Summary and book reviews of Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in Burma

by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in Burma
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2006, 304 pages

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Book Summary

A brave and revelatory reconnaissance of modern Burma, one of the world's grimmest and most shuttered police states, using as its compass the life and work of George Orwell, the man many in Burma call simply "the prophet"

A brave and revelatory reconnaissance of modern Burma, one of the world's grimmest and most shuttered police states, using as its compass the life and work of George Orwell, the man many in Burma call simply "the prophet"

Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, 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 included Animal 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.

'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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Finding George Orwell takes us where few readers will probably ever have the chance to travel - far into the heart of this deeply troubled country to meet its many fascinating and resilient people. Highly recommended.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Carolyn See

When she's not researching Orwell or recording citizen complaints, Larkin paints evocative pictures of Rangoon and Mandalay and the magnificent Irrawaddy River, of nighttime markets twinkling with fairy lights, old colonial mansions (still crumbling but grand), children playing in the streets, adults laughing in teahouses. Humans can be incredibly resilient.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

A meticulous observer, she captures the masked spirit of a people monitored by military spies and constantly threatened with incarceration and torture.....Her quest for the past illuminates the grim present in this true-life Orwellian world.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review.... a lucid and insightful illustration of truly Orwellian circumstances

The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

A many-faceted book, beautifully written.

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Beyond the Book

Burma is located in South East Asia, west of Thailand, and borders Thailand, China, India, Laos and the Indian Ocean. It's total land area is about the size of Texas.

During much of the 19th Century and early 20th century, it was administered as a province of India by the British. In 1948 it attained independence and is now ruled by a military junta who have refused to give up control despite a landslide win for the National League for Democracy in 1990 (since which time the party's leader has been under almost constant arrest). In 1989 the junta announced that the country's name had been changed to Myanmar, but this not approved by any legislative body (because there isn't one!)

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