When I first came across Emma Larkin’s title, Finding George Orwell in Burma I didn’t know what to make of it.  After reading the book I am slapping my forebrain for a wide miss of the obvious.

I had known that Eric Blair had spent some years in Burma as a young man, doing duty with the Indian Police force. It was from that experience that his rather famous short story, ‘Shooting An Elephant,’ came as well as the lesser known, but very powerful, A Hanging.  I must have known his title, Burmese Days, but likely thought it was a youthful memoir from the man who morphed into the George Orwell of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984

Well, it turns out that everything Eric Blair became started in Burma, and Burmese Days is a good fictional account of that becoming.  Finding George Orwell in Burma, in turn, is a very good tour of Burma today and in Blair’s day, of the novel Burmese Days, and the connections to his later, world-famed satires of authoritarian governance, all conducted by a fine literary traveler-sleuth.

Emma Larkin [a pseudonym] knows Burma, speaks Burmese, has friends and contacts there and knows something about Orwell that the rest of us don’t: a dark joke among many Burmese is that Burmese Days is the opening novel to a trilogy about their long suffering country, the second being Animal Farm and the third, Nineteen Eighty-four, though Animal Farm is the only one of Orwell’s books to have been translated into Burmese, with the title, The Four Legged Revolution.

Larkin, who’s been writing from Burma since 1995, takes us on a wide ranging journey by bus, bike and boat, through conversations and history, to see why the joke is less funny than true. This particular visit seems to have taken place in 2002; the military dictatorship was still in place; Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.  In fact the epilogue notes her May 2003 disappearance, not to return to her home  –and still under arrest– for three months. Larkin not only takes us to markets, movies and small towns we would never see even if we, ourselves, were there, but to visit with Burmese people, from young poets to old historians, from close encounters of the police kind to conversations with elderly Anglo-Burmese.  She tracks Blair’s 5 years in Burma, from town to town if not from day to day.  At each stop she she finds clues to Orwell’s background, his experience in Burma, the details of his second novel, Burmese Days, and the troubling facts about British colonialism. In fact, so closely were his experiences transformed into the characters and scenes of the novel that his agent could not get a British publisher to take it on in 1933, for fear of libel.  It was published in the U.S. first, in 1934.

In order to find Orwell, as the title aptly puts it, she tells us of Burma’s history: that it was the leading rice exporter in Asia when Blair arrived and the ‘”most violent corner of the Indian Empire.”  Nationwide strikes at schools and universities demanding freedom from British control were in full swing.  Dacoity — gang violence– had doubled over the previous ten years; the police, which Blair was joining, was reporting ‘bestial savagery,’ to which they responded as occupiers do.  Orwell reports of himself, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that he hit servants and coolies with his fists.

She tells us what she encounters in her own travels, following Orwell’s road: that “Burma’s surveillance machine is frighteningly thorough and efficient,” that writers she knows have been jailed and tortured.  Even so, when among friends she finds that people have not lost the ability to speak their minds.  In Mandalay (about dead-center in the country) a discussion of Burmese Days begins.  One man, a writer, says he found the book insulting, “Orwell looked down on the Burmese people.  He did not like us.”   Another disputes him, saying life had been much better with the British.  Discomfort with a disagreement but disagreement held to, nonetheless. Much to my surprise, as Larkin moves among friends, Burma turns out to be home to used book hoarders and sellers worthy of stalls along the Seine.

His books were stored in trunks, and he opened one up for me.  Each book was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it from the white ants and mould that destroy so many manuscripts in the humid, tropical climate of Burma.  He started pulling out volumes.

‘Hans Christian Anderson!’ he shouted as he tossed me a beautifully illustrated collection of children’s stories. ‘O. Henry! Somerset Maugham!   James Herbert! A well thumbed version of Rats came flying towards me.  Aye Myint reached deeper inside his trunk. ‘Ernest Hemingway!

On a boat a vendor cries out Booooks! and rents periodicals and books for the trip.  A street in Rangoon is called the ‘street-side university,’ for its “wall to wall bookshops…stalls selling books and magazines cover almost every inch of pavement.”

