'GEORGE ORWELL,' I said slowly. 'G-e-o-r-g-e O-r-w-e-l-l.' But the old Burmese man just kept shaking his head.
We were sitting in the baking-hot front room of his house in a sleepy port town in Lower Burma. The air was oppressive and muggy. I could hear mosquitoes whining impatiently around my head, and I was about to give up. The man was a well-known scholar in Burma, and I knew he was familiar with Orwell. But he was elderly; cataracts had turned his eyes an oystery blue, and his hands trembled as he readjusted his sarong. I wondered if he was losing his memory but, after several failed attempts, I made one final stab.
'George Orwell,' I repeated'the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.' 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!'
A YEAR BEFORE GEORGE ORWELL died in 1950, his typewriter was confiscated. Orwell lay tucked under an electric blanket in a small wooden chalet in the green and pleasant heart of the Cotswolds, dying of pulmonary tuberculosis. Piled around his sickbed were a variety of books: tomes on Stalin and on German atrocities in the Second World War, a study of English labourers in the nineteenth century, a few Thomas Hardy novels, some early Evelyn Waugh. Under the bed was a secret stash of rum.
The doctors at the sanatorium where Orwell was being treated had advised him to stop writing. Any kind of writing, they said, would tire him out. What he needed was total rest. Both his lungs were clogged with lesions, and he was coughing up blood. The disease had now reached a critical stage, and doctors were not hopeful of his chances of recovery. Even if he did survive, he might never be able to write againor at least not with the same intensity he was used to. Orwell, however, continued to write. He scribbled letters, composed essays, reviewed books, and corrected proofs of his soon-to-be-published novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. And, simmering in his fevered mind, was an idea for another book: a novella entitled 'A Smoking Room Story', which would revisit Burma, a place he had not been to since his youth.
Orwell had lived in Burma in the 1920s as an officer of the Imperial Police Force. For five years he dressed in khaki jodhpurs and shining black boots. Armed with guns and a sense of moral superiority, the Imperial Police Force patrolled the countryside and kept this far-flung corner of the British Empire in line. Then, suddenly and without warning, he returned to England and handed in his notice. Just as abruptly, he began his career as a writer. Exchanging his real name, 'Eric Arthur Blair', for the pen-name 'George Orwell', he donned the rags of a tramp and marched off into the dank London nights to collect the stories of the down-at-heel. Orwell based his first novel, Burmese Days, on his experiences in the Far East, but it was his later novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four that would turn him into one of the most respected and visionary writers of the twentieth century.
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.
From Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, pages. Copyright Emma Larkin 2004. The complete text of the prologue, pages 1-6. Reproduced by permission of the publisher The Penguin Press.
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