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The Prophet of Burma?

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27.07.2010

Advantages:
An enthralling, well researched and well written read .

Disadvantages:
It's not a travel guide as such  -  travel meets literature meets history !

Recommendable Yes:

Detailed rating:

How useful was it?

Would you read it again?

Degree of InformationMedium

How easy was it to read / get information fromVery easy

How interesting was the book?Captivating

Value for moneySatisfactory

29 Ciao members have rated this review on average: very helpful See ratings
very helpful by (100%):
  1. melinda3536
  2. chocoholic
  3. plod591
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Finding George Orwell...on a Cambodian Bookshelf

I found a copy of 'Finding George Orwell in Burma' on a guesthouse bookshelf in Cambodia recently, and having both an interest in Orwell and Myanmar (formerly called Burma) in South East Asia, I immediately picked it out.

This short book is actually part travel diary, part literary investigation and part history lesson, and I found the mix of the three very enjoyable. We join American journalist and traveller Emma Larkin as she travels throughout Myanmar retracing the footsteps of George Orwell, who was stationed as a Police Officer in Colonial Burma in his youth. Talking to various Burmese intellectuals, political activists, book lovers and members of the general public, Larkin investigates the connections between three of Orwell's novels - 'Burmese Days', 'Animal Farm', and '1984' - Orwell's experiences of the country under British Empirical rule, and the current military junta ruling modern Myanmar with an iron fist. It's no wonder that with the issues discussed in 'Animal Farm' and '1984' in particular, many Burmese scholars refer to Orwell as 'the Prophet', able to foresee the authoritarian mess that the country would become.

As Larkin visits the towns, cities and villages where the young Orwell spent his early career, we are led on an investigation to see not only what led Orwell to quit his position, return to England and become a writer, but also what happened to the country both during and after his residency.

My Opinion

As purely a travel guide, this book would be next to useless - despite visiting numerous places within Myanmar, such as Katha and the legendary city of Mandalay, there is very little practical information. If you're looking for where to stay and eat, for example, you will need to buy a guide book, as 'Finding George Orwell in Burma' is a curious mix of travel, political and literary commentary, and far from your average travel book!

We get to read not only about the early life of Orwell, which is very interesting in itself, but the country under British rule, when Burma was classed as part of India and was crying out for Policemen such as Orwell to rule the 'savage' natives. The book details the shocking similarities between Orwell's 'Burmese Trilogy' of 'Burmese Days', 'Animal Farm' and '1984', and the recent historical and current state of affairs in modern Myanmar. Using testimonials from locals, smuggled news reports and insider information, Larkin takes a comprehensive, if slightly Americanised look at the corrupt regime currently in place and it's underhand and brutal methods of controlling it's people. Comparing real-life events with prophetic paragraphs from Orwell's books, it is easy to see the links between the two. In modern Myanmar, the equivalent of Big Brother is always watching, and by building up an atmosphere of quiet terror in it's people, backed up by imprisonment, hard labour and torture, the military junta in control have in effect created a very similar world to that in which Winston Smith lives in '1984'.

I found the book to be very well written, in a manner that kept my interest throughout. Although most of the names of the locals featured in the book have had to be changed in order to protect them from the investigations of the MI (Burmese Military Intelligence), we still get a great sense of their personalities, their opinions on the terrifying regime they are living under, and the huge risks they are willing to take in order to speak out against their Government and tell the story of Myanmar to the world via Emma Larkin (also a pen-name - journalists are seldom allowed into Myanmar, and those who write against the country using their own names are asking for trouble!)

Descriptions of both people and places are vivid, and the country of Burma comes across as a very strange mix of absolute fear and a colourful sense of 'life goes on'. As one Burmese interviewee states, Myanmar is very much like a lady with cancer - she knows she has the disease, everyone else around her knows, but no one talks about it. She puts on her make up and carries on with her life as best she can, trying to ignore what is eating away at her. Each chapter, however dark in it's content, generally ends with a more uplifting observation. Even when Government informers are lurking in corners, ready to report on their neighbours and the comings and goings of any dangerous foreigners (and all foreigners are dangerous!), we still see the vibrancy of the traditional tea shops, oblivious children happily splashing in puddles, and the afternoon tea and biscuits of old ladies, left behind when the British abandoned Burma.

Although the main part of the book ends on a positive note, the epilogue is once again slightly depressing, emphasising the lengths those in control are willing to go to to make sure the country stays firmly under it's control and effectively closed to the outside world. I've been to Myanmar very briefly twice, and although the facade of modernity and control was firmly in place when I went, this book did leave me with the urge to strip it's cover off, re-bind it in something non-offensive to the government and leave it lying around over there, just to let people know that word is getting out.

At just 304 pages, this isn't a particularly long read, but nonetheless it's very enjoyable. It's also currently selling on Amazon for around £7, but I'd recommend shopping around to find a cheaper price, as the book is only short for that amount of money.

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Comments about this review »

chocoholic 11.10.2010 07:45

This sounds fab, I loved Animal Farm and would like to know more about Orwell.

Amy69 28.07.2010 14:51

Great review x

theguester 28.07.2010 13:04

Great review :)

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Country Myanmar
Continent South East Asia
Edition Paperback

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This review of Finding George Orwell in Burma - Emma Larkin has been rated:

"very helpful" by (100%):

  1. melinda3536
  2. chocoholic
  3. plod591

and 32 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

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