Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Of late, I’ve been on a sort of kick where I want to read short books — books of fewer than 300 pages, in general, often even shorter. As I’ve been on this kick, I’ve run into pairs of writings that explore the same basic terrain at different lengths. I mentioned this when I reviewed Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman and I’m noting it again as I review this book by Emma Larkin, though in this case the comparable text is this short article from Time, published in 2002 (a few years before Larkin’s book).

In this case, I have to say, Larkin’s book better explores the Orwell/Burma connection: it makes more of the question of whether his time in Burma shaped more of his books — Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but also his unfinished final work — and has a lot more to say about Burma. Steven Martin’s comment about his motivation for the article and the trip to Burma — “I wasn’t interested in modern politics. The purpose of my journey was to scare up the ghost of George Orwell” — somewhat boggles the mind: how can expect to scare up the ghost of Orwell in a place like Burma without running up against modern Burma’s politics? How can one, indeed, enter a police state where writers are distrusted without thinking of Winston Smith writing in his secret diary, of the appendix at the end of the novel where language itself is shown to have been murdered in the interests of INGSOC?

No, Martin’s article doesn’t hold a candle to Larkin’s book, despite the flaws I cannot help but mention. And there are flaws in Larkin’s text: for one, while I appreciated the little detours through Orwell’s work (and consider them necessary for an audience that, like me, hasn’t read all of the man’s work), I found that the structure of these detours had gotten somewhat predictable and familiar and as the book progressed, I hoped that Larkin might find a new way to segue off into Orwell’s writing. (Alas, this desire went unsatisfied.)

Likewise, by the end of the book I kind of felt like I was talking to one of those friends we all have who explains his or her jokes. Except Larkin was trying to hammer home not jokes, but rather observations about how bad the Myanmar government is, and I’m afraid that for me, it got tedious, in the way I find it tedious when people rant and rant about the North Korean government. Not because I don’t think people should talk about it, but because, I suppose, one feels like saying, “I get it, already!” much sooner when one already got it when starting to read the book.

These flaws, I realize, will not be flaws for all readers. They were for me.

But the positives in the book are worth note as well, and there are a number of them. 

For one, Larkin manages — even when being oblique — to paint a fairly vivid picture of the places through which she passed, as well as to dig up a lot of interesting connections to Orwell’s work. Where Martin paused, on bicycle, outside a police station, and then fled, Larkin talks her way in and gets a guided tour, and even maybe a glimpse of a haunted room. When Martin settles for a glimpse of a gravestone which might, maybe, have been one Orwell saw and found inspiration in, Larkin finds out where the old gravestones are, locates a few that may have been in Orwell’s mother’s family, and uncovers the vague possibility that there was a (relatively secret, as in Orwell never discussed it) Anglo-Burmese branch in the man’s family tree.

It may be, in part, simply a case of being the right woman for the job: Larkin, after all, had been to Burma previously, and spoke the language to some degree (at least, well enough to tell jokes, read signs, and communicate with people who spoke little English). Martin had been to Burma before as well, but the previous trip’s relevance is only in terms of his ability to mention having read Burmese Days on a train at some point during his first trip through the country. Larkin, by contrast, managed to cobble together a network of connections that is, when you think about it, astounding.

Larkin’s knowledge of Orwell’s work, but also her guts — and maybe her gender — allowed her to gain access to places and people Martin simply couldn’t, or didn’t. She talks to old Anglo-Burmese ladies, she chats with random strangers in tea shops, but she also meets up with all kinds of intellectuals and literary types in Burma — such as they are, such as they are allowed to exist. And more fascinating than anything, she actually managed to find out what those Burmese who had read Orwell thought of his work — not a one-sided, homogenized picture, but rather the range of disagreements one often finds regarding colonial-era authors in a postcolonial society.

Reading Larkin’s book, I have a much better sense of what Burmese people tend to be like, of the culture, of the world in which they live, and how many manage to navigate the society that they find themselves in, but I did not realize it until I set the book aside for a day. Which is to say, I suppose, that some of the singularity of Larkin’s book did not strike me full on: in a sense, she made it seem “easy” and I only really recognized what she’d managed in Finding George Orwell in Burma after I’d  finished tearing through it, and gone and read Martin’s article. It’s probably unfair to criticize Martin for the faults in his article: it is, after all, a short piece for Time, not a book competing with Larkin’s. But in some sense it strikes me that, for not just the most amazing books or article out there, there are just a few people who could even possibly write something like them. Or, at least, there are people who are more appropriate for a given writing project, and people who are less so.

Part of the trick, I suppose, is figuring out which one you are, prior to sinking hours and hours into a project; I wouldn’t say that Martin shouldn’t have written his article, because after all, in 2002 it was all people had of its sort. But Larkin’s book is, in retrospect, such a shining example of “the right person for the job” that I can’t help but see it cast a shadow on Martin’s piece. I can assume both writers did their best, but that doesn’t mean the results are on a par.

Now, having said entirely too much about Martin’s article, and not enough about Larkin’s, I shall have to conclude by saying that for anyone interested in the question of how experiences affect writers, and especially expatriate experiences or especially George Orwell, this book will be of intense interest; for those curious about Burma as it was about a decade or so ago, this book is of great interest. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but not because I doubt Larkin’s text: rather, I just don’t know whether people who like to curl up with the latest Dan Brown would get the point of a book like this.

3 thoughts on “Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

  1. I’ve just finished reading “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”
    ( )
    and seem to recall that you spent time in Malawi. I also recall that you wrote a story about global warming and drought in Africa.

    Um, congratulations! I’m comparing you to Orwell! First, is my memory correct about your time in Malawi and second how much does it affect your writing?

    Third, have you followed Kamkwamba’s story? I think it is a wonderful one but wonder where he will go from there. To achieve his understanding of electricity from first principles is amazing but, now that he has been properly educated and featured on TED and travelled the world, will be able to retain that drive and curiosity?

  2. Hi Surprisesaplenty,

    Haven’t read that book but I have heard of it.

    I was only in Malawi as an infant, but my father lived half his life there, from childhood till about the age I am now. He told me many, many stories of life in Malawi and I am pretty sure that had a big impact on my writing.

    I think it’s institutionalized schooling and not education (they’re different) that bleed away people’s drive and curiosity, so I imagine he can do so, if he wants.

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