In Finding George Orwell in Burma
, American journalist Emma Larkin travels to Myanmar in an attempt to unlock a real-life mystery involving legendary British author Orwell, from whose mind sprung literary classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four
and Animal Farm
. First published in 2004 by Penguin Press, Larkin's odyssey is one of full of beauty and terror, toil and adventure, and, ultimately, discovery and frustration.
The riddle at the heart of Finding George Orwell in Burma
surrounds Orwell's time spent in British-controlled Burma during the 1920s. At this point in his life, he was not a writer named George Orwell, but a Burmese-stationed policeman for the British Empire who went by his birth name of Eric Blair. After Eric Blair returned to England five and a half years later, he became George Orwell, a writer of noted conscience and humanity—two qualities not immediately associated with imperial police officers of his time. What, Larkin asks herself, inspired this transformation, this absolute revolution of character? Between 1995 and 2003, she makes several trips to Myanmar (present-day Burma) to try to find out.
The book opens with Larkin beginning her quest. As she asks an old Burmese academic if he knows of Orwell, he does not answer at first. After Larkin, who speaks fluent Burmese, explains in more detail, the man's face lights up. "You mean the prophet!" he says.
For those brave enough to say it in a police-state like Myanmar, George Orwell, Larkin discovers, was
something of a seer. Some of his most famous books chronicle the brutality of police-states—decades before Myanmar descended into one itself.
Ostensibly, Orwell wrote only one book about Burma, entitled Burmese Days
. Published in 1934, it was a novel about a man caught up in the corruption and bigotry of colonial Burma. Unlike many colonial-themed works, it did not portray the British as saviors but as destroyers of a distinct people and a distinct way of life. It was Orwell's first novel. But in Burma, Larkin writes, "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
." The last two are set in autocratic police-states that look eerily similar to the country Burma eventually became. "I began to imagine that Orwell had seen something in Burma, had had some thread of an idea, that had worked its way into all his writing," Larkin writes.
Larkin wants to know what inspired Orwell's transition from hardline Imperial Police Force patrolman and representative of the British Empire to the era's most outspoken literary voice on social injustice. She conducts interviews with a variety of Burmese sources, including tour guides, government officials, business owners, writers, booksellers, and clergy members, among others. All of them are reluctant to speak out of fear of punishment by the government. She searches out public records documenting Orwell's time in Burma. She becomes an astute cultural observer of the nation, its people, and its policies.
And she does all of this work under the guise of sightseeing. Since Larkin is a journalist, she is already suspect in the eyes of the Myanmar government. She also stands out because she is not part of a tour group approved by the Myanmar government. The name Emma Larkin, incidentally, is a pseudonym; she feels compelled to publish under this fictional name as a way to protect her sources, who could be imprisoned or worse for speaking to her. So, posing as a single traveler enjoying the sights of this Southeast Asian country, Larkin wants to unearth the secret of Orwell's metamorphosis.
But no easy answers are available. Time and again, Larkin encounters dead ends or just more questions. What she does
find, however, is apparent proof of Orwell's prophetic abilities. Interspersed throughout the book, as she traces Orwell's footsteps, she presents comparisons between Myanmar policies and politics and events that happen in Orwell's novels. Yes, this could all be a matter of after-the-fact literary interpretation, but, Larkin points out, some of the parallels are nothing less than stunning.
The book ends on a downbeat note. Just after Larkin finishes her hunt for Orwell's secret, Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi disappears after five years of house arrest—her sentence for advocating for democracy and speaking out against her country's human rights abuses. Yet, at the same time, the idea that there are people brave enough to work for democracy in Myanmar at all is cause for hope. Rebellion is necessary to survival—a lesson much like the characters in Orwell's novels learn.
While the results of Larkin's investigation are inconclusive, her journey through modern-day Myanmar is a mixture of Burmese politics and history, Orwell biography, literary whodunit, and travelogue. Far from being a wild goose chase about a brief period in the life of an elusive and long-dead literary figure, Finding George Orwell in Burma
is a testament to the spirit of a people, the talents of a master wordsmith, and the inextricable history that binds them together.