I was sitting in the park enjoying the sterling 80-degree weather the other day. I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma and enjoying it quite thoroughly. Then a crow shat on my knee. The poo fell from high above with much velocity and dribbled down my leg. I stopped reading and scurried off to the bathroom to clean myself.
The reason I mention my plight with the poo is because I think it relates to colonialism. Big fat cawing crows fly in from elsewhere and perch high above the citizenry. They then proceed to shit on the citizenry without pause. Once they have done all they can, they fly away home leaving a mess so great that efforts to clean it up are almost futile. Colonialism: The shit stain that won’t go away.
Anyway, my inane analogy aside, this is a fascinating little book. Writing under the assumed name of Emma Larkin (using her real name would spell doom for her friends in Burma and would make any return trips to the country quite dangerous) an American journalist based in Bangkok authored this peculiar combination travelogue and literary criticism. George Orwell's connection to Burmas was quite deep, he was born in colonial India, was stationed in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, later wrote a novel called Burmese Days about his experience in Burma, died in 1950 while in the process of writing a novella about “how a fresh-faced young man was irrevocably changed” after his time in Burma and, most importantly, modern-day Burma shares many characteristics with Orwell’s two most famous books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There is an overwhelming Big Brother presence in Burma, and Larkin encounters people who are fearful of having conversations with her in teashops, concerned that an informant could be lurking. Larkin altered most of the names used in the book, even several of the locations, in an effort to the spare the well-being of those she spoke with. The newspapers feature a ridiculous collection of stories about government officials traveling to and fro while failing to mention practical matters like a fourfold increase in train fares. In an effort to conceal bad news the government makes all news hard to come by. Even the Buddhist monks are controlled by the government, and their large influence is used to help keep people in step with the police state’s policies. Burma is second only to Afghanistan in the amount of heroin it produces and this heroin is predictably used to deepen the pockets of government officials while the masses struggle.
The response of a Burmese man when asked by Larkin why the people appear so carefree despite the conditions within the oppressive police state: “Burma is like a women with cancer, he explained. She knows she is sick, but she carries on with her life as if nothing is wrong. She refuses to go to a doctor for treatment… She talks to people they talk to her. They know she has cancer and she knows she has cancer, but nobody says anything.”
Larkin does a good job of giving a feel for how tyrannical the Burmese government is but I wish she had delved a bit further into her analysis of Orwell’s writing. Too often her discussion of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed like an afterthought. She sprinkled the book with little ancillary tidbits that never go beyond a most basic understanding of Orwell’s writing. But I found the book in the travel literature section and travel literature it is. Pretty good, too.