Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Book review: Saunders novella evokes anti-immigration hysteria in Myanmar and elsewhere

leave a comment »


At first glance, George Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) seems to unfold with the simplicity of a child’s fable: The prose is unpretentious, and the characters are given whimsical, abstract shapes for bodies. There are even drawings interspersed throughout the book to help illustrate the story.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that in this darkly humorous allegory the author is exploring territory much too menacing for books aimed at children: The language used by key characters will resonate with anyone familiar with the malicious rhetoric that emanates from communities in which anti-immigration hysteria has taken root, whether located in the southern United States, northern Europe or western Myanmar.

The book tells the story of Inner Horner, a country with a population of seven but only enough land area to accommodate one person at a time. Each citizen has his or her designated time to occupy the country, while the other six await their turn in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the neighboring country of Outer Horner.

This system has been in place for some time, and as the book opens, cross-border resentment is running high, with the Outer Hornerites feeling that “their country was big, but it wasn’t infinitely big, which meant that they might someday conceivably run out of room”.

They also fear what might happen to their way of life — which “afforded them such super dignity and required so much space” — if outsiders kept demanding bits of Outer Horner.

Tensions increase when, due to an unspecified geological cataclysm, the land area of Inner Horner shrinks to such a degree that it can no longer accommodate even a single person. With three-quarters of an Inner Horner citizen named Elmer suddenly hanging over the border, the Outer Hornerites promptly sound the alarm and move to “expulse” the “invader”.

Saunders plays up the absurdity of the situation, using the outlandish overreaction of the Outer Hornerites to show that immigration issues are never solely about immigration: They are also about nationalism, race, religion, socioeconomics, politics, xenophobia and a host of other interconnected factors, from which immigration cannot be isolated.

The situation on the border quickly degenerates. A particularly angry and vindictive Outer Hornerite named Phil imposes excessive taxation on the “invaders”, and when the victims run out of money, he takes their remaining resources (one apple tree, one nearly dry stream, and approximately 3 cubic feet of dry, cracked soil) and then steals their clothes.

Having, through their own callous actions, ensured the destitution of the “foreign invaders”, the Outer Hornerites only harden their stance.

In one speech Phil says to the Inner Hornerites: “We are a noble people, of ancient lineage, and have a right to live and thrive, whereas you, who would take away our right to live and thrive, I’m not sure about you, I’m not sure that you have not, over the long years of taking advantage of our simple generous nature, forfeited certain rights having to do with your continued existence!”

This is an ominous declaration, and when Phil stages a coup and declares himself president of Outer Horner, he forces his own citizens to “voluntarily” sign, with their eyes closed and their backs turned to the document, a Certificate of Total Approval to sanction his similarly obscure Border Area Improvement Initiative.

The signatories soon find out what the initiative entails: Phase I calls for the internment of the Inner Hornerites in a prison surrounded by barbed wire, which Phil euphemistically refers to as the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure.

“How typical of the Inner Horner mindset,” Phil shouts when the victims attempt to protest, “to be unable to distinguish a jail from a Peace-Encouraging Enclosure. Safe inside the Peace-Encouraging Enclosure, you will be protected from your innate violent tendencies.”

Such internments are not atypical “solutions” for immigration issues: In July 2012, Myanmar President U Thein Sein proposed that the Rohingya be thrown into refugee camps, and AFP later published an eyewitness account of the fearful conditions inside the enclosed Aung Mingalar Muslim ghetto in Sittwe, which has been segregated, Apartheid-like, from the rest of the city.

For Phase II, Phil oversees the restoration of the land that had formerly been occupied by the Inner Hornerites: “At last we are reclaiming our ancient ancestral land, and we want it to look nice!” Phil declaims.

Phase III constitutes the final solution. Phil demands that the Inner Hornerites, whom his father had always said were the “dirt of the world”, be eliminated once and for all: “For us to be at total peace they must be totally gone! Gone gone gone!” Crazed and angry words, yes, but disturbingly near in substance to sentiments demonstrated in countless extremist messages posted on social media in reaction to the violence in Rakhine State.

When his countrymen baulk at perpetrating genocide, Phil urges them on with yet another fanatical speech: “With Inner Hornerites there is no lady, there is no kid, there are only evil, which must be dealt with harsh, before it spread!” By this point his syntax is suffering under his increasingly maniacal outlook.

Without revealing precisely how the situation gets resolved, I will say that the book ends on a decidedly ominous note, indicating that few lessons have been learned from the brief and frightening reign of Phil, that the underlying causes have been swept under the carpet, and that a similar situation is very likely to recur in the future.

In October 2012 the Mizzima website published a story in which the well-known comedian Zaganar was quoted as saying that the work of the government-appointed commission to investigate the violence in Rakhine State, of which he was a member, had been stymied by lack of cooperation from community members “from all sides”.

It is perhaps understandable that the major players in this tragic situation — the government, the Rohingya, the Rakhine — would be too ashamed to discuss their role in the still-unfolding events in western Myanmar, and would likewise be reluctant to have their behavior in this regard scrutinized too closely.

But their silence will only serve to further obscure the underlying tensions, at a time when root causes need to be examined and analyzed by courageous people. This fear of democratic discussion will only ensure that no progress will be made toward an equitable, peaceful solution, and that Myanmar will continue sailing toward a dark horizon where more deadly violence awaits.

Written by latefornowhere

August 25, 2014 at 4:56 am

Posted in Books, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: