29 Oct 2007, Comments Off on Emma Larkin: Finding George Orwell in Burma

Emma Larkin: Finding George Orwell in Burma

Author: Helen

Emma Larkin is an American journalist and writer who has visited Burma several times since the 1990s. Finding George Orwell in Burma (first published in 2004) is a travelogue of Larkin’s visit there to follow in the footsteps of Orwell, visit the places where he lived and worked, and even find traces of his extended family.

Burma, of course, has been in the news again- I think you know what I’m talking about, and like many other people I felt ignorant of that insular and secretive country. I picked up this book to educate myself a little, and it was a wonderful introduction to Burma – the sights, the smells, the tea shops, the eccentric anglo-Burmese community, the buildings, the resilient and long-suffering people. And of course, the continual presence of the repressive government. Think Stasiland, perhaps a bit slighter and more easily digested.

What has Burma got to do with George Orwell? You might ask, as I did. Quite a lot, as it happens.

From the Prologue:

Orwell had lived in Burma in the 1920s as an officer of the Imperial Police Force. For five years he dressed in khaki jodhpurs and shining black boots. Armed with guns and a sense of moral superiority, the Imperial Police Force patrolled the countryside and kept this far-flung corner of the British Empire in line. Then, suddenly and without warning, he returned to England and handed in his notice. Just as abruptly, he began his career as a writer. Exchanging his real name, ‘Eric Arthur Blair’, for the pen name ‘George Orwell’… Orwell based his first novel, Burmese Days, on his experiences in the Far East, but it was his later novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four that would turn him into one of the most respected and visionary writers of the twentieth century.
It is a particularly uncanny twist of fate that these three novels effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history. The link begins with Burmese Days, which chronicles the country’s period under British colonialism. Not long after Burma became independent from Britain in 1948, a military dictator sealed off the country from the outside world, launched ‘The Burmese way to Socialism’, and turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in Asia. The same story is told in Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegorical tale about a socialist revolution gone wrong in which a group of pigs overthrow the human farmers and run the farm into ruin. Finally, in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell’s description of a horrifying and soulless dystopia paints a chillingly accurate picture of Burma today, a country ruled by one of the world’s most brutal and tenacious dictatorships.
In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three…

From chapter two:

I met one university lecturer who told me she had tried to put Animal Farm on the syllabus for English Literature students, but the authorities had warned her off: the text was just too similar to what was going on in Burma. A few years ago Animal Farm was serialized on the BBC’s Burmese radio service. For weeks afterwards, Tun Lin told me, Mandalay tea shops were abuzz with attempts to match the animal characters to Burma’s own leaders. Could you compare ‘the Lady’, as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)

I’m sceptical of her thesis that Orwell’s novels sprang from his Burmese experience, perhaps because I’m blinkered by my own school studies of the novels which were firmly based on the assumption that they’re parables of the Russian and Eastern European experience. After all, Ne Win came to power long after 1945-49, when Animal Farm and 1984 were published. It’s a seductive theory though, and it’s served up with many fascinating conversations, places and people in the cities and countryside of Burma— Larkin always walking a tightrope trying to collect material for her book while not bringing trouble or punishment to the people who are her sources.

I recommend this book highly to people who, like me, might want an introduction to life in that mysterious country.
Crossposted at Road to Surfdom

Comments (0)

  • Helen, you gotta read Burmese Days. It’s worth it!

  • phil says:

    Agree with Mark on Burmese Days. I lived there for three years – a more fascinating country you will not find. “Long-suffering” doesn’t begin to describe life for your average Burmese, let alone those unfortunately enough not to be full-blood (such as Anglo-Indians).

    The state-initiated and sponsored violence apart, the whole place is surreal.

  • Helen says:

    Three years Phil! That’s amazing. Yes surreal – that’s the impression I get from this book. Yes, I’ll hunt down Burmese Days.

  • It looks like the author has published the name of her source – “Tun Lin” – if that person is the source of the aspersion casting comments on Burma, they could be victimised for it. Breathtaking thoughtlessness of the kind that Dimitri Shostakovich lamented about Western goodie goodies dropping in and creating mayhem for those they claimed to support – but perhaps I’m wrong and “Tun Lin” is someone else.

  • Helen says:

    I assume it’s a pseudonym, Nick, as she refers to the need for secrecy constantly throughout the book. But I did think that some of the people described, although not named, could easily be identified by their occupation, location and other attributes.

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