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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical

Twilight over Burma

Inge Sargent

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Twilight over Burma

Title: Twilight over Burma
Author: Inge Sargent
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1994
Length: 228 pages
Availability: Twilight over Burma - US
Twilight over Burma - UK
Twilight over Burma - Canada
Dämmerung über Birma - Deutschland
Il tramonto birmano - Italia
  • My Life as a Shan Princess
  • With a Foreword by Bertil Lintner
  • Twilight over Burma was made into a film in 2015, directed by Sabine Derflinger, and starring Maria Ehrich and Daweerit Chullasapya

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Our Assessment:

B : fine glimpse of an interesting slice of culture and history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. of Asian Studies . 55:1 (2/1996) Sarah M. Bekker
The LA Times . 6/11/1994 Charles Solomon
Die Presse . 16/4/2016 Clementine Skorpil
TLS . 31/3/1995 MM

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her memoir bears witness to the charm of the Shan people and the destruction of their happiness by a savagely repressive dictatorship." - Charles Solomon, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Erzählt wird hier aber nicht bloß von Unterdrückung und Willkür, sondern auch von einer Frau, die sich mutig und vorurteilsfrei dem Fremden angenähert hat. Neugierig und offen nimmt sie die Kultur und lange Tradition dieses Volkes wahr. Sie erkennt, dass vieles geändert werden muss, engagiert sich in Sozialprojekten und unterstützt ihren Mann bei seinen Reformen, aber niemals spricht sie von Rückständigkeit. Ihr Blick ist nicht von oben herab. Das macht diesen Roman abgesehen von der außergewöhnlichen Geschichte so lesenswert." - Clementine Skorpil, Die Presse

  • "The author evidently endeared herself to her adopted people and helped her husband with his reforms with tact and respect for tradition. (...) The foreword by Bertil Lintner (whose wife is from Hsipaw) contains a useful potted history of the Shan." - MM, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Although sub-titled My Life as a Shan Princess, the autobiographical account Twilight over Burma is, curiously, written in the third person. (The royal 'she' ?) But perhaps this was the easiest way for Sargent -- who, after all, only became 'Inge Sargent' after the events described here, when she married her second husband, her maiden name having been Inge Eberhard -- to approach this very unusual chapter in her life. Indeed, she barely appears as 'Inge' in these pages, referred to instead almost always as 'Thusandi', the Shan name given to her by the local astrologer when she came to live in Burma.
       The story is -- at least in its beginnings -- straight out of half a dozen Disney movies, and it's a bit of a shame that Sargent doesn't milk that for all it's worth. But then the story, of course, does not have a fairy tale happily-ever after outcome, as both Bertil Lintner's Foreword and Sargent's own beginning-at-the-(near-)end, in 1962, in the account proper quickly make clear. Still, what a beginning: Austrian Inge came to Colorado in the early 1950s as a student, and met and fell in love with Sao Kya Seng, a Burmese student at the Colorado School of Mines; when he proposed, she said yes. When the newly married couple arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) by ship in 1954, Sao admits: "I neglected to tell you something about myself". It's kind of a big deal:

