Did the author of '1984' foretell the Burma of 2005?
In Orwell's footsteps a compassionate journalist evokes a society of hushed voices, but its complexities go beyond the insights of 'Animal Farm'
In the middle of May bombs struck Burma's capital, leaving 19 dead and numerous wounded. The government blamed dissident ethnic groups, then exiled opponents based in Thailand, and finally the CIA. Its adversaries traced the carnage to a government plot to distract world attention from its iniquities, while others saw an ongoing power struggle following a former prime minister's ejection. An Orwellian situation by all accounts.
Ironically, George Orwell, the 20th century's greatest fictional commentator on totalitarianism, situated his first novel in Burma, now officially called Myanmar. He would have recognized the mentality behind a 1989 government statement that "truth is true only within a certain period of time. What was truth once may no longer be truth...." An example of post-modernist thinking Burmese style.
This is the country explored by Emma Larkin, an American journalist who visits places associated with Orwell's early life. In 1922 the 19-year-old Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in the service of the British Empire. As Larkin searches for surviving traces of his stay, she meets the locals.
The book's European edition was entitled "Secret Histories," an apt designation for Orwell's past and the present life stories unfolded in the shadow of an ever watchful government. Since her informants trace their private and public woes to an oppressive regime, Larkin draws on Orwell's most famous novels - "Animal Farm" and "1984" - to understand their travails. Like Orwell, Larkin vividly evokes a world of whispered conversations, fleeting encounters, and hushed voices, to document life's horrors in a repressive society.
Larkin assumes that Orwell's fictions targeting the communist and fascist prototypes of his day illuminate her interlocutors' endured miseries. She juxtaposes those fictions with what she interprets as their current Burmese manifestation. The argument that Orwell's Burmese experience informed his famous critiques is used to justify these comparisons.
Larkin's engaging prose reveals an observant, compassionate, and sensitive traveler whose often elegiac narrative draws on naturalistic descriptions to mirror the somber mood and agonizing tales she hears. But "Finding George Orwell in Burma" discloses more about Larkin than about the country she explores, since the combination of Orwellianisms and imported preconceptions does not produce a subtle understanding of contemporary Burma. She knows ahead of time what she will find, and it only remains for her informants to provide confirmations - which they do. Larkin takes Orwell at his word regarding the Burma of the 1920s, much as she raises no questions about what she is told.
This is not to suggest that what Larkin hears is a pack of lies, only that her unwillingness to distance herself from her information, and evaluate it critically, produces predictable conclusions. When the author places the secret histories supplied her in a broader context, the outcome rarely rises above journalistic advocacy in layers of propaganda and disinformation.
Readers will be moved by her prose and, like this reviewer, share her sympathies, but remain ill informed about the country's complexities. Orwell's "Burmese Days" is a flawed guide to life under the Raj, while later secondary information gathered from NGOs and interested parties is inadequate for the present day.
The sins charged against the current Burmese government are familiar. This does not invalidate their gravity but indicates indebtedness to sources with a vested interest in making a wretched situation look worse to counterbalance governmental lies. Clichés are supplemented by an uncritical admiration for the embattled opposition, whose moral high ground is eloquently expounded without a peek behind its facade.
Larkin also assumes the "jury is still out" on whether the West's policy of reform by impoverishment has worked. It hasn't. A country that in the 1960s voluntarily shut itself off from the outside world now endures an externally imposed lockdown, making its people's abject lives even worse.
Orwell used art for moral statements about what he interpreted as a clash between cultures corrupted by their encounter. Today's Burma is a country mired in a civil war, whose participants are prisoners of their past - of which Orwell's detested Raj (crudely blamed here for the country's later ills) was a fleeting, though influential episode. Larkin's judgments fall short because the keys to Burma's current morass are not Orwellian insights into two very different forms of totalitarianism but a millennium of Burmese history and Theravada Buddhism.
• Historian Lilian Handlin is researching Pali Buddhist texts inscribed in 11th- to 13th-century temples in one of Burma's ancient kingdoms, now known as Pagan.