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Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop [Hardcover]

Emma Larkin
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

16 Aug 2004
Burma, where George Orwell worked as an official in the Imperial police force, is currently ruled by one of the oldest and most brutal military dictatorships in the world. Around the country posters promise to 'crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy', and a vast network of military intelligence ensures no one says or does anything to threaten the regime. In short, George Orwell's 'Big Brother' is alive and well in Burma.

Over the course of a year, Emma Larkin visited the places where Orwell lived, to meet the people who live there today. Starting in the former royal city of Mandalay, she travelled through the moody delta regions on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, to the mildewed splendour of the old port town Moulmein, and ending her journey in the mountains of the far north, in the forgotten town Orwell used as the setting for Burmese Days. The book journeys into the Orwellian land Burma's ruling generals have created, a place in which reality is distorted by censorship and truth is a dangerous commodity.

Secret Histories uncovers the reality of life inside this secretive, totalitarian state. Emma Larkin presents a side to the country that the military government does not want revealed: a hidden world that can be found only in whispered conversations, covered books and the potent rumours wafting like vapours through the country's teashops.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray; 1st unabridged edition (16 Aug 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719556937
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719556937
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13.2 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 912,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Engaging ... [a] superb account of life in Burma's exotic tragi-comedy' (Observer 20040808)

'What shines out is the resilient, subversive humour of the people whom she meets' (Financial Times 20040814)

'[A] sympathetically zealous account of investigative travel ... Larkin traces the Orwellian parallels with admirable assiduity and nicely controlled indignation' (Sunday Telegraph 20040815)

'Emma Larkin knows her history' (Independent 20040909)

'The only Western writer who speaks proper Burmese, knows Burma... well, and has been able to record their feelings.' (Times Literary Supplement 20040917)

'An elegant travelogue through Burma, using Orwell's sojourn and experiences there as a template' (Spectator 20041127)

'Never less than fascinating.' (Sunday Times 20040822)

'An evocative account of a tropical paradise ruled by a despotic regime.' (The Times 20040822)

'Emma Larkin's book hums with such evocative sentences; they concentrate our minds about Burma.' (Literary Review 20040822)

'The result is not only an exploration of one of the twentieth century's most important writers, but an expose of one of its greatest political tragedies.' Denise Heywood (Traveller 20050301)

'Presents a side to the country that the military government does not want revealed'. (Accent 20050301)

'Larkin...finds people who reveal what it was like to live under a vicious dictatorship. She repays their confidences by writing about their plight objectively yet sympathetically'. (The Sunday Times 20050417)

'Larkin is a thougtful guide...She is consistently interesting on Orwell, and the links between his work and the murky horrors of life in Burma today, but she is best on the Burmese people themselves.' (Telegraph 20050402)

About the Author

Emma Larkin was born and brought up in Asia. She studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London while taking her masters in Asian History. She has been visiting Burma for almost ten years.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Teashops and books in Burma..... 22 Nov 2010
Emma Larkin uses the writings of George Orwell as a "peg" for a travel memoir about Myanmar. She starts at Mandalay, goes on the Myangmya in the Delta region, then to Rangoon, then Moulmein and lastly to Katha. Her travels and interactions with locals are obviously helped with her knowledge of the local language. However in conversations it is never made clear whether they are talking in English or Burmese.

The best parts of the book are the linking together of Orwell's novel Burmese Days with the places and people that she meets. Orwell was a complex character and some of his contradictions are included. He wrote passionately about anti-colonialism but he also seems to have been very domineering in his dealings with locals. The book fares less well when she tries to equate Animal Farm and 1984 with present day Myanmar. Many of the comparisons seemed clumsy and forced. I read this book in anticipation of a visit to the country. The book succeeded in giving a "feel" of the place - and I will definitely visit Pansodan Street, Yangon which is supposed to be filled with bookshops!

Homonym alert!!! On page 200 we have "hoards of people" - oh dear, that really should have been spotted by the editor....
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Burma as it really is 9 July 2007
This book is gripping and an absolute must for travellers to the country.It gives insight without sensationalism...an excellent read.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful view of today's Burma 1 Feb 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Any reader of Orwell will have read the magnificent Burmese Days, one of his earliest novels. To map the journey and try to recreate some of the context of Orwell's time as a colonial policeman was an innovative task, and one which the author has completed well.
The author draws many parallels from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and today's near totalitarian Burma. The police state, the constant surveillance, and the perpetual state of war are all things which Orwell focused on. Meeting various people and visiting all the places that Orwell is known to have lived in, she sets up an informal Orwell Book Club (unknown to the military regime in the town). There is plenty of enthusiasm for Eric Blair amongst educated English readers in Burma despite most of his books (although not Burmese Days) being banned.
The book looks at Orwell's enthusiasm (or lack of) for the Empire, and his rocky relationship with Kipling, moving from fascination to contempt and then to understanding.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A. Hope
I loved this book, completley fascinating, it vividly describes modern Burma - and what life is like there. Emma Larkin herself comes across as a wonderfuly calm traveller, herself fascinated by Orwell and the part his time in Burma has played in his work. I have read Nineteen Eighty four - many years ago, and animal farm, as well as a couple of other George Orwell novels, but I haven't read some of his other books Emma Larkin talks about - and this book certainly makes me want to revisit the Orwell novels I have read and read the ones I never got round to. For anyone interested in George Orwell this is a must.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In good condition 14 Nov 2010
This book arrived in good condition. The content of the book is excellent and provides a wonderful narrative of Larkin's travels through Burma to discover its impact upon Eric Blair...and Orwell's impact upon Burma.
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