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Orwell’s Burmese Enigma

Monday, August 1, 2005

Emma Larkin.
Finding George Orwell in Burma.
Penguin Press. 294 pages. $22.95

Having spent five years in Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police, Eric Blair decided to pack up and return home. To the great disappointment of his family, he resigned from the police and devoted himself to writing, taking the pen name George Orwell. In 1934, he published his first novel, Burmese Days, the story of British policeman John Flory’s life in Burma. Burma also features in some of his most famous essays, including “Shooting An Elephant” and “A Hanging,” but it was not until he lay dying of tuberculosis at University College Hospital in London 16 years later that Orwell returned to Burma as a subject in his fiction. The unfinished novella, “A Smoking Room Story” — he only managed to eke out four pages of synopsis — was similar in plot to Burmese Days: an imperial policeman’s experience in Burma.

In her Finding George Orwell in Burma, “Emma Larkin” (a pseudonym meant to protect her Burmese sources) seeks to flesh out this meager but tantalizing biography: Why, she asks, did Orwell choose to write about Burma in his last days? And what was its influence on his life and his writings? Larkin, an American journalist who speaks fluent Burmese, spent a year tracing Orwell’s travels throughout Burma and collecting testimony from average Burmese laboring under a totalitarian regime. In doing so, Larkin takes inspiration from Orwell himself. As he writes in Down and Out in Paris and London, “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”

Thus, Larkin submerges herself among Burma’s oppressed. Given the dangers of associating with a foreigner or speaking out on Burmese politics, Larkin’s interviews — surprisingly candid, deeply personal, and at times funny, irreverent, and hopeful — are a testament to her skill as a reporter and a tribute to the courage of the Burmese. The tiny details she includes in her portraits of her Burmese friends are almost painful in their poignancy: a book collector whose treasury of banned books is slowly being eaten away by Burma’s ubiquitous white ants; a woman who recalls the names of her lost books as she would the names of her lovers; a political prisoner and poet who composes verses in his head and passes them on to his fellow prisoners; and a young student who loves Reader’s Digest because all the stories have happy endings.

In collecting these anecdotes, Larkin aims not only to find Orwell, his life and his work, in Burma, but also to find Burma, its history and its destiny, in Orwell’s writings. In her travels around the country — meeting with political dissidents in tea shops, touring pagodas and police barracks, and exploring the remnants of the long-lost world of the British Empire — she is surprised at how Orwell’s stories “paralleled the fears and emotions of the Burmese people I met.” She remarks that a common joke in Burma about Orwell is that he wrote not one but three books about Burma: “a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Such jokes echo throughout the book. One man notes wryly that Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned by the government but that no one in Burma need read it: “Why do they need to read it? They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives.” Another tells Larkin with relish that Animal Farm is “a very Burmese book. . . . Because it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country!”

Finding George Orwell is more than a travelogue or a literary biography. It is also a detective story: Orwell and Burma are the mysteries to be solved. Larkin observes that few scholars or writers have done research on the places Orwell visited during his time in Burma, and her book opens promisingly with hints of greater discoveries to come. Some event or person or thing in Burma, Larkin claims, had “irrevocably changed” Orwell and led him to his vocation: “I began to imagine that Orwell had seen something in Burma, had had some thread of an idea that had worked its way into all his writing.” Larkin’s Burmese friends agree: “I often think something really unpleasant must have happened to him when he was here in Burma,” one tells her. “It would be wonderful if you could find out.” Another argues that Orwell’s famous pessimism has its source in Burma. And Larkin suggests that the mystery of Orwell’s stay in Burma will solve yet another mystery: Burma’s future. Orwell, she writes, is known to the Burmese as “the prophet.”

Finding george Orwell in Burma often reminds one of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), another book about Western literature and its meaning for those trapped in Eastern tyrannies. (Larkin even organizes an “Orwell Book Club” during her stay.) Yet Larkin fails to connect her literary themes with her depiction of life in present-day Burma as seamlessly as Nafisi does for Iran. This is in part because Nafisi does not insist, as Larkin does, on showing how a novel or story directly parallels the particular political situation she is describing. Indeed, at the outset of Reading Lolita, Nafisi cautions her readers against such interpretations: The women in her book club, she writes, are not Lolitas, nor is Iran their solipsizing Humbert Humbert. Nafisi ultimately concerns herself less with the novels themselves than with the novel as an art form; that is, the novel as a work of the literary imagination — the way in which it allows the reader to look at the world through different eyes.

Larkin’s method, by contrast, rarely rises above plot summary. Much of Finding George Orwell is spent cataloguing the “Orwellian” aspects of life in Burma: the feeling of always being watched, of having one’s movements tracked, the “vaporizing” of political dissidents’ names and lives from the historical record, the use of torture to break the opposition’s will. While Larkin’s description of the Burmese police state can be compelling, her comparisons to Orwell’s dystopias are too tired to pack the rhetorical punch she intends. Name any actual or supposed tyrannical regime — North Korea, China, Iran, the Bush administration — and a writer’s first impulse is to evoke the rule of the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four and dub it “Orwellian” in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World now serves as a shorthand for the perils of cloning.

Such clichés serve only to distance the reader from the horrors of present-day Burma. The overuse of the term “Orwellian” weakens and diminishes our sense of the evil it actually represents. If the term can apply equally to the Patriot Act and North Korean concentration camps, then it has effectively been emptied of meaning.

Larkin takes tyranny seriously, of course, but she doesn’t seem to realize how commonplace Orwellian metaphors have become. In fact, she sometimes proceeds as though her readers have not previously run across such terms as newspeak, thoughtcrime, or doublethink. This leads her to pad the book with unnecessary rehashings. For example, she illustrates the ruthlessness of the Burmese government in forcing its prisoners to betray their friends by relating the entire storyline of Nineteen Eighty-Four — Winston Smith’s affair with Julia, his meeting with O’Brien and his capture, the torture to which he is subjected at the Ministry of Love, Winston’s betrayal of Julia — and then caps it off with a rather awkward transition: “The Burmese Military Intelligence use similarly brutal torture methods to coerce prisoners into informing on their friends and colleagues.”

Amidst all the plot summary one finds hints of what Finding George Orwell might have been. Larkin occasionally takes up the larger themes with which Orwell’s novels are concerned — the legacy of colonialism, the troubled relations between East and West, the ultimate fate of totalitarian powers — but she treats these matters haphazardly, raising them briefly only to forget about them and move on to describing the next town’s golden-roofed pagoda.

In one meeting with her Orwell Book Club, Larkin and her friends discuss depictions of the Burmese in Orwell’s novels. The younger members criticize Orwell, pointing to the characters of Burmese Days — John Flory’s slovenly Burmese mistress, a corrupt Burmese magistrate — and quoting postcolonial guru Edward Said on the impossibility of a Westerner ever being able to describe the Orient accurately. But an old Burmese teacher, who remembers British rule, defends Orwell — as well as the British Empire. The British brought civilization to Burma, he says. Now that the Burmese rule themselves, would anyone let his daughter travel alone from one town to another?

This encounter suggests any number of questions: What was the impact of British rule on Burma? Were the Burmese somehow unfit to rule themselves, as Edward Said claims Orwell believed? And if Orwell’s novels indeed comprise a trilogy about Burmese history, what does this say about the relationship of colonialism to totalitarianism? But Larkin lets all these questions go unanswered. In fact, she seems slightly embarrassed by such a politically incorrect discussion. In one of the later chapters, a Burmese historian revisits the subject and sides with the old teacher. “We are trained to listen to our elders,” she says. “We are trained to obey.” In other words, Burmese culture tends towards authoritarianism.

Larkin rushes back to safer ground. “I suggested a more accepted explanation of how authoritarianism was able to take root in Burma,” she writes; “it was the fault of the British.” The British government destroyed all traditional sources of authority in Burmese society, she argues, so when the British left, the country fell into chaos. The Burmese military simply filled a vacuum. This brief discussion represents the only consideration of colonialism’s legacy in the book.

