The Invisible Ones, by Karel van Loon, trans David Colmer

Burmese days of hope and horror
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The best, maybe only, way to succeed as a defence lawyer in Burma is to lose all your cases. That way the military authorities will smile upon you, and you may not end up being tortured in prison. That, at least, is one moral to be drawn from The Invisible Ones, a timely novel written by a talented Dutchman, Karel Van Loon.

Its protagonist, U Saw Min Thein, is an unambitious sort of mixed Burman-Karen blood from a small town on the Gulf of Martaban, who nonetheless manages to acquire a law degree from Rangoon University. Not one to challenge General Ne Win's dictatorship, Min Thein muddles along until, during the short-lived democracy uprising of 1988, he has the misfortune to secure the acquittal of three clients charged with contacting Karen insurgents.

The local commander does not forget his victory, and once military rule is re-imposed Min Thein is hounded out of Burma to a Thai refugee camp. On the way his wife and unborn child are killed during a night-time army raid on a supposedly safe village in the Karen hills, and Min Thein loses his one good eye.

Hauntingly, he suspects, but cannot prove, that a student sweetheart, the free-thinking Yi Yi Win who once introduced him to James Joyce and Lady Chatterley's Lover, may have shopped him. Her father works as a senior government censor.

Such are the bare bones of Van Loon's narrative. But there are stories within stories. Imaginary lives are pitted against real events, most memorably the murderous shambles of UN Secretary-General U Thant's funereal homecoming in 1974. The tenets and superstitions of Buddhism are drawn with care and warmth; local customs are evoked.

If the effect is sometimes like unpacking a knapsack of its disparate contents, that is curiously appropriate. These fugitives and refugees are adept at extracting maximum meaning from their meagre possessions, and The Invisible Ones, sensitive to the complexities of Burmese life, is as compelling an example of witness fiction as one might hope to find.

It deserves to join the small band of good novels about Burma by non-Burmese: Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma, Daniel Mason's The Piano Tuner and Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, as well as George Orwell's Burmese Days. But the sorrow it bespeaks is compounded by the author's fate. A year ago Karel Van Loon succumbed to a brain tumour, aged 43. His death, like the deaths of so many thousands of Burmese since 1962, when Ne Win inaugurated the tarantula state that continues to this day, was horribly premature.

Justin Wintle is writing a biography of Burma's Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi