Part travelogue, part political treatise, Finding George Orwell in Burma traces Orwell's experiences in 20th-century Burma while keenly observing the realities of daily existence under the brutal dictatorship that rules the country today. Asian-born American journalist Emma Larkin (a pseudonym used to protect her ability to continue reporting) follows the footsteps of the dystopian author's formative years as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s. Along the way she discovers how much the Southeast Asian country's repressive leadership has patterned itself after the ruthless regimes of Orwell's fiction.
Larkin, who speaks fluent Burmese, sprinkles her eyewitness reports on the villages and neighborhoods of Orwell's in-country years with passages from his first novel, Burmese Days, and his more famous works Animal Farm and 1984.
Daily life in Burma (Larkin never refers to it as Myanmar, a name given it by the generals in power as a way of rewriting history) is difficult. Inflation and corruption are rampant, free speech and a free press are nonexistent, and spies for military intelligence hover everywhere. Torture, imprisonment and disappearance are common, even for minor infractions. Despite grinding poverty, unemployment and lack of basic human rights, the Burmese people Larkin describes are optimistic about their future, bolstered by secret libraries of banned literature, clandestine meetings and hushed discussions with the occasional foreigner.
Larkin's dispassionate prose sketches a portrait which is instructive but never maudlin, enlightened but not judgmental about the Burmese people's reactions to their plight. After all, as they say, it can't really get any worse. Readers of Finding George Orwell in Burma will soon come to understand why Orwell is revered there as a prophet. Kelly Koepke is a freelance writer in Albuquerque.