I am the Saophalong -- the prince -- of a whole state, a Shan state.
       Yes, he -- and now she -- is royalty, and that of a state -- Hispaw State -- that is one of the largest and most important of the Shan states, roughly the size of Connecticut. While only the second son, Sao had, years earlier, won the election to the position as the obvious candidate, his older brother, had collaborated with the Japanese during the war and was also otherwise unpopular with the locals.
       Sao was also involved in national politics, as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities, one of the two houses of parliament in newly independent and multi-national Burma. When U Ne Win launched a coup in 1962 many political figures were rounded up and jailed; Sao was traveling at the time, so his whereabouts were more difficult to determine, but he was quickly detained as well. While he could get some messages to his wife, he was never seen again, and it is clear he was executed early on. Much of Twilight over Burma imagines his time in detention -- presumably another reason Sargent chose not to write in the first person, an omniscient narrator allowing her to recreate her husband's experiences while he was imprisoned --, with the narrative repeatedly, from the first chapter on, shifting ahead or back to this short period and these experiences. While spread out over the whole narrative, these events are certainly the heart of the story.
       Beyond that, Sargent does also proceed more or less chronologically in describing her experiences in Burma over the decade she lived there, adapting to both her position -- as Mahadevi -- and this new culture (and new languages). The couple enjoyed happy years together, with Sao determined to better the life of his subjects, through advances ranging from land reform to the importation of farm equipment. From descriptions of travel in the area to Thusandi's own efforts to improve the life of the locals by organizing a Maternity and Child Welfare Society and various interactions with locals and visitors, Sargent also offers a decent picture of Shan life at the time. There's also the occasional nature-related excitement -- a python, a nest of cobras -- as well as matters such as the heat, the annual water-festival, and local religion (Thusandi has some difficulty embracing Buddhism, right from the first of the Four Noble Truths: "Life is suffering. Thusandi rejected this tenet as pessimistic and negative") and the practice of meditation (which it also takes her a while to get into).
       It is a somewhat selective memoir. Sargent occasionally mentions her Austrian past and family, but these are just stray bits and pieces; her mother is present in Burma when the couple's child is first born, but barely rates a mention beyond that fact. (Some of the little bits of Austriaca that slip in are amusing, from Sao calling his wife 'Liebling' to mention of a pet German shepherd named Senta.) Somewhat episodic, much more detail-matter (in getting from point A to B) would have been welcome, especially about day-to-day life, but Twilight over Burma does give a decent general impression of the place and times.
       Sao's political activity could also be explained in greater detail, though of course it is easy to get bogged down in the political wrangling of the times -- complicated by the many nationalities in Burma and their different interests. Once the dictatorial U Ne Win takes power Sargent does present a closer look at the turn for the worse the nation takes and the hardships she had to deal with, including during the (remaining) family's time in Rangoon after Sao's disappearance. Among the disturbing/amusing anecdotes is how the authorities kept watch over her -- including:
     Her phone calls were monitored more carefully. Conversations in Burmese and English met the approval of the censors, while those in Shan and German were crudely interrupted with the statement "You must speak a language we can understand."
       If sadly there's little suspense about the fate of Sao, there is some about how Thusandi can escape from Burma -- in particular, how she can obtain an exit permit for her daughters, who are officially Burmese.
       A bizarre twist, too, comes in the person of renowned Austrian psychiatrist Hans Hoff, who had U Ne Win as a patient. In his Foreword Bertil Lintner describes a scene not found in the memoir -- which ends (apart from a brief Epilogue) with the family's departure from Burma in May, 1964 --, when Sargent hopes to confront U Ne Win when the dictator visits Vienna in 1966 to undergo more intense treatment under Hoff. In the memoir itself then Sargent also describes trying to get in touch with Hoff earlier, while still in Burma -- and receiving a letter from him when he is there, cruelly telling her: "The general has assured me that Sao is well and that two orderlies have been assigned to take care of all his needs" -- a complete fabrication, of course. (If U Ne Win was willing to lie to his therapist -- well enough to completely convince him, apparently -- about something like this, then it's no wonder the sessions didn't help much .....)
       It is perhaps understandable that Sargent focuses so much on the tragic fate of her husband, but it is a shame that there's not more about their life together during the happy years they were together -- or, indeed, more even just about their courtship. As is, Twilight over Burma is very much only a memoir of a slice of her life (and one oddly removed from many of its significant contexts, with little mention of other family or friends), for the most part also more observed than lived. Though it feels quite personal, that's really only a surface feel; as her choice to write in the third person suggests, Sargent is guarded about a great deal; she covers that up well here, but ultimately really reveals far to little about her 'life as a Shan princess'.
       Nevertheless, Twilight over Burma is an often fascinating account of this slice of the world at this time, including offering some insight into just how complicated the post-war (artificial) Burmese state (and its politics) are, all quite engagingly written.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 July 2020

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Twilight over Burma: Reviews: Twilight over Burma - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Inge Sargent was born in Austria in 1932.

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