It is a good thing I didn’t read this book before I went to Myanmar (Burma) last year. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have had such a carefree mindset. Finding George Orwell in Burma is an American writer’s attempt in 2003 to trace Orwell’s life in the country which had a huge influence on him. Orwell spent five years as a policeman in the country, which his first novel Burmese Days was no doubt based on. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his two most famous books which were about communism and totalitarian dictatorship, had so many prescient similarities with post-independence Burma that Burmese joked these two books and Burmese Days made up a “Burmese Trilogy.”
The news about Myanmar has been stunningly positive in recent years, with the sudden opening-up of the country to the West, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the elections in February, which the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s party won overwhelmingly. Yet it wasn’t so long ago when Myanmar was one of the world’s bleakest places, almost on par with North Korea. Under decades of military authoritarianism, the country became poverty-stricken and repressed with its people under constant surveillance from authorities and information heavily censored.
The people didn’t need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, they were living it and many were fully aware of it. Even as the author was questioned and followed by government officials, she held many conversations with friends and strangers about the country’s politics. Almost everyone furtively tells the author how terrible the country has been under the military regime. “The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!” an elderly man tells the author. Things were so bad in the country that the author, a Bangkok-based American who speaks Burmese, uses a pseudonym, Emma Larkin, to write her books.
Larkin travels to each of the places Orwell was posted in – the former royal capital Mandalay, the Delta, Rangoon (now Yangon), Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) and Katha. She tries to imagine how Orwell was influenced and inspired by his experiences to the extent he became more cynical about the British Empire through how it ruled Burma. Having gradually annexed the country and overthrown the monarchy, the British also abolished traditional institutions that helped run the country like the monks and replaced them with colonial officers. Orwell completely changed his view on empire and decided to become a writer after going on leave from his post in Burma. In the end, Larkin didn’t come close to finding out exactly what pushed Orwell’s transformation but it is easy to see how it might have been a gradual process. And this change was for the better because Orwell would write about the underclass and the poor, and eventually his masterpieces about communism and totalitarianism.
It is a profoundly sad book that is thankfully about a time that has passed. But I wonder whether the Burmese people could have so easily forgotten all the terror of the past or if it still lurks in the back of their minds and hearts. When I visited there, many of the people were courteous and restrained and it was almost unimaginable that just years before, they had lived through terrible repression.