Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Book Review: Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in Burma is a light in the darkness, a collection of images and voices that briefly illuminates a land shrouded in the shady mists of misinformation, uncertainty and fear. Its author has painstakingly constructed a portrait of present-day Burma from a year’s worth of furtive notebook scribbles and nervous conversations. Her finished work, published under the psuedonym Emma Larkin, is a vivid travelogue describing a graceful country slowly choking in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship.

Orwellian is a term that immediately springs to mind in reference to the sort of government that controls Burma today, a paranoid cabal ruling through power, for power, at the expense of human freedom. However, as Larkin notes, the relationship between Orwell and Burma flows in two directions. By reading Orwell, one can begin to understand Burma, and by understanding Burma, one can begin to grasp how and why Orwell developed the feelings of social injustice, political cycnicism and libertarianism that dominate his writings. Finding George Orwell in Burma is in one sense about tracing a path through history by exploring the present and, equally, a story revealing the present by sifting through the prophecies of the past. Taking Orwell as her starting point, Larkin spins her narrative in two different but ultimately convergent directions, forming a circular lens through which the reader can peer through the dual fogs of history and repression to glimpse a lasting image of a country locked in time and a people struggling to find hope and maintain dignity as their future withers away.

Burmese Days is one of Orwell’s first novels, a story based on his experiences in Burma as an agent of the British Empire. As Larkin points out, although the narrative of Burmese Days is fictional, Orwell’s descriptions of characters, places and events were so accurate that his publishers, fearful of libel charges, originally declined to publish the book in England. That being the case, Burmese Days can be read as an historical snapshot, an intimate portrait of ugliness festering at the fringes of Empire. The fact that both British and Burmese readers found fault with the story points to its accuracy. Orwell’s book is far from a Kipling-esque glorification of colonialism, but neither does he romanticize the situation of the Burmese, portraying them alternatively as hopelessly naïve or calculatingly amoral. Larkin quotes Orwell defending his book on the grounds that “much of it is simply reporting what I have seen,” a statement that captures the sort of dogged curiosity he would bring to the alleyways of Paris, the coal mines of Britain and the front lines of the Spanish Civil War.

Much of Larkin’s book is also a report of what she saw (and heard) during her travels, but because she speaks the language and was traveling independently, Finding George Orwell in Burma gives the reader a much more nuanced impression of the country than Orwell’s own Burmese Days. Larkin tries to take it all in, to learn as much as she can and communicate her insights to a broad readership. Where Orwell’s emphasis on the British community ultimately leaves his novel feeling stunted, Larkin’s focus on Orwell actually expands the reach of her book, leading to conversations, comparisions and insights that flesh out her portrait of Burma. Orwell is a tool Larkin uses to dig away at the walls of secrecy that the regime maintains to keep the truth about Burma invisible.

The constant sense of unease hanging over ordinary Burmese as they go about their business in the shadow of surveillance is my lasting impression of Larkin’s book. The fact that she herself was tracked by Big Brother, unable to see what she wanted to see, unable to go where she wanted to go and susceptible at times to paranoia gives the reader a very personal sense of what everyday life must be like for the Burmese. In this sense, Larkin’s narrative is most powerful when she is most frustrated. Her descriptions of trying to catch a glimpse of the Army Parade through barbed wire and trees are more interesting and effective than a first-person all access account of the event itself would have been. As one Burmese friend of Larkin’s explained, it’s only by looking at the gaps in news coverage that one can get an accurate idea of what is going on.

Orwell’s tremendous talent was the ability to make people understand what it might feel like to live in a totaliltarian society. His descriptions are powerful, frightening and accesible, but not beautiful in the sense of the poetry of the words themselves.

Larkin’s writing is beautiful. She describes Burma in colors, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations that bubble up into aching little bursts of recognition, a tremendous accomplishment given that few of her readers have actually been to the places she describes. Like the very best travelogues, Looking For George Orwell in Burma gives the reader a sense that they know Burma while igniting a desire to actually go there themselves. If Larkin lacked the ear of a poet her book would still be interesting and important, but the sheer richness of her words make the story overpowering. It’s the kind of book you want to throw against a wall when it ends because it has penetrated your soul and squeezed something in your gut.

The most poignant moments in Larkin’s book are her descriptions of the small ways her Burmese friends try to maintain their dignity and keep a little beauty in their lifes. Living under tyranny squeezes the space for civility and forces people to abandon the social niceties and luxuries that bring color and richness to their lives, yet the Burmese people cling to their scraps of beauty with a helplessly heartbreaking tenacity. Larkin recognizes this phenomenon, but somehow overlooks the fact Orwell’s literary efforts are devoted to exactly the same cause: the defense of human dignity.

Orwell was a bit of a snob, a characteristic his biographers have had difficulty reconciling with his fierce passion for social justice. Indeed, his hatred of totalitarianism was matched only by his vehement dislike of indecency and vulgarity. Orwell’s aristocratic tendencies make sense in light of his conviction that personal dignity is contingent on personal freedom – the freedom to stand above the crowd and sip sugared tea in the afternoon.

Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, rebels against the Party by buying a beautifully polished paperweight, a useless little luxury, while an old woman Larkin meets, unable to talk with her friends about her hatred of the government, instead shows them her prized piece of antique china.

It’s a shame that Larkin fails to explicitly identify Orwell’s belief that the greatest evil of totalitarianism is its potential to destroy, through fear, the civility that separates men from animals. Orwell understood that holding onto the niceties in life is the last stand a person can take against tyranny, once dismissing a famous nutritionist’s suggestion that the poor give up their small culinary luxuries on the grounds that having a little sugar in one’s tea was vital to maintaining the dignity of a man who has precious little else. In a nightmare land like Burma, it’s those little things that matter more than anywhere else, a point Larkin describes flawlessly but never quite manages to explain. At numerous points in her book Larkin recounts how Burmese men and women who earn $4 a month taking care to order their tea with just the right amount of cream and sugar, the kind of small gesture that affirms their humanity by asserting their ability to choose. Orwell, who once wrote an essay entitled "A Nice Cup of Tea," would surely understand.

Some links:

An interview with Emma Larkin on NPR

Read more reviews and buy the book on Amazon

"A Nice Cup of Tea - no sugar?"


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