Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Finding George Orwell in Burma

Finding George Orwell in Burma

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by Emma Larkin

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A fascinating political travelogue that traces the life and work of George Orwell in Southeast Asia

Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she's come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as "Orwellian." The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma,


A fascinating political travelogue that traces the life and work of George Orwell in Southeast Asia

Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she's come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as "Orwellian." The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma's connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell's mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell's work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country - his first novel, Burmese Days - but in fact he wrote three, the "trilogy" that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, "Ah, you mean the prophet!"

In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma's far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell's moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author's compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book - the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Well-researched and fascinating...Remarkable."—San Francisco Chronicle

"One of the most unusual travelogues to come out of Southeast Asia in some time, and a truer picture of authoritarianism than anyone has written since, perhaps, Orwell himself."—Mother Jones

"[This] mournful, meditative, appealingly idiosyncratic book is a hybrid, an exercise in literary detection but also a political travelogue that uses Burma to explain Prwell, and Orwell—especially the Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar (as it is now known)."—The New York Times

"This is one of those rare books, a beautifully crafted account of a journey which actually takes the reader somewhere new and unusual. Emma Larkin did not just go searching for Orwell, she found him. Along the way, she made the chilling discovery that in modern-day Burma, the totalitarian tyrannies he evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four are horrifyingly alive and well."—Jon Lee Anderson

"Combining literary criticism and solid field reporting, [Larkin] captures the country at its best, and more often, its worst."—San Francisco Chronicle

William Grimes
Emma Larkin pursues the young Eric Blair (the pseudonym would come later) all over Burma in Finding George Orwell in Burma, revisiting the places where he lived and worked to reimagine the experiences that helped shape his political outlook and his writing. Her mournful, meditative, appealingly idiosyncratic book is a hybrid, an exercise in literary detection but also a political travelogue that uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell - especially the Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four - to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar (as it is now known).
— The New York Times
Carolyn See
When she's not researching Orwell or recording citizen complaints, Larkin paints evocative pictures of Rangoon and Mandalay and the magnificent Irrawaddy River, of nighttime markets twinkling with fairy lights, old colonial mansions (still crumbling but grand), children playing in the streets, adults laughing in teahouses. Humans can be incredibly resilient. The Burmese may reside in an awful form of purgatory, as that spinster said, but even the most wretched of them may cherish a hope for some form of salvation. At the very least, the country has been blessed in Orwell, its own anguished prophet.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The author, an American journalist fluent in Burmese, writing under a pseudonym, notes that there's a joke in Burma (now Myanmar) that Orwell wrote not one novel about the country, but three: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. The first takes place during the British colonial days, while the latter two, Larkin argues, more closely reflect the situation there today. " `Truth is true only within a certain period of time,' " she quotes a regime spokesman saying after a 1988 uprising. " `What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.' " Indeed, providing an accurate representation of Burmese life proves daunting, as Larkin encounters a nation bristling with informants and paranoia. Her language skills, however, allow her to glean information and mingle with the country's reserved and cautious intelligentsia. In addition to Larkin's depiction of the political landscape, the book also features wonderfully vibrant descriptions of the land and people. Larkin's prose is striking and understated, and she allows the people she meets to speak their parts without editorializing. In this way, she comes across not as an idealist but rather as an inquisitive and trustworthy guide to the underlying reality of a country whose leaders would rather have outsiders focus only on their carefully constructed veneer. "All you had to do, it seemed," Larkin writes, "was scratch the surface of one of the town's smiling residents and you would find bitterness or tears." Her efforts have resulted in a lucid and insightful illustration of truly Orwellian circumstances. Agent, Jeffrey Simmons. (June 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Larkin (a pseudonym) is a Burmese-speaking American journalist who decided to go to Burma to retrace all the steps George Orwell took as a young police officer in the British colonial service. She was guided by Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days — she repeats the witticism that Orwell did not write just one book about Burma's police state, but a trilogy that also includes Animal Farm and 1984 — and skillfully weaves Orwell into her own experiences in contemporary Burma. Her account of what she came across is at times very moving. Older intellectuals there still live in a world filled with nineteenth-century English novels, but her other encounters make vivid the repressive nature of the Burmese military government. By gracefully stepping back and forth between the writings of a great novelist and the history of a troubled country, and recording it in smooth, flowing prose, Larkin shows herself to be a master both in a great literary tradition and of reporting on a brutal tyranny.
Kirkus Reviews
From an American journalist writing under a pseudonym, a courageous, important examination of the bleak totalitarian state of Myanmar. It was known as Burma in the 1920s, when Orwell worked there as an officer of the British Imperial Police. The British were in the process of perfecting their reign of oppression in Burma, and much of Larkin's portrait traces the development of Orwell's social conscience through what he learned and witnessed. Though Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984 were all written by the time Burma became independent in 1948, these three novels "effectively tell the story of Burma's recent history," she argues. Following in his footsteps three-quarters of a century later, Larkin traveled to Myanmar, nestled idyllically between India and Thailand, and uncovered uncanny parallels between its abysmal social and political conditions and Orwell's fictional depictions. Despite the facade it presents to the world of smiling natives and pretty pagodas, the country's military dictatorship has one of the worst human-rights records anywhere. "We are a country of 50 million hostages," noted one intrepid man, talking with Larkin (who speaks Burmese) at one of the ubiquitous teashops where people congregate, despite the peril of being watched and recorded. Since the ill-fated democratic uprising of May 1988, history is being eerily rewritten in Myanmar. Dissidents are whisked away to prison, their names vaporized-much like the dystopia portrayed in 1984. Larkin traveled the route along which Orwell was variously posted and uses the colonial names he knew. She went from Mandalay, where he attended Police Training School, to the mosquito-rich Delta. She visited the grandly constructedcity of Rangoon and the nearby town of Insein, site of a jail built by the British that is now a notoriously brutal lock-up for the regime's political prisoners. Dogged by military intelligence wherever she went, Larkin sought out teachers, psychologists and writers who longed to tell the truth. A crucial expose of a scandalous regime.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.06(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.51(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A truer picture of authoritarianism than anyone has written since, perhaps, Orwell himself." —-Mother Jones

Meet the Author

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia, studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and covers Asia widely in her journalism from her base in Bangkok. Larkin is also the author of No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma.  She has been visiting Burma for close to ten years.

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Finding George Orwell in Burma 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Describes the beauty of the land and people while exploring colonial Burma and the destruction wreaked by the Ne Win military regime. Heartbreaking, beautifully written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Emma writes a lovely, rythmic narrative of her travels through this rather mysterious and repressed country. I have read several books - non-fiction and fiction - about Burma but finished this book with an excellent understanding of the country, past and present. There is no reason to read George Orwell to enjoy Larkin's book. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
All I have to say about this book is that if you have ever read even a single word of George Orwell's, YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Secret Histories takes you on an enchanting journey onto the heart of one of the most fascinating and sometimes bizarre countries in the world. Larkin¿s easy style paints a colourful picture of South East Asia¿s poorest country where the local¿s natural charm and humour is starkly contrasted against the sinister workings of the state. Her empathy with the people she meets enables her to provide a vivid insight into the lives and hearts of the Burmese and how they cope with their dark surround. This is cleverly interwoven with the Orwell¿s life as a colonial in the 1920s, a life into which he never really fitted. How did this, much changed country, look through his eyes and to what effect? Could any of this explain the striking parallels between his later writings and the course that his former homeland has taken? In short Secret Histories is a book not to be missed by those interested in this fascinating country, fans of Orwell or those just wanting a damn good read. 10 out of 10.