Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin


Finding George Orwell in Burma

Synopsis:

A fascinating political travelogue that traces the life and work of George Orwell in Southeast Asia

Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she's come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as "Orwellian." The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma's connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell's mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell's work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country - his first novel,Burmese Days - but in fact he wrote three, the "trilogy" that includedAnimal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, "Ah, you mean the prophet!"


In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma's far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell's moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author's compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book - the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.

Review:

Finding George Orwell in Burma was an interesting read. Prior to this book I knew little about George Orwell and little about Burma. I found this book to be really interesting. I loved the how the author went through and visited the same places Orwell lived when he was there. She kind of did a tour of the country through the lens of Orwell when he was stationed there.

This books gives you the history of Burma, from British Imperialism through about 10 years ago, with comparisons to Orwell's works and the state of the country. It is interesting how if you visit you probably wouldn't have seen anything really bad. The author says at one point early on how she spoke with some tourist after visiting Burma and how they said something like they don't understand why people think there are civil rights violations. The people are all so happy! It was really interesting how the places tourists are allowed to go have this happy facade to them, or at least they did. It is hard to understand how these people survive, how you live in this state where you suspect everyone of informing on everyone, and still just go on with your life. It was interesting to see the author show some paranoia now and again while on her travels and really just what it might be like to live there.

One of the most striking things I learned is how this country used to be so wonderful, full of natural resources, doing well, just really seemed like a great place. Then this new regime took over, took over all businesses and everything, and just destroyed it. It used to be a rich country, and now it is very poor. They sealed up the country and now it is likened to the Lion King when Scar took over. It used to be this great place, lush and green, and now it is kind of a wasteland. It is sad. It is really sad.

Throughout the story the author follows in Orwell's footsteps. She compares the cities and what they are like today to what they were probably like when he was there. Lots of history, lots of comparison with his works, just a lot of interesting details that I enjoyed reading.

I really liked all the people you meet along the authors journey. I liked all the meetings in tea shops, how they are such a big part of the culture there. I love how people hoard their books, trying to keep them from falling apart. I love one of the first people you meet in the book says how he retired at 20 and for the past 40 years has just been living with his books. I loved how even though there is this oppressive regime in place, where you cannot print certain things in the papers and such, the people learn to use that. They learn to figure out what is going on by what they don't see. It is a really interesting read. Some horrible events are talked about, but then the people you meet through the story are just amazing. I would love to read a follow up story and see what it is like there today. With the elections in 2010 and everything it seems like things have been changing. I just wonder how much things have really changed and what the people we met in this book think of the state of things today. Really this book made me want to learn more which is always a good thing. Really a great read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★1/2

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