Bibi Chen, the wealthy entrepreneur philanthropist narrator of Amy Tan's gorgeously written, satirical and deeply humane novel Saving Fish from Drowning, is dead—she's not sure, but she believes she was murdered. Yet Bibi, the thoroughly Americanized child of a Shanghai aristocrat and his concubine, still follows along on the Asian tour she'd arranged for her liberal-minded friends, if only as an omniscient spirit. The trip goes on as scheduled; to do otherwise would mean forfeiture of a hefty down payment, as well as the chance, perhaps, to uplift the downtrodden stuck in those exotic, Shangri-la-like places like so many mud-tramping water buffalo.

From the beginning, things don't go well. During the trip's China leg, one of the group is caught urinating in a sacred place. The tourists flee to Burma, where they soon find themselves stuck with a local tribe waiting for the return of their Messiah and ruled by two little children named Loot and Bootie. The situation is ripe for satire: through bouts of malaria, the tourists stay glued to a television powered by a stationary bike attached to a car battery for news of their ordeal as it is broadcast over CNN. The cultivation of an antimalarial plant discovered as an offshoot of the tourists' stay at No Name Place is quickly and savagely suppressed by the Burmese government. And their experiences inspire a reality TV show called "Junglemaniacs!"

But the wacky plot and characterizations are just a scaffolding for Tan's explorations of cultures and histories so foreign to most Americans that they might as well have come out of a fairy tale. Through Bibi's somewhat ironic voice, we're plunged into the weirdness of life among myriad Asian ethnic groups as well as American slackers and quasi-celebrities; the poignant and sometimes dopey good-heartedness of aid organizations and the way Western culture is translated and transmogrified. As in her earlier novels, Tan's intelligence, depth and reach make the reader marvel.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

 

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