A country that puts a face to Big Brother

Secret Histories
September 17, 2004

In Burma, a country ruled by successive totalitarian regimes, the name George Orwell is synonymous with "prophet" for the Burmese. His books Burmese Days , Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four seem to predict and chronicle what would become of a wealthy country when ruled by power-hungry zealots.

The books inadvertently describe the emergence of the new Burmese rulers as we know them today. For example, the description of the "villain" U Po Kyin, who personifies the "native" scum in Burmese Days, is more than just guesswork, and one can see his rise in Animal Farm as a revolutionary pig and as a faceless Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. To a Burmese reader, Orwell clearly foresaw that people such as U Po Kyin would take over Burma one day.

Emma Larkin's Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop vividly portrays today's Burma as seen through the events in Orwell's three books. Larkin visits the places in which Orwell served in the imperial police to find out what might have haunted him as a writer.

She discovers a people crushed under the military junta known as the State Peace and Development Council, formerly the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). She shows readers how the junta, like the omnipresent Big Brother, tries to crush all dissent and control the minds and souls of the people. The immediacy of her description fuses together Orwell's colonial Burma and the modern country.

Secret Histories is a travelogue as well as a contemporary political, social and spiritual history of a country that has been mainly forgotten by the outside world. The descriptions of the people she encounters are amusing as well as touchingly sad, whichever side of the political divide they are on. The pervasive climate of fear makes the people behave strangely and yet, beneath the etiquette and controlled smiles, one can see a society fighting with itself to be free, especially from fear. The author's intimate knowledge of the Burmese language and culture makes her portrayals more vivid and alluring. The irony is not lost on the officials and agents serving the hated junta, who still cannot express their real feelings for fear of being " liquidated" or "vaporised".

Like a Burmese dancer in an elaborate costume, Larkin deftly juggles with the history of Burma and the subject matter of Orwell's books. She balances her views with those of people she talks to and presents everything with honesty. The reader comes to feel what it is like to live in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and to understand why the oppressions persist. Larkin sets ideas afloat and lets the characters take a bite at them, thereby touching on topics such as the nature of power and oppression, of humanity and the consequences of colonial rule.

But the Orwell she tried to find remains elusive. What she finds instead is an Orwell who did not always feel sympathy for the emancipation of the Burmese, even if he hated British colonial rule. He does not fit the idea of a revolutionary leader who fights for the underdog. From Larkin's descriptions, one has the feeling that Orwell encountered, experienced and felt a lot more than he wrote down - and his experience haunted him to his death.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is the author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey .

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop

Author - Emma Larkin
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 232
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 7195 5693 7

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