Thursday, January 7, 2010

Literary Bite: Finding George Orwell in Burma

As you may know, I have been on a bit of a Burma kick (which is actually part of an Asia kick…we have LLC to thank for that!). It started with Amy Tan’s book, Saving Fish From Drowning, and was followed by George Orwell’s Burmese Days, which is a classic of Burma literature. And now we close (for the time being) with a contemporary book, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin.

Starting when he was 19, Orwell spend 5 years in Burma  in the Imperial Police Force of the British Empire. His first book, upon his return, was Burmese Days. And according to Larkin, and many Burmese citizens, all of Orwell’s books were actually about Burma.
How? Well, here’s a bit from the Prologue:
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: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In this book, Larkin travels to Burma and retraces Orwell’s path in an attempt to experience Burma as Orwell saw it, and to learn about how the country has changed since the British Raj.
She interviews people along the way, some who may have had connections to Orwell, and some who are just citizens willing to risk talking to a foreigner (remember that Burma/Myanmar is extremely oppressive – there is no free press, and no journalists allowed).

This book provides rare insights into the current situation in Burma. Larkin is tracked by intelligence, passive-aggressively controlled by the government, and exposed to the desperation of a country with nothing left to lose. 

"We Burmese people are totally content. Do you know why? Because we have nothing left. We have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until there is nothing left."
However, I felt that the book lacked some literary refinement. In reading, it was hard to tell if it was meant to be a travelogue of Burma, a historical study of Orwell’s life, or a literary analysis. And surprisingly, what it wasn’t (even thought I wanted it to be), was an account of personal experiences in modern Burma. Larkin was a key character (obviously), but she frustratingly did not include any information about herself. I get that the book was about Burma and Orwell, but if Finding George Orwell in Burma is an account of interviews and travel, then I need to know a bit about the interviewer/traveler!

Overall though, this book was a really good conclusion to my Burma study. It kind of brought it all together - literature and political history/current situation – in one book. To get the most out of Larkin’s book, I recommend that you read all three of Orwell’s classics (Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984) before picking up Finding George Orwell in Burma. Or at least one of them – definitely Burmese Days.
NPR All Things Considered interview with Larkin
NYT Article: