"George Orwell", I said slowly.
But the old Burmese man just kept shaking his head.
"George Orwell", I repeated --
"the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four."
FINDING ORWELL IN BURMA
The old man's eyes suddenly lit up.
He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition,
slapped his forehead gleefully, and said,
"You mean the prophet!"
~ Emma Larkin
For connoisseurs of George Orwell, Emma Larkin's book - scanned above - is a treasure. It's the best thing written - since Orwell wrote BURMESE DAYS - on the totalitarian nightmare that is Burma.
By travelling to all the places mentioned in BURMESE DAYS, Larkin literally walked in Orwell's footsteps. And in FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA, Larkin proves her premise that ANIMAL FARM and NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR were part of an Orwellian trilogy on tyranny, of which BURMESE DAYS was the first part. ~ Jackie Jura
"Finding George Orwell in Burma"
by Emma Larkin
excerpt from pages 3-16:
...As I walked down a busy street in Mandalay on my first visit to Burma, in 1995, a Burmese man strode purposefully towards me twirling a black umbrella. He smiled brightly and said, 'Spread our need of democracy to the rest of the world -- the people are so tired.' Then he turned around and walked briskly away. And that was it; one of the few, fleeting glimpses I had that all is not as it seems in Burma.
During the three weeks I spent wandering through postcard-perfect scenes of bustling markets. glittering pagodas and faded British hill stations I found it hard to believe I was travelling through a country that has one of the worst records for human-rights abuse in the world. To me, this is the most staggering thing about Burma: that the oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million people can be completely hidden from view. A vast network of Military Intelligence spies and their informers ensures that no one can do or say anything that might threaten the regime. The Burmese media -- books, magazines, movies and music -- are controlled by a strict censorship board and government propaganda is churned out not only through newspapers and television, but also in schools and universities. These methods of reality-control are kept firmly in place by the invisible, though ever present, threat of torture and imprisonment.
For an outsider like myself, unable to see beyond the facade the generals have created, it was impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state. It was during my efforts to understand this aspect of Burmese life that I became fascinated by Orwell. All his novels explore the idea of individuals being trapped within their environment, controlled by their family, the society around them or an all-powerful government. In Ninteteen Eighty-Four he conjured up the ultimate vision of oppression, even giving us the language with which to describe it: 'Big Brother', 'Room 101', 'Newspeak'.
As I reread Orwell's novels -- books I had not read since my schooldays -- I became curious about his personal connection with Burma. What was it that had made him trade his career in the colonies for that of a writer?....The towns and cities where Orwell was posted span the geographical heart of the country and, in a sense, it is still possible to experience Burma as Orwell knew it -- almost half a century of military dictatorship has given it the air of a country frozen in time. But a journey through Orwell's Burma would lead through an even eerier and much more terrifying landscape: that of a real-life Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell's nightmare visions are being played out with a gruelling certainty....
Foreign writers and journalists are denied entry to Burma. Occasionally some are able to slip into the country posing as tourists, but if they are discovered their notebooks and photographic film are confiscated and they are swiftly deported. For the Burmese people they interview, the repercussions are infintely greater: Under the country's 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, providing foreigners with information that the regime considers inimical is punishable with a seven-year prison sentence. Though I worked as a journalist, I rarely wrote about Burma and so it was still possible for me to blend in among tourists or the small expatriate community of business people who are granted long-stay visas. In basing a book on my experiences there were concessions to be made: I would have to change the names of the Burmese people I spoke with and, in some cases, their locations. But, if I was careful, it would be possible to forge a pathway through this seemingly inpenetrable country....
I had come to Mandalay carrying a dog-eared copy of Orwell's Burmese Days, the margins of its pages filled with messy notes and scrawls. As I saw it, this novel was the beginning of Orwell's uncanny and prophetic trilogy which told the history of present-day Burma. Orwell was just nineteen years old when he arrived in Mandalay to join the British government's Police Training School. It was there that he began the colonial career which would mark the beginning of his journey towards becoming a writer....
A Burmese friend had introduced me to Aye Myint because of his passion for books. He is a tall man with overly long arms and a stooped posture more suited to the well-worn reclining chair where he does his reading than to standing upright....After Aye Myint had thoroughly quizzed me about which authors I had read and what I thought about them, he decided to show me his book collection. It is not easy to get English-language books in Burma, but his collection numbers over a thousand volumes, the result of decades spent scouring second-hand bookshops. As he puts it, he 'retired from the world' in his early twenties and for the past forty years has lived a hermit-like existence in Mandalay, sequestered with his library and one spinster sister in a two-storey wooden house that they inherited from their parents....
Aye Myint led me upstairs to where his books were kept. A thick carpet of dust lay across the wooden floor, and a narrow trail of footprints marked a pathway from the staircase to the bookshelf to a reading chair and back to the staircase again -- a map of Aye Myint's entire world. His books are stored in trunks, and he opened one up for me. Each book was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it from ants and mould that destroy so many manuscripts in the humid, tropical climate of Burma. He started pulling out volumes...
Aye Myint stuck his head deep inside his trunk and emerged with a triumphant cry: 'Ha! George Orwell!' He uncovered an old Penguin copy of Animal Farm. It had the familiar orange and white stripes on the cover, and yellowed pages that felt very slightly damp. He told me it was the first novel he had read in English. 'It is a very brilliant book. And it is a very Burmese book. Do you know why?' he asked, poking a finger enthusiastically in my general direction. 'Because it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country! That is what has been happening here in Burma for many years now.'
I had already told Aye Myint that I was interested in George Orwell, and he soon unearthed a worm-eaten copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the growing piles of books on the floor. 'Another very brilliant book', he said. 'It is a particularly wonderful book because it is without "-isms". It is not about socialism or communism or authoritarianism. It is about power and the abuse of power. Plain and simple.' He said that Nineteen Eighty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. 'Why do they need to read it?' he said. 'They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives.'....
'Mandalay' is one of the few place names in Burma that has not been changed by the Burmese military government. In 1989 the regime renamed streets, towns and cities across Burma. Maymyo, the old British hill station that Orwell visited, became Pyin-Oo-Lwin, and Fraser Street in Rangoon became Anawyatha Lan in Yangon. Most of the old names were Anglicized Burmese names that had been used by the Birtish colonial government and the regime claimed that the changes were a long-overdue move to discard these colonial tags. But there was a deeper-rooted motive. The generals were rewriting history. When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and, eventually, from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased. By renaming cities, towns and streets, the regime seized control of the very space within which people lived; home and business addresses had to be rewritten and relearned. And, when the regime changed the name of the country, maps and encyclopedias all over the world had to be corrected. The country known as Burma was erased and replaced with a new one: Myanmar.
The crucial event which triggered this rewriting of the past was the people's uprising of 1988. At eight minutes past eight in the morning on the eighth day of the eighth month of that year, students launched a countrywide demonstration against almost three decades of poverty and oppression under military rule. Thousands of people flooded into the streets of cities and towns all over Burma shouting, 'Dee-mo-ka-ra-see! Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!' The government response was brutal: that evening, soldiers marched into the streets and strafed the crowds with machine-gun fire. In Rangoon, doctors and nurses, overwhelmed by the wounded, hung a sign outside the general hospital begging the soldiers to stop killing people. The sign was written with the blood of the wounded and dead. When a column of nurses joined the protest in the streets, wearing their white uniforms, they too were shot. Among those who died during the days of chaos that followed were high-school children, teachers and monks. Smoke billowed from crematoriums as the authorities rapidly disposed of their corpses. The uprising did not end until more than 3,000 people had been shot or bludgeoned to death by government soldiers.
Around that time a Burmese woman called Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived in Oxford, England, happened to be back in Rangoon nursing her sick mother. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the much-loved Burmese military hero who led negotiations for Burma's independence from Britain and who was assassinated just months before independence came into effect in 1948, when his daughter was two years old. A week after the worst of the violence, Aung San Suu Kyi left her mother's sickbed to stand beneath a giant portrait of her father and speak to the crowd of half a million people who had turned up to see her. 'I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,' she said, and she compared the uprising to the country's fight against British colonialism: 'This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.'
The struggle is not yet over. As soon as the military regained control of the country, it began systematically to erase the bloody events of 1988. It renamed itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and announced a new line-up of ruling generals. Soldiers mopped up the streets, repainted public buildings, and forced people to paint their own houses in what was a literal whitewashing of history. In Mandalay and Rangoon, whole neighbourhoods were swept away as people were forcibly relocated from areas where anti-government sentiment had been particularly strong. Demonstration leaders were hunted down, tortured and imprisoned. Some 10,000 people were forced to flee central Burma, taking refuge in jungle areas on the border or in neighbouring countries. SLORC promised to let the people choose their own government and organized a general election. But, when Aung San Suu Kyi formed an immensely popular party called the National League for Democracy (NLD), the generals tried to prevent the NLD from winning the elections by arresting thousands of its supporters and placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Nevertheless, the NLD won a landslide victory, securing over 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats. SLORC ignored the results and continued to rule.
