- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA

By Emma Larkin

Penguin, $22.95, 294 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

This book won rave reviews last year when it first appeared in Britain and it deserved every one of them. Emma Larkin, the pen name of an American journalist based in Bangkok, had an idea so obvious that of course no one had thought of it before: She decided to visit Burma at length and go to all the places where George Orwell lived and worked during his five years in the British colonial service in the 1920s. What she found should revolutionize every published study and accepted wisdom about Orwell. And, not incidentally, she also produced one of the most insightful and valuable books yet to appear about the long totalitarian torture of the people of Burma, or Myanmar under its 44-year-long (so far and counting) military dictatorship.

Ever since Orwell became a global icon and one of the most important writers of the past century with the publication of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” it has been generally believed that his extraordinary wisdom about totalitarianism and the abuses of all kinds of power came from his experience fighting for the Republican cause in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. His piercing understanding and loathing of Soviet communism, and all its fellow travelers and accoutrements, certainly stemmed from that seminal experience.

But what Ms. Larkin shows is that Orwell was already “Orwell” long before he ever set foot in Spain. The life-transforming experiences that turned the intellectual and sensitive but still largely conformist young Eric Blair, the child and grandchild of centuries of dutiful, decent and competent servants of the British Empire into George Orwell, the fearless socialist firebrand who loathed the empire with a fervent passion and only much later in his life, and much to his own surprise, came to embrace the homely joys of simple English life, came from his own “Burmese Days” — the title he used for his first and in many respects, as Larkin persuasively and compellingly argues, his most self-revealing and autobiographical novel.

For Orwell, contrary to his later projected self-image, was not an ineffectual, hapless or even hostile servant of the empire in Burma. Ms. Larkin trawls both the archival record and the handful of remaining testimony from those who knew him in Burma to show that he was an energetic, effective colonial policeman and administrator dealing with vicious roaming criminal gangs as formidable and terrifying as the worst Mexican drug cartels today. She even adduces compelling testimony to indicate that Orwell at first shared the arrogant and even abusive racism of many of his colleagues although he reacted against all of it by the time he left with an intensity that drove him for the rest of his life.

For it was immediately after Orwell came back home that he abandoned not only his colonial career but all the comforts and opportunities of middle class domesticity he had been reared in to become a tramp, quite literally “Down and Out in London and Paris” — the title of one of his earliest vivid examples of social reporting, again produced long before he ever went to Spain. And what inoculated Orwell against the pervasive, infantile and contemptible adoration of Stalin and his bloodbaths that pervaded the left across the West in the 1930s? Ms. Larkin argues brilliantly that it was his experience in the British colonial service. He had been a policeman. He had investigated real murders and like any homicide cop in a big city, knew all too well the unique intimacies of violent death.

To all this Ms. Larkin adds the texture and tastes of her own travels in 21st century Burma, a land that for four and a half decades, she argues, has had as literal a physical fulfillment of the totalitarian nightmare portrayed in “1984” as any society on the planet. And Burmese dissidents know it — they claim Orwell wrote not just one but three books about their country — “Burmese Days” “Animal Farm” and “1984.” It’s a joke — but one meant to be taken literally.

Unforgettable are her descriptions of sensitive, humane souls who obsessively read literature in their private lives as a refuge from the insufferable oppression and wall-to-wall carpets of lies that smother them in the wider world. One elderly gentleman lives in a house filled with inches thick layers of dust. The only well-trodden footpaths through it, Larkin notes, are from his recliner chair to his beloved collection of old English-language books. Then there is the elderly lady who will only talk politics to Larkin while walking down the aisles of her Western-style supermarket, a refuge she loves to frequent, even though she cannot afford to buy a single one of the highly-priced items in it.

The pen portraits in this book are truly harrowing and to this reviewer at least carried haunting echoes of the decades-long isolated sufferings of Russian intellectuals under Joseph Stalin and his successors and of Arab ones under such tyrants as Saddam Hussein. As in Orwell’s own Burmese novel, one can taste the tang of betel juice, feel the oppressive humidity and brush off the endless buzzing mosquitoes in her prose.

Burma got beneath George Orwell’s skin and never left it. On his deathbed from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of only 46 he dreamed of returning there in his imagination. He was already at work on a planned novella set there. The beauty and suffering of that shamefully-overlooked nation clearly got to Ms. Larkin as well — just as it will to every reader of her wonderful book.

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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