Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

“Everything in Orwell’s background, however, indicated that he was, almost literally, bred for the Empire.”

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 Orwell’s steps in Burma–a beautiful–yet troubled country.

Orwell lived in Burma in the 1920s, and according to Larkin, he was perfect fodder 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 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–now renamed Myanmar. 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.

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, Than Shwe. 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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4 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

4 responses to “Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

  1. leroyhunter

    This has been on my list since I read about it (in another review of your about Orwell biography, funnily enough). Happened to spot it while browsing yesterday, a delightful surprise when you find something years (literally) down the line. Looking forward to reading it finally!

  2. Just finished this: an excellent book. She takes a great idea and delivers it really well, but it’s the descriptions of life in Burma now that give the real heft to the book. The spying, the paranoia, the interference: it must be intolerable. Also highlights how closed off the place is, as I know it’s not in a good state, but I knew practically no details about the country before reading this.

    In that context, the stuff about Orwell is almost a bonus. She weaves it into the book so well, and doesn’t overdo it. Loved the final little detail about his Burmese tattoos.

  3. Yes a wonderful book. I remember the scene with the English books which were for sale from street vendors. I knew nothing about the country either, and it really does sound like a miserable place.

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