03 January 2015

Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Maybe my hopes for this book were too high, but I found it frustratingly low on both material and analysis. There are plenty of evocative descriptions of tea houses and lush vegetation, but what would ostensibly be the three main topics of the book, namely, how Burma influenced Orwell, how Orwell is perceived in Burma, and what life in Burma is like, all seemed quite vague to me.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way that the author's sense of the political reality in Burma is repeatedly seen through the lens of Orwell's 1984 -- even as s/he* ponders to what extent the novel was a product of Orwell's imagination. There is this fascinating back and forth between fiction and reality, as Larkin struggles to get a sense of what Burma is really like, and can only seem to do so via fiction, but also tries to use those fictions as an entry point into penetrating the mind of their author. I was often annoyed by how much Larkin leaned on Orwell in this regard, repeatedly summarizing parts of both 1984 and Burmese Days without adding much. In other words, I found myself wondering what Larkin was telling me that I hadn't already gotten from Orwell himself.

What I also found fascinating was how many of the current regime's practices -- and probably Orwell's own ideas, which may or may not have been the backbone of 1984 -- were drawn from foundations laid by the British colonialist administration. It is amazing to me that the British get off so lightly in this account. Aside from these very understated observations, the emphasis is mostly on how much worse the current regime is, and moments of criticism are often balanced with more positive counter-claims. I grant that colonialism and its legacies are complex and that its remnants are not 100% negative, but I find it somewhat outrageous that there is not more outrage. I suppose, however, that it is because Larkin treads lightly on the issue that we can calmly notice the intriguing ambivalence of Orwell. Mingled shame, anger, excoriation, but also nostalgia and complicity. 

It is an interesting book and a thought-provoking one. But it did not quite live up to my expectations.

* Emma Larkin is a pseudonym.

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