Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma is a fascinating account of her year in Burma (Myanmar) tracking down the places George Orwell served his time as a British police officer when the country was ruled from Delhi as part of British India.
Orwell spent the five years until 1927 in Burma, first in Mandalay, then a series of location including Myaungmya, Twante, Insein, Mawlamyine and eventually Kathar, the setting of his novel Burmese Days. This is a travel memoir in only the loosest sense; Larkin’s main purpose is to use Orwell as an ideal hook for explaining Burmese history and the state of the nation as of the early 2000s, when it was one of the world’s most repressive and insular dictatorships. She also uses Burma to help explain Orwell’s emergence as a political writer, providing a backgrounder, really, to Burmese Days (published 1934), Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Larkin’s writing is brisk, sharp and colourful — this is a genuine page-turner. Her work really shines, and the brutality of the awful regime is most exposed, when she interviews ordinary Burmese about their lives and beliefs – and Orwell, too, whom Burmese intellectuals have long called "the prophet". Of course, she assiduously protects their anonymity and indeed, Larkin too is a pen name.
As of 2016, things are moving on in Burma. Burma’s first civilian government, led by the National League for Democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi, took power in March this year. Just this week the parliament repealed a law permitting warrantless searches of private homes that ordered residents to report overnight guests. But the path to democracy has been, and remains, a slow and obstacle-ridden one. Burma is opening up, but remains enigmatic to much of the outside world. Finding George Orwell in Burma remains an essential read for those looking to understand the country’s past in order to understand its current state.
If you enjoy this book, be sure to also read Andrew Marshall’s The Trouser People and, of course, Orwell’s brilliant Burmese Days
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