(Published in the Business Standard, November 12, 2010)

At the height of Stalin’s rule, Mikhail Bulgakov was learning an aspect of the craft of writing that is rarely taught in creative writing courses today: the art of outwitting the censor. This practice, well-known to all writers who live under dictatorships, could lead to bizarre leaps of creativity.

In his 1925 Heart of a Dog, for instance, Bulgakov created the tale of a scientist who transplants human organs into the body of a dog called Sharik, who then becomes more and more human as the book unfolds. The donor of the organs is a drunk called Chugunkin; this was considered bold nomenclature on Bulgakov’s part, because Chugunkin translates as “iron”, which was seen as a reference to Stalin (“man of steel”).

In a similar vein, consider one of the most famous literary controversies in contemporary China. In 1978, the poet Bei Dao wrote a poem that contained these lines: “Life. The sun rises too.” Chinese officials spent a great deal of time analyzing and dissecting these lines—were they a reference to the “red sun” of Mao Tsetsung? If so, Bei Dao was being deeply critical of Mao; if not, it was just another innocuous poet’s metaphor. The journal founded by Bei Dao, Jintian, was shut down in 1980, when Beijing decided it had had enough of dealing with potentially subversive lyricism.

Just a few months before Dawa Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her 15-year term of house arrest in Myanmar, where the regime has held ‘The Lady’ in effective imprisonment, there was a small, sad but heartening news story in the Burmese press. In July, an unnamed 14-year-old boy was arrested in Rangoon for hawking copies of Suu Kyi’s Freedom From Fear, which is banned in Burma. He was also selling a book by pro-democracy dissident Win Tin, who was imprisoned for 19 years and wrote about his experiences in, “What’s that? Human hell?” which was promptly banned on its release.

The boy’s fate is unknown; but the reports of his arrest pointed to the fact that the military dictatorship in Myanmar has been unable to suppress the appetite in the country for the writings of Suu Kyi, Win Tin and other writers, like Pascal Khoo-Thwe.
Khoo-Thwe and Aung San Suu Kyi have never veiled their writings. Khoo-Thwe’s Land of Green Ghosts is, like so many other works of Burmese literature, not available within Myanmar. His account of the history of Burma was a straightforward narrative, uncensored and open. Suu Kyi’s hard-hitting and mesmerizing Letters From Burma were written for a Japanese newspaper, and has been in print since its 1998 publication in the West. Along with Freedom From Fear, it is one of the most celebrated and revered “missing” books in Myanmar, and despite the efforts of the military junta, samizdat copies continue to circulate.

The history of her father, General Aung San, and his writings, have been more fraught. In the 1990s, references to Aung San began to be edited out of the country’s textbooks: the second weapon of dictatorships and military regimes, after censorship, is erasure. Editing textbooks is a classic way of manipulating history—do it for two generations, and you have succeeded in changing a country’s memory of its own past.

Among the list of guidelines handed down to Burmese printers and publishers in 1975—guidelines that continue to dictate what may and may not be published—is this blanket provision: “Any incorrect ideas or opinions which do not accord with the times.” Put that together with the prohibition on publishing “anything detrimental to the Burmese Socialist Program”, and that leaves very little in the way of “acceptable” writing.

In this climate, censorship becomes a theatre of the absurd. Travelling in Burma, Emma Larkin writes in Secret Histories of the wry joke about George Orwell’s “Burmese books”. Intellectuals and scholars jest that Orwell didn’t write one novel about the country but three—Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.

Give censors a free hand, and as in Stalin’s time, the absurdities begin to take on a bizarre life of their own. One of the more famous cases of censorship cited concerns an anthology of short stories published in the 1990s. This was a volume of stories put together in tribute to the writer MoMo (Inya), who had died in 1990. On the cover was an image of MoMo’s head, embossed on a gold medallion. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Though none of the stories in the anthology in MoMo’s honour concerned Aung San, the publishers were directed to cover up the image of the medallion. The regime feared that readers would be reminded of Aung San’s Nobel win—and so the book was finally published, with a strip of gold paper pasted over the features of the writer it honoured.