Hardly. Orwell saved that for Catalonia. Emma Larkin has written a wonderful, realistic book on modern Burma, structuring it by tracing the path of George Orwell when he was a colonial officer there in the `20's. As she indicates in the prologue, many Burmese believe that he wrote not one novel, but rather a trilogy about the country: Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics) Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
and 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics)
The later two books may have unintentional described the conditions in Burma today. I have previously read "Burmese Days" and did not particularly like it for its relentless negative tone, which may reflect the sad, debilitating nature of the colonial ruler / subject relationship. I felt it was similar to Celine's Journey to the End of the Night (Oneworld Classics)
Larkin is a journalist, using this name as a pseudonym, speaks Burmese, and must be careful of her inquisitiveness and her sources as she travels around the country. She starts her journey, as did Orwell, in Mandalay. She also knows her Kipling, and reflects on the love-hate relationship Orwell had with a writer synonymous with the British Empire. She traveled to Maymyo, the old hill station that resembles "back Home" England, and stayed at the Candacraig Hotel. She describes the town for what it is, a distant mirror of the Empire. Her next stop on the Orwell trail is Myaungmya, in the Delta, a truly dreadful place to live, with humidity and mosquitoes ruling, but a place to make a living due to the fertility of the land. When Orwell was stationed there he was active in the fight against the increase in banditry. One of the Larkin's observations, citing one of the inhabitants, is that Orwell might not have written "1984" if he had not been stationed there. After the Delta, Larkin goes to Rangoon, where she has her favorite areas to stroll, and reflects upon the Generals running the country, and their chief opponent Aung San Suu Kyi. Next she went to Moulmein, the town where Orwell's ancestors, the Limouzin's, started their sojourn in Burma in 1824. There she has an appointment with a living remnant of Empire, an elderly Anglo-Burmese woman who speaks with a crisp English accent, and elected to stay when the Generals staged their coup in the `60's. Larkin searches out those who may have known the Limouzin's with limited success. Her final stop is Katha, in the north, which played prominently in "Burmese Days" as the station for its protagonist, John Flory. A quiet, sad little town where she must stay one step ahead of the Intelligence Service, and their numerous informants, who want to know why she is really there.
I have had a long-term fascination with Burma, visiting it four times in the `80's. It is one of the most photogenic countries in the world, it seems all one has to do is point the camera, and one has a wonderful picture. It is also like visiting a vast open-air museum, with time stopping in 1948. Back in the `80's, one was limited, quite strictly, to a 7-day visa, and the Delta, Moulmein, and Katha were all "off-limits." Maymyo was particularly unique, with stage-coaches as the principal transport, and I was able to stay in one of the "turret rooms" at the Candacraig for a dollar a night, which included a tub of hot water delivered to the room. On the standard tour then were also Ingle Lake on the front cover, as well as Pagan, which Larkin does not discuss.
The photography and the uniqueness of the country distracted one from seeing the underlying sadness and oppression in which the people lived. Larkin has done an immense service in focusing on this aspect, using chance and arranged encounters with the Burmese as her vehicle. And time and time again she proves that Orwell, writing about the possible future of Western countries, was prophetic about the conditions in the country today.
At the end of World War II, if one was to predict the countries that would most likely succeed, one would have named Burma and Ceylon, due to their natural resources and educated population, and would never have named Singapore, which lacked both. The contrast is stunning, and the answer lies in leadership - how a few can upgrade, or repress the many. Alas, the later occurred in Burma, which remains an anachronism in the world today, much to the regret of its people who can rarely leave. In the words of Beatrice, the Anglo-Burmese: "They have managed to turn a paradise into something not much better than a living hell."
The book is now four years old, and I do hope Larkin can go back, staying under "the radar of intelligence," and continue to report on this fascinating country in her quiet, low-key manner. This is an excellent book.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 08, 2008)