The military -- now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPCD) -- still controls Burma today. The army has more than doubled in size and now has almost half a million soldiers. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the intervening years locked up in her run-down family home in Rangoon. The date of the uprising, 8-8-88, or shiq lay-lone ("four eights"), has become a whispered mantra in Burma, denoting a tragic turning point in the history of the country which can only be remembered secretly behind closed doors. It is as if the events of 1988 never happened. A year after the uprising, a spokesman for the regime summed up what had taken place: 'Truth is true only within a certain period of time', he announced. 'What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.'....
excerpt from pages 216-218:
...The main raison d'etre of the ruling generals of Burma is to hold the country together at all costs. The regime's 'Three National Causes', listed on giant public billboards across the country, emphasize the need to maintain the unity of Burma and to prevent any external or internal forces from threatening Burmese sovereignty. Though the wars against ethnic nationalist armies are almost over -- by the end of the 1990s most groups, wearied after decades of fighting, had brokered ceasefire deals with the regime -- the Burmese army continues to grow. Over half of the government budget is spent on building the army's strength (education reportedly receives a paltry 4 per cent of the budget). Burma has no enemies outside its borders and now very few actively fighting within them, yet the generals have built up a troop force that is almost equal to that of the U.S. army.
Without any real military adversaries, the generals have had to manufacture some mythical ones. One method they have used is to evoke threats from anything or anyone considered to be non-Burmese -- that is, from 'the other'. For example, a government billboard orders Burmese nationals to 'Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.' One of the regime's main targets is Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 'otherness' they derive from her marriage to a British man. She is often referred to in the local media after her late husband's name, Mrs Michael Aris, and is labelled as an 'evil tool of foreign interests'. She has also been accused of being manipulated by the long-defunct Communist Party of Burma and of being in league with right-wing groups preparing to attack the government, with foreign embassies, and with Burmese exiles living abroad.
When the junta isn't attacking Aung San Suu Kyi it aims its xenophobia at international NGOs (which it accuses of spreading make-believe stories about atrocities committed by the Burmese army in ethnic areas) and the CIA (which it claims runs drug-smuggling cartels in the Wa hills). Bombs are periodically found in strategic locations around Rangoon, as when I was there on Armed Forces Day. The devices rarely explode, and many believe the regime plants the bombs itself, in order to create a threat to the state, or the impression of perpetual war which it needs to justify its rule...
excerpt from pages 265-279
...The chess-player I had met at the Golden Banyan Tree Tea Shop [in Katha] never told me his name or what he did, but I made a habit of going to the tea shop in the later afternoons to see if he was there. One afternoon I found him sitting by himself gazing at the river. He looked up at me and smiled brightly. 'Sit! Sit!' he said. He ordered me a cup of tea, remembering that I liked it paw kya, or strong and not too sweet, and apologized for leaving so abrublty on our last meeting.
'That's OK,' I said, 'I'm sure you're busy, and I don't want to take up too much of your time.'
'Time?' he asked with a look of mock surprise. 'Time is the one thing we in Burma have a lot of. We are forced to spend our days quite listlessly. After all, what is there to do?'
He picked up a cake with pumpkin filling from a small selection on the table, unwrapped it, and handed it to me. He hadn't left abruptly because he was busy, he explained, but because he felt uncomfortable about having touched on the subject of Burmese politics with me. 'When I am with my friends in public we talk about football and the lottery.' he said. 'It is dangerous for us to say more. We have learned not to say things in the open. In private, of course, we say many things. But in public we just joke around.' As he unwrapped a slice of cake for himself, he said in an unanswerable declaration about Burma, 'Ah! What kind of country!'
