Secret Histories: finding George Orwell in a Burmese teashop, by Emma Larkin

The nightmarish reality of a closed nation
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The Independent Culture

If the British had not blown up Burma's oil wells to stop them falling into Japanese hands, Burma might not have become a closed country - governed, for the last 40-odd years, by a paranoid military élite that exercises near-perfect control over communications and the media. Even to own a mobile telephone requires a special licence, and hearsay suggests a domestic intelligence network of astonishing reach. Although, since 1996, the ruling junta has promoted inward tourism, most foreign journalists and their ilk are excluded.

If the British had not blown up Burma's oil wells to stop them falling into Japanese hands, Burma might not have become a closed country - governed, for the last 40-odd years, by a paranoid military élite that exercises near-perfect control over communications and the media. Even to own a mobile telephone requires a special licence, and hearsay suggests a domestic intelligence network of astonishing reach. Although, since 1996, the ruling junta has promoted inward tourism, most foreign journalists and their ilk are excluded.

All of which makes Burma very difficult to report. Typically, books about it have a furtive quality. The intrepid writer enters the country under cover, sees just so many places and meets just so many people, then sets about writing a sad and impassioned story, nourished by grim statistics garnered from Amnesty International and other human rights agencies.

Secret Histories necessarily belongs to the same broad genre - by which is meant no disrespect to its author. A graduate of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Emma Larkin knows her history, and speaks Burmese. But going there, and travelling up and down the Irrawaddy, she is faced by familiar constraints. She meets any number of people willing to speak against the junta under the cloak of anonymity in relatively safe tea-houses and inscribes what they tell, so that hers, too, becomes a "witness" account.

But we are never taken beyond that. However truthful the testimonies, they fall far short of a definitive picture. Larkin knows this. To make her book work, she hooks it onto George Orwell, who served in the imperial police in Burma between 1922 and 1927. The places she visits are the places Orwell worked: Mandalay, Myaungmya, Syriam, Moulmein and, finally, Katha in the mid-north, where for his last six months Orwell was district commissioner.

To combine a literary quest with reportage is hazardous. