Book Review: Orwell in Burma

With the world seemingly headed towards an Orwellian Big Brother type era with all the new technology that can be used to spy on people (I’m looking at you Alexa. No, shut up Alexa, I did not ask you anything!), and news stories often alluding to 1984, the last author I thought I would be reading this year was George Orwell. However, when the opportunity came up to travel with two of my favorite Travel Vloggers on a chartered river boat cruise in Myanmar, I only got so far as choosing a room on the boat before my reading list was set. The Irrawaddy Explorer has several different types of suites on board and three of them are named for colonial authors who wrote about their time spent in Burma – Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and George Orwell. After comparison of the suites, I decided (based on the amenity of a balcony, not how fairly the author’s had dealt with the Burmese locals) to lodge in one of the Orwell rooms.

This led to my next search: What was Orwell’s connection to Burma? Turns out George Orwell, who’s real name was Eric Blair, was a military police in Burma during the British occupation of the country. To be brief, he grew disillusioned with the British treatment of Burma so he returned home to England to become a writer and whereupon wrote the novel, Burmese Days.

The next task was to get my hands on a copy. Being somewhat busy, I decided to tackle Orwell’s book by audio, so I opened my iPhone Audible app and consequently discovered another author had already traveled to Burma to follow in Orwell’s footsteps and written up her account. Figuring this book would provide me with more context to understand Orwell’s novel, I decided to start my Myanmar reading list with Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin.

*For those wondering: Burma and Myanmar are the same place. It’s a country next to Thailand.*

Below are my reviews of first Larkin’s book, then Orwell’s.

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a book through these links, I will make a few cents at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting this blog!

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Purchase Finding George Orwell in Burma via AmazonPurchase Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin via IndieBound | Amazon

Published by / date: Penguin Press, March 2006
Audible narrator / date: Emily Durante, June 2010
Genre/s: Non Fiction, Travel, Memoir, History, Journalism

Where it takes place: Burma / Myanmar

Quick Summary

Author Emma Larkin travels around Burma/Myanmar in the footsteps of George Orwell.

The book opens with a scene in which the author meets a small group of locals at a cafe for a sort of book club meeting about Orwell’s novels. The description of this meeting really sets the tone for the book. Larkin is traveling in Myanmar at a time when the country is ruled by a military dictatorship. The Burmese Government prohibits anti-government talk, restricts education, literature, and news to “government sanctioned” only, and rules the country through the threat of undercover government informers. Larkin’s “book club” sits in the center of the cafe where the TV sound plays over their conversation and the conversation of tables around them hopefully drowns out their talk. Throughout the rest of the book Larkin has to be careful what she says to who, locals speak to her only in private and on condition of anonymity, and she is often tailed or escorted in her travels by outright or suspected government officials/informers. All in pursuit of following an author’s footsteps.

Besides being a travelogue, the book is also a history of politics in Burma. In providing context for the current culture of Burma/Myanmar that she finds herself in, Larkin interestingly provides a history of the country’s political changes, while also analyzing three of Orwell’s books as they relate to those changes. According to the locals Larkin meets, Orwell’s Burmese Days, 1984, and Animal Farm can be considered a trilogy, and he a prophet, because events in Burma played out much like they did in the three novels.

About the Author

Emma Larkin is a pseudonym. Which after reading this book, comes as no surprise, and I don’t think she decided to write using a pen-name simply because the author whose footsteps she was following also wrote under a nom-de-plume.

She writes about Burmese individuals who nobody should know she met with. There are people, similar to characters in 1984, who keep lists of events that happen that are not recorded in the news because the government doesn’t want the public to know what’s really happening. These people do not want to be exposed. And local tour guides of Westerners try to get messages out about what’s really happening. Although the author changes names, she herself could probably be in danger from the Burmese government for meeting with people they consider a danger to the ruling party.

The most I could find about this author online is that she’s an American journalist, raised in Asia who studied the Burmese language in school and has been covering Burma for years through her journalism. (Source)

Places to Visit

I have two excuses for not noting the various cities, towns, and sites which Larkin visited.

  1. First the lame excuse, I was listening while driving and therefore could not take notes.
  2. Secondly, while the country has opened up to some tourism, tourists are still only allowed in certain sanctioned areas by the current government. Larkin often went poking around government buildings where Orwell may have worked as a military police, which made officials wary of her. Thus, I don’t suggest that you or I can, or should, attempt to follow Orwell or Larkin’s footsteps exactly.

My Thoughts

Overall, I found the book interesting, horrifying, and surprisingly entertaining at times. Occasionally it made me wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in thinking a trip to the country is a good idea. It also threw me into a few other thoughtful conundrums.

First, in choosing books related to Myanmar before visiting, I recognized that the readings suggested by the boat suites were all Western colonialist authors and I should probably find books by local Burmese authors to read as well. A decision I had to rethink my approach to after reading something one of the Burmese locals expressed to Larkin. She relates that the literature published under the military dictatorship is all propaganda and lies. Manuscripts not approved by the government never saw the light of day. So what qualifies as a real look at a country? A book by a British colonialist with racist bias? A book by an American journalist with information gathered from anti-government sentimentalists? Or a book by a local author, possibly knowingly filled with propaganda or constricted to a certain version of the truth?

Second, I have never lived in a position where books have to be squirreled away, or traveled anywhere that I couldn’t tell people I was there following in an author’s footsteps. I was aware that this happens in some places, but I had never really had to wrestle with the idea of it until listening to this audiobook. I know the country has changed since Larkin’s trip, because now they have an annual literary festival, but I still won’t be trying to start any book clubs while I’m there.

Finally, this is the first time I have hoped that I would not find a place exactly as described in the book. At least not in the sense of having to worry about undercover government informers, and frequent power outages, as Larkin had to. I have no doubt that the views of pagodas will be as stunning as described. I do wonder, however, if as tourists we shall see what we are meant to see, which is a sanitized version of the country meant for Westerners to experience. We shall only be in areas the government has opened to tourists, far from the genocide, refugee camps, and humanitarian crisis currently plaguing the country.

One last thought. Larkin did not make me want to read Orwell’s Burmese Days. It sounds horribly depressing.

My Rating

[pipdig_stars rating=”5″ align=”center” color=”#00b3b3″]

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Purchase Burmese Days via AmazonPurchase Burmese Days by George Orwell via IndieBound | Amazon

First Published: 1934
Audible narrator / date: Frederick Davidson, 2012
Genre/s: Historical Fiction

Where it takes place: Burma of 1924 (now Myanmar)

Quick Summary

The main character, John Flory, is a British government official stationed in Burma who is disillusioned with his fellow Europeans’ racist treatment and feelings towards the Burmese locals and an Indian doctor living in the community. Flory tries to act like his white European male colleagues, taking a local girl as a concubine, spending time drinking at “The Club”, and staying silent when the doctor’s reputation is smeared. Inwardly, he is lonely and disgusted with himself. His only happiness comes from friendly visits and conversations with the doctor and solo walks with his dog.

When a young British woman arrives in Burma to stay with her relatives, Flory hopes to find companionship, however his happiness is subverted by a plotting Burmese magistrate.

About the Author

George Orwell, or Eric Blair, was so disillusioned with his experience as a British Military official in Burma, that not only did he leave the service to become a writer, but he set out to write an unhappy ending for his main character of Burmese Days. His more famous later books, 1984 and Animal Farm, may have also been based on the direction he saw government in Burma progressing.

Related books to read by this author

  • 1984
  • Animal Farm

Places to visit

Yangon (previously Rangoon) – Kyauktada is a fictional place based on Rangoon, where Orwell was posted as an MP.

My Thoughts

My first impression upon starting this book is that it is not for those easily offended by racism or the use of the n-word. This book is worse than Huckleberry Finn, which was banned for its use of that word. Although we might excuse the racist behavior as par for the course of the time and situation in which the book takes place, reading it now will make you cringe. There are British officer characters that speak openly about their disgust for the locals. The young woman who arrives in camp, although she never says anything rude directly to any Burmese, considers the natives dirty and disgusting and hates when Flory takes her to the market or a local show. She prefers to stay at The Club among the finery and luxury of the Westerners. Even the main character, although he doesn’t mind attending local events, and is cognizant of not offending locals and respecting their traditions, still thinks of them as inferior and crude people.

I was disappointed with Orwell’s portrayal of all the characters in the novel because there was not one sympathetic figure. Although I wanted to like the main character because he was not as racist as his compatriots, he was still a disagreeable figure. What was more frustrating, however, was Orwell’s portrayal of the Burmese characters. The two prominent Burmese characters were an evil, plotting magistrate and the other was the local girl the main character had bought for use as a concubine. Even when she was unceremoniously thrown out by Flory and ruined, she still came across as a sniveling and conniving person rather than one to be pitied.

Strangely enough, it was this equally terrible portrayal of both the Burmese and British under colonial rule that won this book the highest literary award in Burma in 2012 for informative translated literature. (Source)

Although the characters left something to be desired, and the story is fictional, elements of the novel can still be recognized in the country today. For one, the traditional longee, a sort of wrap-around skirt, is still worn daily by everyone. Also, buildings that look architecturally British can still be seen today in various states of ruin around the country. The book provides an idea of the events that took place behind these old colonial doors.

My Rating

[pipdig_stars rating=”3″ align=”center” color=”#00b3b3″]

If you’re curious about the local Myanmar traditions still practiced today and what life is like along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss upcoming posts!

Let’s Talk!

Have you read either of these books? Are you familiar with Burma/Myanmar? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

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