We did end up talking about dangerous things as we pondered how change might come to Burma. 'Change has to come from outside. The world must pinch Burma harder' said my companion, referring to the sanctions that have been imposed on the country by various Western governments. 'Give any money to these generals and it is like watching a poisonous plant grow.' Ever since the military's brutal suppression of demonstrators in the protests of 1988, trade embargoes of varying degrees have been enforced by the European Union and the United States. Aung San Suu Kyi has called for more complete economic sanctions to be imposed on Burma, in order ot pressure the generals further. Activists in the West have launched boycott campaigns against foreign companies doing business in Burma which have led to a number of firms pulling out (Carlsberg, Triumph and Ralph Lauren, among others). Tour agencies such as Abercombie & Kent and Intrepid have also discontnued tours to Burma. The idea is not dissimilar to Ne Win's kpyat lay byat strategy with the ethnic insurgents -- to cut off the regime's source of income and, in effect, starve it into submission. The regime, hungry for foreign cash, reacts sporadically to this international pressure, occasionally releasing political prisoners like bargaining chips or allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD more freedom to operate. But other Asian countries such as Thailand, Singapore and, more substantially, China have chosen not to ostracise Burma and continue to provide aid and investment. The jury is still out on what effect sanctions can have when the generals are propped up by a heavyweight country like China, not to mention an informal economy of drugs and money-laundering.
I asked my companion if he thought that change might come from within Burma. 'How?' he demanded. 'We cannot do anything from inside. The control is so tight. The MI are everywhere. They are in the tea shops, in the markets, even the beggars are listening to us talk.' He shook his head. 'Even the beggars!'.
While we were talking, a group of young men sat down at a table next to ours. One of them wore a grey-and-aquamarine windbreaker emblazoned with the words 'Katha USDA'. The chess-player glanced briefly at them and slapped his thigh. 'Ha!' he declared. 'That's all!' And he stood up and walked briskly off down the street....
I soon ran out of things to do in Katha. The historian had asked me not to visit her again, because she did not want to attract any more attention to herself, and, though I went back to the Golden Banyan Tree Tea Shop a couple of times, I never saw my chess-playing friend again....
Burma exports rice as survivors starve (revenue for junta & ally China) & Burma biofuel deepens food shortage (junta ordered farmers to destroy rice; replant with poisonous plant jatropha) & Burma moved capital from coastal Rangoon (to mountain desert with rat-hole tunnels; junta listens to fortune tellers). Guard/Times/BBC, May 13, 2008. Go to WEATHER-FOOD CONTROL
Disaster tests China-backed Burma junta (military did nothing for 12 hours) & Burma cyclone deaths top 10,000 (need shelter, food, water, medical...). See in pictures, Burmese cyclone. BBC/NYT, May 4-5, 2008
Author on Orwell in Burma speaking (a world like 1984 & Animal Farm). LewisClarkUniv, WashState, Apr 3, 2008
China building oil pipelines in Burma. Telegraph, Jan 16, 2008
China is building pipelines to carry huge new gas supplies from Burma after securing new contracts with the Rangoon junta. A 900-mile pipeline is to be built - possibly this year - to take gas from the coast of Burma to China after Beijing won contracts to explore three large offshore areas for gas. Some of the contracts were awarded three days after China and Russia jointly vetoed a UN resolution proposed by the US a year ago. The gas deposits are the largest known in this energy-hungry region. The richest proven reserves in a block already explored and secured by China are worth between $37-52billion (£18-26billion). The waters covering this treasure have been closed to local fishermen and it is impossible to witness the work going on there....At the centre of this bonanza is the sleepy island of Rambree. Rambree was once the scene of bitter fighting between the British and Japanese in the Second World War....Foreigners are not welcome here. As soon as The Daily Telegraph arrived it became clear the local authorities were monitoring the newspaper's movements. Few local people expect to benefit from the off-shore gas. In the town of Kyaukphyu there is electricity for only one hour and 45 minutes a day. There are about five cars, which all belong to officials....In repressive Burma there is no public information about these projects, and very little public discussion. "When the people discuss it, they are scared," said a local activist. "They think that talking about the pipeline is just like talking about politics and they dare not say anything about it. "The gas belongs to all the people of the region. It shouldn't be taken unless they benefit," he continued. "Only the army will get money. They will use it to but weapons to kill the people."
