The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. Noemi Press, 2018. $15, 112 pages.
In an interview with Entropy for her debut novel The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint explains how one of the nigh-parallel worlds occurring throughout is influenced by “my father’s retellings of U Kala’s Maha Yazawin or Great Chronicle, an early 18th-century canonical Burmese text.” Unfortunately for those who can’t read Burmese (including myself), it remains untranslated. Yet it also remains the scholarly trend to see the Maha Yazawin, in the words of historian Victor Lieberman in his 1986 essay “How Reliable is U Kala,” as “a pastiche of legends, local histories, biographies, and detailed court records” (Lieberman 247). To say The End of Peril is seeded with this composite character would be to walk in the forest of truth. This is not to say the novel is historical, intent on historicity, or can be relegated to a genre. In fact, what Myint understands about these labels—historicity, facticity, genre—is how they accrete to form lived experience. Myint understands the overflowing of the present.
Overflowing is the operative word here, as the story of The End of Peril centers around floods. There are two cities: the titular harbor city and a nameless domed city. The former was founded during what reads as both an ageless and ancient war between a kingdom and “raiders from the north” (Myint 8). They named their refuge hoping the symbolism of its name would echo throughout history. It did: it was the last place the raiders flooded into before the war ended. The survivors of the harbor city would go on to build the domed city, achieving in practice what the harbor city tried in name. The architect of this temple to endurance would steal away with “the daughter of a clan leader, an heiress to a conquered land, a descendant of the northern invaders” (Myint 8) and would eventually be grandfather of the nameless narrator. What prompts the telling of this story is her departure from her childhood home, child in tow, after the dome bursts and water floods in. In that formerly conquered land, The End of Peril, she recalls and lives these layers of historical ironies and symmetries that will continue to lurk in the novel.
That the novel is front-loaded with this genealogy might lead one to plant the flag of Genesis inside. That the novel explicitly mentions the first and second precepts of a Buddhist layperson might lead one to see the other three interlaced within. One could even see Baudrillard’s hyperreality where the Domed City “displayed the moon phases recorded in an old almanac” (Myint 30) and how the narrator, like an automaton, learned the harbor city’s script through a textbook of which “I write in that same font” (Myint 39). And, while all these are evocative, it’s a case of not seeing the trees for the forest. The End of Peril is a death struggle with Susan Sontag’s famous dictum, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (Sontag 10). It is a novel about bodies—politic and individual—being interpreted through their ephemeral “legends, local histories, biographies, and detailed court records” (Lieberman 247). It’s about those same bodies’ struggle to experience this “feel[ing] like young animals” (Myint 17) in a world where both seem to remain endlessly at a distance. It is, like many great novels, a cipher. It is a hermeneutics of an erotics of art.
Hence why the narrator meditating on wearing “my mother’s old clothes when I leave the house” (Myint 39) flashes into the story of “the girl in the red tower [who] was brought food and drink twice a day” (Myint 40). Having only their history to turn to, they turn into their history. This internally folding structure is strikingly similar to a Jacob’s Ladder. It’s the same cascading progress made inert by self-erasure. Yet what does a person made of historical context become when they break free from that context? What, in essence, is development? For both the characters and the reader, the answer seems to be akin to rote memorization. The narrator flees her birthplace as her mother fled her birthplace as her mother fled her birthplace. Each rupture is simultaneously a continuation of the cycle; down to the bones of the novel, the repetition that gives the novel a lurching structure. One can imagine the narrator’s mother wearing her mother’s old clothes when she left. “I became my mother without antecedent” (Myint 85) is the formulation that haunts The End of Peril for its impossible promise of a past-less present.
As is obvious, this is inseparable from the issue of motherhood. And one could say much about mother to daughter inheritance and the transmission of possibilities from one generation of women to the next—from third to fourth wave feminism, say. The narrator reflects that “I was born a girl but my mother’s prayers [for a boy] came true” (Myint 28). Prior to this moment, both the novel’s and ours’, this would have seemed absurd. But this absurdity the narrator takes as facticity where “the choice of gender the baby will one day make is heavy” (Myint 9). Then, as if wrung with anxiety, it widens the scope of choice to explicitly include the baby’s name and implicitly include every namable object in the novel. The only proper nouned object is the titular End of Peril, a name so non-specific and unwieldy that it’s shortened exactly as it has been to be usable for reference. That this heaviness permeates even the reading experience, deceptively smooth, yet potentially anxiety-inducing because of this smoothness, reflects exactly the responsibility of choice in any present moment. “Refrain from taking what is not freely given” (Myint 4), the narrator says recalling a Buddhist precept when naming her baby. How to obey this when each choice is the negation of someone else’s future choice?
For all this reflection that would easily see this as a twinkle in the eye of Simone De Beauvoir, The End of Peril is less erotics than hermeneutics. Which is to say that existence in the novel never resolves the anxiety between naming an object and becoming an actor. The renewal that is promised time and time again through the Baby, this apocalyptic semi-end where “the water rises like the trees had risen in the other city” (Myint 111), arrives. Two promises of the future, the Baby and a baby in the story of the girl in the red tower. Perhaps a meiotic, ceaseless division is the point. Not quite a balance between the two cities, the two mothers, the two stories; closer, perhaps, is the fact that the ash of forest fires contains the promise of growth the flames seemingly destroyed. It’s a precious ecosystem and it makes a reader feel at the edge of who-knows-what, precarious and unsure of the point.
This fact is not conducive to character dynamism. Even an unreliable narrator is, in their way, a prism through which to understand the story. But here there’s an almost binary feeling to the iterations, reiterations, and re-reiterations that makes the novel and its cast feel composite. It’s the difference between the external continuity of an igneous rock and the loose particulate of sediment. Inside the former is a diffused world of crystals while inside the latter is a handful of dust. This is clear even in its accreted nature: the narrator unearths “the lowest level of earth, I think, a cube buried deep” (Myint 82) that is also one of Myint’s published poems from Dreginald. There’s a long history of self-cribbing (dating back, offhand, as early as Kafka) and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s a reminder that there is a fundamental distance between us and this novel, that there’s a distance between the character and the world. A vague incompleteness that also reminds us that a hermeneutics of erotics is still a hermeneutics.
In Thaw Kaung’s 2005 “Two Compilers of Myanmar History,” he points out how U Kala wrote an “’Apology’” as an introduction to Maha Yazawin. “He wanted to illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence,” Thaw Kaung notes, “that great kings and queens…cannot evade death and decay” (Kaung 10). It’s further noted that the Great Chronicle was in fact requested by the Burmese king but “not recognized as an official history” (Kaung 11). A didactic text with official sanction from political leaders (whose historical veracity is irrelevant) will certainly draw comparisons to the Bible in the Late Roman Empire, the Qu’ran in the Ottoman Caliphate. Even, arguably, the Declaration of Independence in Revolutionary America. These tell grand narratives of the rise and fall and rise of empires. They outline a break from the frailty of an old vision to the strength of new convictions. This speaks positively to the ambition of the boldly named The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven. And there is much good to be said about an attempt to render this politico-moral complexity into 112 pages spent in a visceral and unnamed world. But while Myint gives us presence, she does not leave us with that weightiness of inevitable death promised elsewhere. It encroaches on us only in concept. There is much more left to feel, and so much more to name.
Justin Goodman received his B.A. in Literature from SUNY Purchase. His writing—published, among other places, in Cleaver Magazine, TwoCities Review, and Prairie Schooner—is accessible from justindgoodman.com. His chapbook, The True Final Apocalypse, is forthcoming from Local Gems.0