Monday, October 16, 2006

Burmese Days, Past and Present



Burmese Days by George Orwell (United Kingdom 1934).

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin 2005).

The Burmese people joke, quietly, that George Orwell actually wrote three books about their country. Burmese Days obviously, but also Animal Farm and 1984. The few Burmese who dare to whisper call the three novels the "Burmese Trilogy."

The analogy fits snugly. Burmese Days describes life in a north Burmese province under the rule of the disinterested British Raj. Animal Farm describes how Burmese dictator Ne Win imposed a post-independence Communism in which some animals -- those with guns and uniforms -- were more equal than others. 1984 describes modern life in Burma (now re-named Myanmar), a Panopticon police state which treats citizens as slaves and travellers as threats.

There is little new I can say about Burmese Days other than that, if you have not read it, you should order it now from Amazon and read it next weekend. (Or read it here for free.) Like many of Orwell's books, Burmese Days is still in print because, aside from its journalistic and political content, it's a damn good read.

John Flory is a British timber merchant, and he has been stationed in the backwater of Kyauktada for more than a decade. Expat life in Kyauktada revolves around the European Club, the private whites-only establishment where the town's dozen or so Brits congregate most evenings.

It's hot and lonely and boring -- and then she arrives. Her name is Elizabeth Lackersteen, she is the niece of the local timber company manager, and she has come to Burma to hunt for a husband.

Elizabeth is completely wrong for Flory. She is close-minded and conspicuous and haughty, while Flory is curious and modest and appreciative of Burman culture. But eligible young white women are non-existent in Kyauktada, so Flory pursues her, correctly intuiting that she is his last chance at marriage.

Which makes the book sound like a soap opera. Which it is. It's also a crackling tale of deception and politics, as corrupt local magistrate U Po Kyin manipulates the whites and launches a whispering campaign against a kindly Indian doctor in Kyin's drive to become the first native member of the Club.

The novel provides a window into the daily life of Europeans living in British-ruled Burma. Orwell drew heavily from his five years as an imperial policeman, during which he was posted to a series of Burmese towns.

His time as a policeman transformed Orwell. According to eyewitness accounts, Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, entered the police force as a snotty Eton graduate, a young man who beat natives with a stick. Orwell came to loathe the Raj, seeing the Empire as a larcenous outfit which stole the wealth of the countries it claimed to govern. In other words, Eric Blair went into the imperial police, but George Orwell came out.

Journalist Emma Larkin, a pseudonym, decided to follow the path of this transformation, visiting all of the towns at which Orwell was posted and researching Orwell's family, which had roots in Burma. (Orwell himself was born in India.)

Larkin may have been the only person who could have written Finding George Orwell in Burma. She speaks fluent Burmese and is effortlessly comfortable within Burman culture. Moreover, she is an Orwell expert, having apparently read almost all of his published writings, researched his life and family tree, and reviewed his private papers. This is not How I Spent My Gap Year.

Larkin's credentials demonstrate how high the bar is now set for travel writing. Back in 1973, a not-particularly successful novelist named Paul Theroux decided to travel by train from London to Japan and write it up. Nothwithstanding the fact that Theroux was not an expert on North Asia, his publisher accepted Theroux's pitch on the theory that a travel book couldn't possibly sell less than his novels. The resulting travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, was a hit and launched Theroux's second career of picaresque, hop-on-a-train literature.

Larkin's journey through Orwell's Burmese past is plotted much more tightly. She visits the towns of Orwell's postings in the same order as he did, and her language skills and local contacts provide her with entree to the hidden world of Burmese private life.

Hidden from whom? From the government. Military Intelligence and its informers are everywhere -- or are thought to be everywhere, which yields the same result. Public employees must report every interaction with foreigners. One guesthouse owner had to notify nine separate agencies of Larkin's stay.

Burmese citizens have no rights against their government. All publications are reviewed by censors. The elementary and secondary schools teach fluff and propaganda, and the universities have been dispersed into a series of satellite campuses sited behind bridges or other bulwarks which make them containable in the event of a student protest. In one of its few technology initiatives, the Burmese officials implemented television-based distance learning, because it kept students away from each other and made it easier to monitor the lessons.

Thus, the Burmese dictatorship reveals itself to be nervous about foreigners, ideas, education, students and crowds. But what really scares the overlords is . . . tea shops. The Burmese love tea, and the tea shop is an ingrained Burman institution that the junta can't outlaw without risking revolution. But people in tea shops talk, they talk quietly in dark corners, and the government can't hear what they're saying, and that drives the generals to distraction. So an unknown number of undercover policemen spend their work days hanging out in tea shops listening for the buzz of sedition.

The point of Finding George Orwell in Burma, no less compelling for its obviousness, is that the military junta has imposed a surveillance state which is worse than the fictional one in 1984. At least Winston Smith and Julia could escape to their secret love nest or get lost in the slums of Oceania. In Burma, Big Brother is watching everywhere and at all times.

If you had the choice -- and almost no one in either country does -- you would rather live in Oceania than in Myanmar.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Tom said...

Great post Paul.

Thanks.

3:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has this guy ever been to Myanmar? I have visited there six times and find the people delightful, helpful,happy and friendly. Sure their government is not great, but so are a lot of others around the world e.g the current Thai Government. The US/British invasion of Iraq killed many thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq - the Bush and Blair Governments were "good"? Seems like this guy is an armchair expert with little actual knowledge of Myanmar.

2:14 PM  

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