Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

4 out of 5 stars

I first came across George Orwell when we had to read Animal Farm at school for a set text in the mid-1980s. This was around the time of the cold war and the way he portrayed the takeover by the pigs on the farm and the way that they changed the agenda each time for their own ends was quite chilling. 1984 was the year that everyone was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, except me; I didn’t read it until 2013… I have since read a few of his books and found him a fascinating author to read, but I knew very little about him.

Before becoming an author he spent some time working in Burma, now Myanmar. Whilst he was there he was working with the Indian Imperial Police as an Assistant District Superintendent. He chose Burma as his maternal grandmother lived there. He learnt the language very quickly, but his position meant that he was responsible for the security of a couple of hundred thousand people. The imperial regime there oppressed the people and he was a part of it. In 1927 he became ill and was granted leave back in the UK and it was that here he resigned from the police force and decided to become a writer.

His short time there was to give us the books, Burmese Days and Shooting An Elephant, but as Emma Larkin finds, it was also to provide inspiration for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Myanmar is a totalitarian state ruled with a heavy hand by the military with pervasive and constant monitoring and oppression of the populace. She spends a year in the country following his trail and talking overtly and often covertly to people who call him ‘the prophet’ and trying to see the parallels in his brief stay there and how his growing hatred of colonial rule was the fuel behind these two books.

It is a fascinating study of the man and the country as she traces the ghosts of his family past whilst trying to keep her nose clean with the authorities. Larkin is a very talented writer, managing to blend travel writing, as well as the biography of Orwell, alongside her take on this country as she tries to move around with the constraints they put on her. It is clear to see that the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four was directly linked to the oppression that he was a part of when he was there. Very much worth reading for insight into Myanmar and Orwell.

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  1. David

    If you’re at all interested in Orwell I’d recommend his essays and journalism. Some of the essays are collected in volumes published during his life, and there’s a complete collection in 4 volumes after his death. They’re very readable, cover a vast range of subjects, and you can see him developing and reshaping his ideas.

    • Paul

      Thanks for that, David. I will try and locate a copy

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