Finding George Orwell in Burma
Something happened to a young English policeman in 1920’s Burma that transformed him from Eric Blair, a representative of the British Empire, into the writer George Orwell (1903-1950). In Finding George Orwell in Burma, American journalist Emma Larkin recounts her attempt to discover it. Between 1995 and the spring of 2003, she traveled several times in Burma, now called Myanmar, conducting interviews, tracking down records, sightseeing, and observing the culture of that nation. The results of her quest to learn about Orwell’s transformation were inconclusive, but she reached a disquieting conclusion about the ruling military junta in Myanmar: It behaves like the single-party dictatorships described in Orwell’s satirical fable Animal Farm (1945) and dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). A mixture of anecdote, history, reportage, and literary sleuthing, her presentation is at times impressionistic and tangential yet nonetheless is effective in portraying Myanmar as a brutally repressed nation.
“Emma Larkin” is a nom de plume, and for good reason. The Myanmar government dislikes international attention. Tourists are welcome; journalists are not. Larkin pretends to be sightseeing. Just being a foreigner there automatically brings one under suspicion, especially if, like Larkin, one does not participate in a government-approved tour program. She was followed and harassed by the police and military intelligence. Worse, any Burmese people detected talking openly with a foreigner are risking their freedom. Larkin’s pen name is an attempt to protect her in-country sources from government reprisal.
These sourcesamong them guides, students, officials, small business owners, writers, housewives, retirees, book dealers, professionals, waiters, clergy, groundskeeperswere almost universally hesitant to speak. Many finally did, a testament to Larkin’s talent for drawing out people. In listening to their stories, she heard an astonishing mixture of insight, fear, confession, and bitter humor. For example, upon asking a prominent academic about Orwell, he replied, “You mean the prophet!” Another joked, darkly, that in Burma Orwell’s books Burmese Days (1934), Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four are considered a trilogy that depicts the Burma’s pre- and post-World War II history.
Larkin takes the trilogy joke seriously. Throughout her book she compares the policies and actions of the Myanmar government to passages in the novels. Such comparison is, of course, selective and polemical when applied to the last two novels. For Burmese Days it is historically appropriate: Based upon Orwell’s experience as a district policeman from 1922 to 1927, it tells a story of British racism, control of the Burmese, and decline while the colonial administration ruledthat is, before the Japanese invasion.
Animal Farm, on the other hand, satirizes the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Nineteen Eighty-Four concerns the individuality-crushing power of single-party tyrannies in general. To see Burmese history in these last two novels is entirely a matter of applied literary interpretation. Still, one cannot help admiring the Orwellian reversal of Larkin’s approach: She goes looking for Orwell in Burma, and finds Burma in Orwell. The irony does not achieve the caliber of “Freedom is Slavery” (Nineteen Eighty-Four), but it will do.
In modern Burma, freedom is slavery, in the sense that “slavery” is unquestioned obedience to the military junta’s rule, which provides the “freedom.” Myanmar’s record of human rights abuses is among the most dismal in the world. Larkin makes clear the tools of enslavement on which the military relies: the distortion and haphazard application of laws (the “rubber band” is what Burmese call their law code); pervasive, unexplained censorship; outlawing or harassment of opposition parties; torture and jailing of political prisoners on the slightest pretext; forced unpaid public labor, including that by children; staged military-friendly demonstrations by government employees; the rewriting of history; systemic discrimination...
(The entire section is 1723 words.)