Larkin’s treatment of Orwell is similarly simplistic, with more than a touch of myth-making to it. She treats Orwell’s novels as autobiographical, which is not entirely unwarranted: Orwell himself said writers tell you the most about themselves when writing about someone else. But the details she highlights as revealing truths about Orwell’s life too conveniently depict Orwell as the living embodiment of the “social conscience.” Reading Burmese Days, Larkin wonders whether Orwell had a Burmese mistress: John Flory did, she notes, and Orwell himself talked about the “sweetness” of Burmese women and wrote more than a few poems about bargaining for Burmese prostitutes. But Larkin quickly dismisses the thought: Orwell may have been tempted, she allows, but his “social conscience” must have been too strong to allow it.

Mostly, Larkin stays on steady ground. There’s not much speculation in the book. And for a work that promises new insights into Orwell’s life and thought, there’s not much that’s original either. Orwell’s life, as Larkin sees it, essentially follows the plot of “A Smoking Room Story” — that is, the tale of how a “fresh-faced young man was irrevocably changed after living in the humid tropical jungles of colonial Burma.” As she writes in the book’s last chapter:

The few snippets of autobiography that Orwell left behind indicate that his time in Burma was a major turning point in his life, marking his transformation from a snobbish public-school boy to a writer with a social conscience who would seek out the underdogs of society and try to tell their stories.

Larkin relies heavily on Orwell’s own accounts of his life in Burma, especially The Road to Wigan Pier, though she misses much of his sardonicism and wit. Her portrait of Orwell is all earnestness without irony or faults. In reality, Orwell could be a very nasty man. The Burmese remember Larkin’s “writer with a social conscience” beating with his cane a young boy who had accidentally caused him to stumble. That writer is the same Orwell who justifies the beating of servants and coolies by explaining that “Orientals can be very provoking.” And this was after being “irrevocably changed” by his encounter with Burma. Orwell is also the same man who wrote “Anti-Semitism in Britain,” an essay that condemned anti-Semitism as “irrational prejudice” and “not the doctrine of a grown-up person,” but who elsewhere observes, “What is bad about Jews is that they are not only conspicuous, but go out of their way to make themselves so” and calls Zionists “a gang of Wardour Street Jews” who control the British press.

It’s as hard to defend Larkin’s simple picture of Orwell as it is to justify her assertion that Orwell’s time in Burma was the major formative experience of his life. In Why I Write, Orwell makes it clear that the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler had a more powerful impact on his political and literary evolution. In Wigan Pier he writes that he was no different from any other colonialist in Burma. Almost all the British, he says, were ashamed and disgusted by their role in colonial rule:

The majority of Anglo-Indians, intermittently at least, are not nearly so complacent about their position as people in England believe. From the most unexpected people, from gin-pickled old scoundrels high up in the Government service, I have heard some such remark as: “Of course we’ve no right in this blasted country at all. Only now we’re here for God’s sake let’s stay here.”

Yet not every Brit who served in the colonies became a champion of the oppressed. Something else made Orwell different, something deeper than the mere experience of living in Burma. “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness,” Orwell says in Why I Write. “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Larkin wants to explain Orwell in reference to Burma when she should be looking at the demons in his soul. Orwell’s writings did not proceed directly from first-hand experience.  How could Orwell write so vividly about oppression despite his never having been oppressed, Larkin asks a Burmese poet at one point in the book. She then answers her own question: It was because of his experience in Burma, she argues, where he witnessed the suffering of the Burmese and the injustice of colonial rule. The poet disagrees, offering the story of an English poet who, he tells her, wrote a highly praised poem about Russia, which won a prestigious award. But before the award was given, it was discovered that the poet had never been to Russia. The poet was criticized for misleading her readers. The criticism was “very wrong-headed,” the Burmese poet tells Larkin. “The poet wrote from her imagination and that is real art: to be able to imagine something you have not experienced.”

Finding George Orwell in Burma would have been a better book had Larkin given up on the “finding Orwell” part and concentrated on Burma. She ultimately fails to uncover the secret of Orwell’s literary imagination, but her portrayal of Burma’s political reality forces one to look at the world with new eyes. When she puts fiction aside and focuses on the real world, she comes closest to her literary aspirations.