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Finding George Orwell in Burma Hardcover – June 2, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The author, an American journalist fluent in Burmese, writing under a pseudonym, notes that there's a joke in Burma (now Myanmar) that Orwell wrote not one novel about the country, but three: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. The first takes place during the British colonial days, while the latter two, Larkin argues, more closely reflect the situation there today. " 'Truth is true only within a certain period of time,' " she quotes a regime spokesman saying after a 1988 uprising. " 'What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.' " Indeed, providing an accurate representation of Burmese life proves daunting, as Larkin encounters a nation bristling with informants and paranoia. Her language skills, however, allow her to glean information and mingle with the country's reserved and cautious intelligentsia. In addition to Larkin's depiction of the political landscape, the book also features wonderfully vibrant descriptions of the land and people. Larkin's prose is striking and understated, and she allows the people she meets to speak their parts without editorializing. In this way, she comes across not as an idealist but rather as an inquisitive and trustworthy guide to the underlying reality of a country whose leaders would rather have outsiders focus only on their carefully constructed veneer. "All you had to do, it seemed," Larkin writes, "was scratch the surface of one of the town's smiling residents and you would find bitterness or tears." Her efforts have resulted in a lucid and insightful illustration of truly Orwellian circumstances.
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From Booklist

Larkin (a pseudonym), an American journalist based in Bangkok, believes that it was George Orwell's stint as an imperial policeman in British-ruled Burma during the 1920s that turned him into a writer of conscience. To prove her theory and assess what imprint if any he left on the culture, she bravely journeyed throughout the now brutally totalitarian state to visit the places Orwell lived and worked. A meticulous observer, she captures the masked spirit of a people monitored by military spies and constantly threatened with incarceration and torture. As her risky conversations with Burmese intellectuals, writers, teashop waiters, and students reveal, censorship is severe, yet Burma remains a profoundly literary country as people harbor secret libraries and talk passionately about books. Writing with admirable suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and 1984 reflect what has happened in this beautiful yet tragically oppressed land. Her quest for the past illuminates the grim present in this true-life Orwellian world. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First American Edition edition (June 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200521
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200526
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #500,665 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

EMMA LARKIN is the pen name of an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia, studied Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has covered Asia widely in her journalism from her base in Bangkok, Thailand.

Finding George Orwell in Burma was also published in the UK (by John Murray under the title Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop). In the US, Finding George won the Borders Original Voices Award for Non-Fiction in 2005. In the UK, the book was short-listed for the Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Award 2005. The Japanese-language edition, published by Shobunsha in Tokyo, won the Mainichi Shimbun's Asia Pacific Grand Prix Award in 2006.

Customer Reviews

One of the best written books I've ever read!
Savo Heleta
Author Emma Larkin travels to the places where writer George Orwell was posted during the 1920s in Burma.
diane antonich
Reading this book has caused me to go back and re-read, with much greater insight, "Burmese Days."
Paul Bunyan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Paul Bunyan on June 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. The author, who obviously has extensive knowledge about (and affection for) both Orwell and Burma, traces Orwell's life and experiences in the various outposts in Burma to which he was assigned as an imperial British policeman in the 1920s. It gracefully intermingles commentary on modern-day Burma, historical information about Orwell's time and life there, and prophetic connections between Orwell's themes in "1984" and "Animal Farm" and the 40-year dictatorship in Burma (renamed by its tyrants "Myanmar"). Reading this book has caused me to go back and re-read, with much greater insight, "Burmese Days." Among the very pleasing features of this book is that the author does not try to overstate her case or engage in excessive conjecture about Orwell's experiences in Burma. Instead, she offers very thoughtful, subtle opinions on matters for which historical evidence is not there (apart from Orwell's writings). Another joy is that the author's politics (except for her revulsion at the brutal Burmese dictatorship) are not apparent, so Orwell is not used as a tool to promote some left or right ideology. Highly recommended, especially to Orwell fans and readers.
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Nick on July 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
While it's hard to categorise this book, it could be filed under `must read' for fans of Orwell and everyone interested in modern international politics. This book falls into to genres of literary biography, travel and modern politics, and `Emma Larkin' succeeds brilliantly in all three.

As a literary biography she sheds new light onto Orwell as a person and the background to his books. In particular, I was fascinated by her informed speculation into how Orwell's experiences in Burma contributed to his transformation from a privileged child of Empire into the champion of the lower classes who came to write `1984'.

As a travel book Larkin brings Burma to life. Her descriptions of the Burmese landscape and Burmese people are wonderful and suggest that she dearly loves the country despite its hideous government.

As a book on modern politics, Larkin is extremely successful in describing how a totalitarian dictatorship operates and the devastation such forms of government inflict upon their people. In particular, Larkin's descriptions of how the Burmese regime has corrupted almost every aspect of civil society offers very valuable insights into how such regimes survive in the face of their brutality and incompetence. More subtly, the fact that Larkin had to write this book under a pseudonym and was unable to reveal any details about herself for fear of being identified and expelled from Burma brings to life the grim realities of living under a repressive regime.

All up, this is an impressive book which deserves a wide readership.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. J. Marsella on June 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A remarkable inside look at life in a totalitarian state. The Burmese people that the author encounters reveal an inner strength of character forged in an atmosphere of oppression and constant observation reminiscent of Orwell's 1984.

The author travels extensively through this country tracing the footsteps of George Orwell when he was stationed there as an imperial policeman. Along the way the not so subtle effects of a state where none of the freedoms we take for granted exist become more and more evident to the reader.

The author presents these people and their stories in a very objective fashion and doesn't seek to sensationalize their struggles for political purpose. The effect of this style is actually very powerful because the reader gradually draws the only possible conclusion regarding the current regime in Burma.

This is a fine book that is part travelogue, part biography, but more than anything a testament to how people survive in a country where human rights and freedom are essentially non-existent.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Michael H. Frederick on March 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I've been savoring this book over many weeks, reading only bits at a time, not wanting it to end.

Emma Larkin (a "nom de plume") has managed to focus on what must surely be a unique perspective when it comes to 21st century Burma. She ties the modern totalitarian regime with George Orwell's classics, particularly "1984" and "Animal Farm." Her insight into the workings of the country and knowledge of the language have resulted in a fascinating tale of her travels through Burma, tracing the career of Orwell during his five-year stint as a British colonial policeman.

Having made numerous trips to Burma, Larkin has accumulated quite a following of contacts and friends, whose names have been changed to protect them from the very real danger of torture and imprisonment for talking to a foreign journalist. This collection of locals, however, gives the author a window into what must be the second most repressive nation on the planet (after North Korea). The reader is treated to tales of what is happening in that beautiful and tragic place, eyes opened to the situation for the average citizen. The military junta that rules Burma is responsible for unspeakable human rights violations and remains, justifiably, paranoid about its tenuous hold on power. Larkin relates the tenseness of the situation in an informative and enlightening way.

I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of the remnants of British colonialism and how Orwell and his colleagues must have lived. It's a tale of a bygone era when Britain ruled a third of the world, "memsahibs" could thrash a servant for incompetence and a struggling civil servant feared for his life thanks to a high crime rate and the threat of vengenance from resentful colonial subjects.
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