Ms. Tan’s first “political” novel is unfortunately not nearly as successful as either The Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Presumably intended as a political satire, Saving Fish From Drowning is the tale of a group of hapless well-to-do American tourists who get kidnapped by a hidden village of Burmese peasants, and the cross-cultural misunderstandings that erupt on both sides. The tale is narrated by the ghost of 60-something Chinese-American socialite and art patron Bibi Chen, who was to have guided her friends on their tour of China and Burma (now known as Myanmar) but was found murdered on the eve of the trip. The friends decide to go anyway, with Ms. Chen’s spirit watching over them and occasionally intervening on their behalf, and with their liberal American ignorance of the rest of the world fully loaded with the rest of their luggage. Bibi’s murder is entirely incidental to the story, except that it provides us with an exotic storyteller–an awkward formula right from the beginning, I felt.
The tour group includes one teenager whose love of card tricks captures the attention of a lookout for the tribe, a pseudo-Christian cult which has been looking for the return of their Younger White Brother ever since a card shark and shyster turned himself into the village’s God many years earlier, before disappearing. Their hope is that this new “God” will channel power to turn the village invisible and enable them to escape the Burmese secret police which is hunting them as a “rebel force.” Tan’s improbable plot unhappily brought to mind a silly Carl Hiaasen romp dressed up as political commentary, and her characters are largely caricatures, perfect for poking fun at but hardly engaging.
The story is mildly entertaining, but Bibi’s periodic divergences into the political situation in Myanmar, Chinese history, and such are heavy-handed, as if Tan couldn’t decide whether to write a political diatribe or a slapstick comedy. As it turns out, it was both–and neither.