. And so a cousin was greeted… Pewle. The old man who had begun to lose his thoughts while memories danced … Pewle. The Lew Ya sisters ran loose from their parents…’
Having fled their village, Lynch and Leer and other survivors move towards the city of Mae Rot where Dominique’s clinic is also located. Feeling too tall and wide, Tuvol is uncertain of his purpose at the clinic. He becomes a sympathetic listener to people who have lost everything, including several of their limbs. He holds a grown man, his face burnt in stripes, like a child. When the distressed Lynch and Leer arrive at the clinic, their encounter with Tuvol is filled with shouts, tension and eventually compassion. It’s such a commanding scene that one wishes the book would end there.
Essentially, Davidson has created a forlorn band of displaced people. Though from different backgrounds, his characters have similar tics and traits. Their language can be metaphorical and spiritual, as Verlaine counsels the village kids: ‘This is the forest of things, Le We, it has life in darkness and in day…’ They are also passionate and committed, seen in Dominique’s urgent whispers: ‘Come on, Tuv, concentrate. You have to listen to all this. Why is your head anywhere but here? Aren’t you tired of your own world?’
Tellingly, Dominique also advises Tuvol: ‘Everyone has a role to play. It’s the essence of survival’. It soon becomes apparent that Davidson has not devised characters, but a series of roles. Everyone has a function in his wider political design. Tuvol is the uneducated voyeur, Dominique the compassionate aide, Lynch and Leer the hapless victims, and Jaffe a prime example of the widespread problem. Burma’s wretched history defines each character’s actions and outlook.
If there is a quibble, perhaps the author has tried to tell too many stories. One such character Davidson could do without is Ruess, a radical journalist and Dominique’s former lover whose field notes are inserted within the text. Ruess’s first-person observations track his experiences living in remote villages and are meant to be an example for Tuvol to live by. However, since we never meet him face to face, his scrappy notes are easy to skim past. The narrative feels heavy enough with interchanging accounts from the clinic and from the twins’ village.
Simple subheadings such as ‘Village Life and Death’ and ‘Tuvol in the Tropics’ divide the narrative as the focus swivels from person to person. Minor characters share their stories then disappear. And yet, though the affinity between Tuvol and the twins is the main thread, this is not entirely their story. As the dedication suggests, My Gun Was As Tall As Me belongs to all ‘internally displaced people’ everywhere.
MY GUN WAS AS TALL AS ME
FREIGHT BOOKS, 240PP, £8.99. ISBN: 9780956613592