June 23, 2005 | For a book about totalitarianism, Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” contains a surprising number of jokes. Here’s one about censorship, involving a Burmese man who travels abroad in order to see a dentist. “‘Are there no dentists in your country?’ [the dentist] asked the man with concern. ‘Yes, yes, we have dentists,’ the man replied. ‘The problem is we are not allowed to open our mouths.'”
A Burmese friend of Larkin’s tells the joke, as they’re sitting in a tea shop in Mandalay, to signal that their discussion of politics has to come to a close; a couple of men who may or may not be government informers have just sat down at the next table. The scene smacks of the adjective “Orwellian,” and in fact, Larkin’s tea shop gathering is the meeting of an informal Orwell Book Club she starts in Mandalay. Her purpose in Burma, moreover, is to find out more about the writer whom one Burmese scholar calls “the prophet.” As she writes, “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.'”
As jokes go, that last one isn’t very funny, but Larkin’s elegant and breezy book uncovers the truth behind it. “Burmese Days” (1934), Orwell’s savage criticism of British Burma, takes care of the colonial period. “Animal Farm” (1946), Larkin argues, predicted Burma’s “miserable experiment with socialism,” which began with a military coup in 1962 (12 years after Orwell’s death) and quickly turned into a dictatorship that transformed Burma from one of Asia’s richest countries into one of its poorest. And “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) uncannily describes the state of contemporary Burma after the failed people’s uprising of 1988. There’s Orwell’s newspeak in the official description of slavery as “donated labor” and the renaming of government departments, like the military’s transformation into the State Peace and Development Council; there is Big Brother in the form of the omnipresent threat of government informers; there’s the specter of torture and imprisonment hanging over every rebellious word or act. And just as Winston Smith’s job in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is to “vaporize” dissidents from the public record, so it is illegal in Burma to write the name of a person who has fallen out of favor with the regime.
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“Finding George Orwell in Burma”
By Emma Larkin
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Larkin (like most of the names in the book, hers is a pseudonym; foreign reporters aren’t allowed in Burma, and the offense of speaking to one is punishable by imprisonment) is an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia and speaks fluent Burmese. Curious about the five years Orwell spent during his early 20s in the Imperial Police Force in Burma, and convinced that “Orwell had seen something in Burma, had had some thread of an idea, that had worked its way into all his writing,” she follows the path Orwell took 80 years earlier, traveling south from Mandalay to Orwell’s first posting in the delta — “a flat mass of mud and water with rich, fertile soil and the clammy hothouse heat of a tropical swamp” — to the capital, Rangoon, east to Moulmein, where Orwell’s mother was born, and north to Katha, the small town in the foothills that provided the setting for “Burmese Days.” (Burma is now officially Myanmar, and most of the places within it have also been renamed, but Larkin sticks to the old colonial names, to minimize confusion but also, one suspects, as a quiet protest. “By renaming cities, towns and streets,” she writes, “the regime seized control of the very space within which people lived.”) A curious meld of travelogue, political history and biography, toggling between colonial Burma and the present day, “Finding George Orwell in Burma” is both a clear introduction to an oft-ignored corner of the world and a convincing argument that it helped shaped one of the 20th century’s most important writers.
In 1927, on a trip home from Katha, Orwell announced his decision to quit his career as a colonial officer and become a writer. From then on, the formerly gung-ho empire builder who had advocated corporal punishment for unruly Burmese devoted himself to championing the downtrodden. But Burma, Larkin notes, has been given short shrift by Orwell’s many biographers, because so little is known about his time there. None of his letters home survive, he wrote little — besides a few poems and maybe an early character sketch of John Flory, the protagonist of “Burmese Days” — and most of the official colonial records of his employment were destroyed when the Japanese invaded Burma during World War II. But Larkin raises two questions that make her theory truly tantalizing. The first relates to the novella Orwell was planning to write as he lay dying of tuberculosis, called “A Smoking Room Story,” about the seedy underbelly of colonial life in Burma. If the country hadn’t had a profound and lasting effect on him, “why,” Larkin wonders, “after nearly a quarter of a century away from Burma, did he look to the country for inspiration while he lay on his deathbed?”