Reader is looking for literary critique of "Burmese Days"
No freedom for Burma. WallStreetJournal, Sep 26, 2007
...But don't expect China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to add its voice to the call for change. While world focus has rightly been on Chinese economic and military support for the Sudanese government's war against the people of Darfur, its involvement with other despotic regimes goes largely unnoticed. The Burmese people, however, understand clearly China's role in their continued oppression. China's relationship with Burma is the closest of any it has in Southeast Asia. It views that nation as a strategic ally, coveting the potential use of its ports on the Indian Ocean and easier access to oil from Africa and the Middle East. China has provided economic support key to keeping the dismal economy afloat, and has built roads, bridges, airport facilities, power stations, factories and telecommunications networks. It has also modernized Burma's army, including an infusion of weaponry valued at over $1.4 billion when the junta took power. In June it was announced that China would begin buying natural gas from Burma, and that the two countries were negotiating agreements on mining in Burma by Chinese companies. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese live in Burma and there have been protests against their increasing economic influence and presence....We are all painfully aware of the carnage in Darfur -- the thousands of villages completely destroyed, the hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced by the war, the systematic and widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in Khartoum's relentless war of ethnic cleansing there. That awareness has lead to highly effective campaigns to divest from the Chinese oil giant, PetroChina, that does business with Khartoum. There have also been repeated calls to not support the "Genocide Olympics" to be held in Beijing next August... It is time to pressure China's leaders to use their considerable influence in Burma as well. The military junta has carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing, razing thousands of villages, killing tens of thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands more. As in Darfur, Burmese women are being systematically raped; hundreds of thousands of women, children and men are subjected to forced labor; and the country reportedly has more child soldiers -- some as young as seven -- than any other country in the world.
20,000 march in Burma against junta (USA to meet in NY with foreign minister of China) & Aung San Suu Kyi rare appearance (monks marched by her house & Chinese Embassy in Rangoon) & Aung San Suu Kyi comes to gate (protests begun month ago by civilians against economic hardship & house arrest of Aung San Suu) & Who is Aung San Suu? (leader National League for Democracy denied election win in 1990). UK/NZ/Jazeer/Can, Sep 23, 2007
Burma under Beijing sheild. Mizzima News, Jul 12, 2007
Beijing and Rangoon have long been the best of friends. Ever since the military seized power nearly 19 years ago, China has offered Burma a protective umbrella against international pressure. In the past two decades, China has been Burma's most important source of military hardware, during a period in which the West has effectively banned sale of armaments to the junta. Economic ties between the two countries have also burgeoned over the years to the point where China is by far Burma's most import trading partner...
India: Burma's dishonest neighbour. Irrawaddy, Mar 2, 2007
...China has been selling arms, frigates and other naval vessels, jet fighters and military trucks to Burma, and the Chinese have been involved in modernizing Burmese naval facilities. The scope of Chinese involvement has definitely created anxiety and concern among politicians in New Delhi. At the same time, New Delhi’s recent gestures and the flurry of mutual visits have rung alarm bells among Burmese activists and international observers. Immediately following the military crackdown in 1988, New Delhi openly and publicly supported Burma’s democracy movement, but nowadays such commitment could not be expected. In the new Asian scenario, India is competing with China to accommodate the generals in Burma. Yet the generals are bound to win at this game. The close relations with both China and India now enjoyed by Burma have benefited the handful of military rulers who continue to commit crimes against their own people. It is easy to predict the direction in which communist China wants to steer its policy with Burma, Tibet or any neighboring countries — and even with African states. China’s support for the world’s repressive regimes is regrettable but predictable and not unexpected. New Delhi’s support for the military rulers in Burma, however, only provokes bewilderment and embarrassment. To put it bluntly, New Delhi’s policy on Burma is morally bankrupt and pitiable. Although ranking as the world’s largest democracy, India is basing its foreign policy on self-interest and national concerns...
Reader is looking for the title of the book about the place where people revere Orwell & believe "1984" is about them
Canada reviews investments in Burma (MP wants to grant Aung San Suu Kyi Canadian citizenship). Embassy Mag, Dec 13, 2006
Burma closes Red Cross offices. BBC, Nov 27, 2006
UN official sees Burma's Suu Kyi. BBC, Nov 11, 2006
Burma: Orwellian state with tea shops. BBC, Jun 13, 2006
Burma's hardline generals. BBC, May 26, 2006
Burma moves capital 400km north (from Rangoon to remote rural area near the town of Pyinmana). BBC, Jan 25, 2006
Abrupt relocation of Burma capital linked to astrology. Los Angeles Times, Jan 1, 2006
Burma Moves Its Capital (isolation taken one step, and many miles, further). WashPost, Dec 28, 2005
The Road to 'Animal Farm,' Through Burma, by William Grimes, NYTimes, Jun 7, 2005
As Ms. Larkin makes her way across the country, her movements are tracked, sometimes blocked, by the police, military personnel, bureaucrats, spies, informers and ordinary citizens instructed to report on any encounters with foreigners. When registering at a guest house she must fill out forms to be sent to nine separate departments. Shopping at a local market, a police informer dogs her heels, asking, over and over, who she is, where she is going and what she is trying to find out. She has changed the names of most of the Burmese she talked to and, lest she be barred from returning to Myanmar, has published this book under a pseudonym....The empire has disappeared, but not the injustice...."The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!
