The International Writers Magazine
: Book Review

The Penguin Press, 2005, 294 pp., ISBN: 1-59420-052-1
Charlie Dickinson

he late economist E. F. Schumacher, in an influential essay, "Buddhist Economics," gave Burma (now Myanmar) as an example of a country with potential to succeed economically by staying faithful to its religious heritage. Burma's future would build on simplicity and nonviolence. In 1966, when Schumacher wrote this essay, he evidently had hope Burma might achieve something like a national "Right Livelihood," the underpinning for his later, classic SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: Economics As If People Mattered (1973). Alas, Schumacher's vision withered in Burma.

Today, "small is beautiful" economics in Burma more likely means wages as low as 4 cents an hour for a 45-hour workweek. Burma appalls the world as a leader in human rights abuse. If Schumacher hinted the wrong future for Burma, another British author might have gotten it right: George Orwell.

American journalist Emma Larkin (a pen name) discovers a standing joke that novelist George Orwell wrote a Burmese trilogy: BURMESE DAYS (based on his five years service with the British Imperial Police in colonial Burma in the 1920s), ANIMAL FARM (where dictatorial pigs, helped by a brutal squad of dogs, take over), and 1984 (which forecast police-state brutality of the sort keeping Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD Party was a landslide winner in the last free election, under house arrest). With FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA, Larkin gives the reader an Orwell-inspired window upon a garrison state most outsiders know too little about.

Larkin's engaging premise is to literally follow the footsteps of Orwell, spending a year visiting chronologically the five areas where a young Englishman Eric Ambler patrolled in the Colony, "dressed in khaki jodhpurs and shining black boots," before returning to England where he became the author we know as George Orwell.

Despite the fact that Larkin uses a pseudonym, she does not set out to write an expose of the Burmese government. (For starters, foreign journalists are unwelcome in today's Burma.) If Larkin invokes the rhetoric of human rights activists, she does so with restraint, preferring to let the words of people she meets tell of lost freedom. One of the more affecting scenes in the book occurs in the north-central city of Katha, where a young fellow she gets to know confesses every year he applies to the American Embassy for a visa to leave Burma for America, land of opportunity. He shrugs at the futility of his annual ritual. "Then, with a wonderfully hokey sense of timing, he launched into a slightly croaky rendition of 'Imagine' by John Lennon."

As a travelogue that revisits Orwell's stops in Mandalay, The Delta, Rangoon, Moulmein, and Katha, Larkin evokes textures of everyday life, whether it be taking a tea, eating exotic foods, dodging heavy rains, fending off mosquitoes in The Delta, or noting the decaying buildings Orwell knew long ago, and--always--the edgy paranoia in the air. Indeed, her amazement about Burma as a country asks the questions, How can such lush landscapes everywhere camouflage the brutal oppression of 50 million people?

Larkin's quest--which includes answering that question--picks up a number of threads, many of them tying back, of course, to Orwell's definitive insights into 20th Century totalitarianism. Burma's sad fate is complex and a number of factors come into play. Narcodollars support the oppressive regime, for Burma is like a Colombia of the East (though opium poppies, not the coca plant, are its offering to the world drug trade). Moreover, the Burmese majority has brutally opposed many minority ethnic populations. One northern minority, the mountain-living Karens only began backing off their armed resistance in 2004, after fifty years of fighting the Burmese. Burma's ethnic groups that don't coalesce suggest former Yugoslavia, not to mention Iraq now.

While Larkin doesn't try to solve Burma's political dilemma, she does comprehensively review how, in a not too infrequent pattern, Burma went post-colonial, only to stumble and free fall for a kleptocratic, oppressive regime. The tools she uses to lay out Burmese history are literary explications of Orwell's works against the literal backdrop that changed him from a Colonial policeman not without insensitivity (she mentions an instance of Orwell's abuse toward a native Burmese early in his stay) into an outstanding literary artist, who became the champion of the underdog, identifying with the suffering of the Burmese and returning to England, willing to be "down and out" in London and Paris, his life firmly committed to opposing the political scourge of the 20th Century: fascism in whatever guise it took.

FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA is recommended as an excellent travel-plus-literary adventure. Free Burma is one of the more compelling moral challenges facing the world community. Few starker examples of a subjugated people exist than a Peace Nobel Laureate, who remains under house arrest to this day.
© Charlie Dickinson Jan 3rd 2006
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