I really loved this book. And I know I loved it because reading negative reviews of it genuinely upset me, I was offended on Ms Larkin’s behalf ahah. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin is making me consider dabbling in more nonfiction. Part of the reason I loved it is because I also loved Burmese Days, and I happen to have read it fairly recently ( I read during the first lockdown ), so it was fresh in my mind. For 1984 and Animal Farm I would say you don’t have to have read them recently because generally we all know what they are about.
I think it’s worth pointing out how unique the premise of this book is. The combination of travel journal, biography, history and politics makes for a comprehensive if not detail oriented experience. The author manages to combine these features seamlessly, achieving an informative but also engaging and smooth read. The NYTimes describes it well as an “an exercise in literary detection”.
The author is a journalist, she speak Burmese and has spent a lot of time in South Asia. So from the perspective of an outsider with the tool to look in the author traces Orwell’s life through Burma ( now Myanmar ). Her thesis statement so to speak is that Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984 are actually a trilogy that reflects Myanmar’s recent history. She posits that the country heavily influenced Orwell throughout his life even though his time there and its influence are often dismissed.
It feels well researched as Larkin repeatedly cites sources from Orwell’s contemporaries to unearth what he was like during his time in the colonial administration and ultimately what his stance was in regards to the Empire. And although the author clearly holds a lot of affection for Eric Blair she doesn’t shy away from his more problematic actions or opinions (there’s a big one). In a way her stance is emblematic of how many people from former coloniser nations feel towards beloved writers and historical figures we know were more than problematic.
Some larger issues go unanswered such as why was Burma “the most violent corner of the Indian Empire”, in a way rightly so. Books of this nature are meant to help us begin a journey into countries we often know little about, if coming from a Western perspective, they are meant to leave us with a desire to learn more, a need to investigate further, dig deeper because we know that we’ve only scratched the surface and this book does a good job at achieving that balance.
The parts of this book that focus on Orwell himself and the experience of colonial bureaucracy” feel like a guilty pleasure. How the colonial administration lived and what they felt is something I’ve always wanted to explore, much in the same way that you want to know the mindset of a serial killer. Except this guilty pleasure feels more relevant because understanding how my ancestors justified and thought about some of the darkest actions of our history is important for today as well.
Writing and the Author
Emma Larkin is curious and observant, there is no condescension or out of place optimism to be found; she mostly describes what she sees and what she is told without too much fanfare or whimsy, neither does she resort to tearjerking doom and gloom to rip a response out of readers.
During the course of the books it is it is jarring to see how the atmosphere of paranoia and fear start to affect the author herself. Especially considering the limited amount of time she was spending in the country compared to citizens living there their whole lives. Because of the 24h news cycle we are desensitised to violence and suffering, and so, to depict authoritarianism through more subtle means does far more for our understanding of how insidious and effective this type of leadership is. Overall her voice is authentic and I don’t use that word lightly. The conversations she has are never dramatised and she avoids sensationalism.
Note: An important part of the book and perhaps what lends it the most credibility is that the author speaks Burmese. She is able to communicate organically and immerse herself in her environment in a way that I’m sure very few other foreigners can and yet still present an outside viewpoint.
The Thesis Statement
It is true that the very point of Animal Farm and 1984 is that they apply to authoritarianism as a whole and therefore it is not hard or innovative to apply them to one single example of authoritarianism.Because of this, it is hard to be convinced that they are based on Burma alone. However, Larkin does do a good job of convincing us of the impact Orwell’s time in Burma had on him. In fact it is relevant that the author that wrote 1984 spent his early adulthood as a colonial officer in Myanmar, that his opinions on Empire were tested and forged there. And that is by far the more interesting point.
However, reading this book after the Rohingya crisis (which is still ongoing), some may find the lack of reference to the many minorities in Myanmar disappointing. They are mentioned at times but only sparingly. Having said that, this book is really about detail and a lot of things are not dealt with. This is not a comprehensive analysis of the realities of Myanmar, but it is not meant to be. Using Orwell is a successful device to give order and familiarity to an exploration of an often ignored country. In a way this is a take off point for those interested in the country and an interesting addition to those looking to analyse Orwell from a different perspective.