*Big Brother in Burma, by Frank Bures, World Hum, Jun 29, 2005
Not long ago, a friend of mine went to Burma. He lived in Bangkok and had been to every other country in Southeast Asia. Burma was the last and strangest of all these places. When he came back, he told me odd tales of people who’d never heard of September 11, of horrendously bland food, and of a long and complicated search for the “village pen” so his guide could write something down. That’s right: One pen for a whole village. It’s hard to believe that a place like this still exists in a region of the world home to booming economies like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. But it does. Now, thanks to Emma Larkin’s fascinating new book, Finding George Orwell in Burma, we have a much clearer picture of just how this came to be, and of what life is like in this brutal and reclusive dictatorship, which makes Laos and Cambodia look like progressive democracies.
Larkin (a pseudonym to protect herself and her Burmese friends) is a Bangkok-based journalist who speaks Burmese and who has been visiting the country for the past 10 years. Because Burma is a country where big brother is everywhere, where people (alive and dead) are whisked away routinely, and where the military is called the “State Peace and Development Council,” Larkin found the perfect vehicle for exploring the country: tracing George Orwell’s life as an Imperial police officer there. Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, spent five years in the country in the 1920s before hanging up his billy club and picking up his pen. As Larkin visits the places he lived — Mandalay, Maymyo, Moulmein (where Orwell’s mother was from) and Katha, where Orwell set his novel, “Burmese Days” — we can see how much and how little has changed.
Burma is a country rich in resources that should be as wealthy as its neighbors. But half a century of corruption and mismanagement have led it to be labeled one of the least developed countries on earth.
Larkin finds many things in her search for Orwell: his old home, a street named for his mother’s family, and people with dim memories of “Uncle Eric.” She also makes the forceful case that Orwell’s time living in Burma (overlooked by many biographers) had a profound and lasting impact on Orwell’s thinking about power, exploitation and the politics of the oppressed. It’s a cruel irony, then, that the country which set him on this path would also become the fullest realization of his distopian dream set out most famously in the novel “1984.” Burma today may be the most Orwellian place on earth.
Lately there has been an increase in tourism to Burma, but most travelers will only see so much. One tourist told Larkin, “Everyone smiles at you — it can’t be that bad.” But guides receive strict government training about what they can and cannot discuss with tourists, and the punishments are severe — jail, torture, disappearance. Fortunately, Larkin draws back the bamboo curtain far enough for us to see what’s behind it. In one encounter, she talks to an impassive old woman who suddenly breaks down and tells Larkin she has no hope for the future. “All you had to do,” Larkin writes, “was scratch the surface of one of the town’s smiling residents and you would find bitterness or tears.” Lately, a few writers like Andrew Marshall ("The Trouser People") and Mark Jenkins ("The Ghost Road,” “The Best American Travel Writing 2004") have begun to fill in the some of the silence that drifts up from the country. Larkin, however, gives the most elegiac account of life in Burma, and what is probably the best travel book on the country since Norman Lewis’ “Golden Earth: Travels in Burma” was published in 1952. And what comes through most clearly in her, and Orwell’s, Burma is a colossal sadness, as well as the humor and patience that lets the Burmese bear it until the day when some of the last people living Orwell’s nightmare can finally wake up.
ORWELL'S BURMA. Time Traveller, Fall 2002
To flush out the ghost of George Orwell, Steven Martin journeys to the writer's old haunt of Burma—where he finds the past is still present...Burma contains bygone buildings
"Burmese Days" book covers (photo of Orwell on the third is of him when he was there, from ages 19-23, in 1922-1927)
BURMESE DAYS review by Jackie Jura
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