Emma Larkin

"Finding George Orwell in Burma"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 22, 2007)

"Moulmein loomed ahead of us, a dark mass of low buildings, lit here and there by the occasional lamp. Above them, I could just make out the outline of a high ridge on which a number of pagodas stood decked in sparkling fairy lights. Beatrice and I huddled beneath her umbrella and watched as the town came into focus. Dark box-like shapes gradually turned into closed-up shop-houses with barred windows and padlocked doors. The fringed silhouettes of flame trees appeared along the waterfront."

Emma Larkin--a pseudonym for an American journalist--makes an extraordinary journey in the book Finding George Orwell in Burma. Fascinated by the idea that Orwell was irreversibly shaped by his youthful experiences as a policeman in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, Larkin traces George Orwell’s steps in Burma--a beautiful--yet troubled country. Today, Burma--now renamed Myanmar--is the second largest heroin producer in the world (second only to Afghanistan), and its inhabitants have the lowest income of any country in South-East Asia--even Cambodia. This is really quite extraordinary--especially when one considers the monstrous social upheaval of Cambodia in the last decades of the twentieth century--thanks to the fallout of the Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of one of the world’s most notorious despots, Pol Pot. So what exactly has gone "wrong" with Burma to make this country so poor?

Noting that in “Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the author asks some intriguing questions: did Orwell see something fermenting in Burmese society that predicted--accurately--the rise of today’s totalitarian regime? Did the young, idealistic Orwell’s glimpse at the realities of the British Empire turn him forever against Imperialism? Just what did he experience there? Was Orwell so haunted by his experiences in Burma that even as he lay dying, he turned once more to Burma for inspiration for a fragmented novella?  

Orwell lived in Burma in the 1920s, and worked as a policeman before abruptly returning to England and resigning. During his five years in Burma, Orwell--whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair--was stationed in various parts of the country. According to Larkin, he appeared to be perfect fodder for the Empire. “Everything in Orwell’s background, [however] indicated that he was, almost literally, bred for the Empire.” He was the product of a “long line of colonial families” with Orwell’s father “overseeing the production of government opium crops” in India. Orwell specifically requested a posting to Burma. This was considered a rather odd request at the time as Burma was certainly not a popular choice, but Orwell had several generations of relatives who lived in Lower Burma. Larkin initially visits the police training station in Mandalay where Orwell lived as a probationary officer, and from here she strikes out into the countryside. The narrative weaves together glimpses of Orwell’s early life, and quotes from his novels with Larkin’s encounters with many of the locals. Apparently, the Burmese hold a special affection for Orwell--even though both Animal Farm and 1984 are banned.

This is a remarkable book, loaded with exquisite descriptions of the lush exotic landscape, and it makes fascinating reading for Orwell fans. Not only does Larkin trace a rather obscure period in Orwell’s life, but she also reveals the realities of present-day Burma. It’s a country, she argues, which a tourist could visit, enjoy a pleasant idyllic holiday, and go home without any idea that the Burmese people suffer under totalitarian oppression. This oppression, Larkin argues, is largely “hidden from view” but the country has a vast network of spies, “donated” labour, “forbidden areas” and incredible censorship. As a tourist who gets off the beaten track in the effort to retrace Orwell’s steps, Larkin encounters invasive government suppression and fear repeatedly on her journey. The Burmese people she meets are remarkably stoic in the face of totalitarianism, and as the author details exactly how the present brutal regime attempts to control how its people think, chilling comparisons are drawn to 1984.

One of my favourite chapters covers the author’s visit to an old cemetery in Maymyo--a former hill station “where the British went to escape the heat and dust of the city.” This city makes a “surprise cameo appearance” in Orwell’s novel on the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia, and it’s known that Orwell visited Maymyo twice during his tenure in Burma. Today, the old cemetery remains, and it’s a “desolate place, surrounded by a low brick wall. Many gravestones are broken, and their fragments are scattered around the dry brush.” The cemetery--a remnant of British rule--is emblematic of the scattered reminders of the British Empire that still remain in Burma today--old bits of treasured China, and flimsy well-worn copies of Dickens.   

But this is not, by any means, a depressing book. The people Larkin encounters are quite aware of their country’s machinations when it comes to the subject of thought control, and clearly there is a bright freedom found in the love of literature. The author provides excellent details regarding the various shifts in government--from British colonialism, Burmese independence in 1948, to the current ruling general. Included are Orwell-era details of the disintegration of Burmese society under British rule, the current human rights violations, and the situation with Aung San Suu Kyi. Larkin manages to capture images of the young Orwell--a youth who had yet to evolve into the person who created his later masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984--with the latter book uncannily prophetic in its descriptions. Larkin evokes the most provocative images of Orwell--the origin of the story “Shooting an Elephant”--for example--and posits these moments as those that left indelible moral tracts in his consciousness. But in addition, Larkin successfully conveys the spirit of a people who have suffered--and continue to suffer in a country that appears to be “postcard perfect.”

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About the Author:

Emma Larkin is a pseudonym for an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia, studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and covers Asia widely in her journalism from her base in Bangkok, Thailand. She has been visiting Burma for close to ten years.

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