Although today some speak of a “lost generation,” cut off from education and modern culture, until the time of the Generals (1962 – 2012), Burma had a high literacy rate, cultivated in Buddhist monastery schools before the occupation and continuing through missionary schools and the British love of reading.  Children throughout the country were familiar for generations with the Jataka stories,somewhat like our Aesop’s fables, using animals and humans to show cleverness, kindness and other moral values. The Generals, in charge since Ne Win’s coup of 1962, have paid inverse homage to the power of reading, by censorship, jailings and diktats about what should be read in schools.  Of the current national budget, one-half goes to the military, four percent to education. One acquaintance tells Larkin,

“Arthur Koestler, who I believe was a predecessor of Orwell, wrote a book called “Darkness at Noon” set in a totalitarian state in Russia.  Here in Burma we have darkness in the morning, darkness at noon, darkness all day long…. and this, now, is our darkest time.”

As she travels she reveals small conversations, not only with writers and intellectuals but ordinary people she meets — a hotel manager who said if she was too friendly with tourists she was given warnings, a Burmese Catholic priest who said burials in his cemetery had been forbidden for ten years.

She takes us to the hill town of Maymyo, an hour outside of Mandalay, a colonial R&R town which Orwell had visited, and takes the occasion to fill us in on his family background — by no means as rough edged as his post empire career — Down and Out In Paris and London—  would be.  He was, as he tells us in The Road to Wigan Pier, from the lower upper middle class. His father, notably, spend his entire career in India ‘overseeing the production of government opium crops.’ (Yep)  His mother’s family had lived in Burma for three generations.  In one of the most surprising passages in the book, Larkin meets an Anglo-Burmese man through a friend of a friend.  When asked what she is doing in Burma she replies, ‘researching George Orwell.” The man, Khin Maung U, –“with peach colored skin”– replies, “Oh, you mean Uncle Eric!”

One Burmese author is convinced that had Blair been posted elsewhere than the Delta he would not have become ‘so pessimistic.’  “It was the Delta that ruined him…there is nothing but mud, dani and poor farmers.” (Not to mention mosquitoes so thick people learned to rush through a door with a fast slam to keep them out.)  He would never have written 1984 she avowed.

Larkin’s survey of history includes touches of the Japanese occupation, the war time destruction of the oil refineries and the surprising (to me) fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous father, Aung San, from whom she initially derived her legitimacy, was initially a fan of the Japanese as they ran roughshod over China and grew their imperial muscles.   They seemed a counter-weight to the hated British.  Aung San went to Japan with a group of freedom fighters for military training in 1941.  It was on their return, when they saw the Japanese army close up, in a now Japanese occupied Burma, that they switched sides and became valued allies of the British — from whom they gained independence in 1947, several months after Aung San’s assassination by a rival.

A fine book for any visitor to Burma: history, fiction, Generals and poets.  You’ll understand Burma better if you go, and have different questions than many tourists. Her short run through the multi-ethnicity of Burma, is an eye-opener — “eight main ethnic groups, 130 distinctive sub-groups.”  The Generals, as Spain’s Francisco Franco did to the Catalans, banned the teaching of the Shan language (the largest of the ethnic groups,) Burmanized ancient place names, and pulled down Shan street signs.

While Finding George Orwell in Burma is not a serious academic history, studded with references to original sources, and years of research it benefits greatly from doing well just what it sets out to do: linking together personal observation, native language interviews, readings of Orwell and intrepid travel by a curious, smart and literate guide.  You’ll come away knowing more about Burma  –different from the offerings of travel books– and ready to re-read the great Orwell novels and perhaps, as I did, read for the first time some I’d passed by.

For Larkin’s writing on Burma since her 2002 trip read here (Jan 11, 2012), here (May 4, 2012).  For a notice of her Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (about Cyclone Nargis in 2008), here.  And, best of all, her own short reviews of five new books about Burma, two by Burmese, all by those who have lived there.

Take a look.