Thursday, October 18, 2007

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 06 Mar 2006

Pages: 304

Genre: Non-fiction, travelogue, Politics, Burma

The condition of Burma, especially after the military crackdown on its revered monks in 1998 and more recently, a few of weeks ago, is a running sore on the face of democracy. Interestingly enough George Orwell seemed to know what was in store for Burma's future way back in 1948 when he wrote his dystopian novel "1984", or so Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) an American journalist seems to theorize in her travel memoir, "Finding George Orwell in Burma"

Larkin uses Orwell's book "Burmese Days" ( a fictional story but based on his experiences in Burma as a policeman in the British colonial service). to guide her through modern Burma (1995). She visits the same places that Orwell did collecting testimony from average Burmese laboring under a totalitarian regime and finds it, well, Orwellian.

In Burma there is always the feeling that you're "being watched", your conversations taped and your movements tracked.
Political dissidents disappear completely, their names and lives simply vanishing from historical records. The State's brutal physical force includes torture, rape,beatings, forced relocation, destruction of villages and forced/slave labor. It also manipulates the emotional life of the Burmese people... its psychological power is so fierce that fear,paranoia and self-censorship threads through every conversation and gesture. All this makes George Orwell something of a prophet and Larkin is convinced (as are other Burmese citizens) that Orwell did not write just one book ("Burmese Days") about Burma's police state, but a trilogy that also includes Animal Farm and 1984.

Although Larkin uses Orwell's writing as a narrative hook, her book could easily stand alone as a travel, social and political commentary on modern Burma. Larkin's prose is quite wonderful and full of delicious observations of the Burmese people... their love of books, the tea shops where they gather to converse amid steaming cups of chai, their love of the cinema . We are treated to wonderful images of sugarcane juice vendors squeezing fresh cane through a mangle; people making daily visits to the neighborhood pagoda,where colorful shrines draped in garlands and candles dot the base of the building; market alleyways stacked high with multicolored longyis, silks and terracotta trunks and so much more, but the colorful images are lures as Larkin delivers a bracing dose of reality on the police state that is Burma.

(Burmese women traveling in a train)

Boy Monks in Burma
pic courtesy Asian Explorer

This book is a must-read for people interested in Burma. Thank you, Sanjay, for recommending it to me.

Update: I just heard from Penguin USA that Larkin is the guest author on their Blog this week. She recently returned from a couple of weeks in Burma and is writing about her experience and observations on the Buddhist monk protests and other Burma/Myanmar military regime crackdowns.

You can find her posts here

(I've closed comments because we recently discussed Burma and the Saffron Revolution here)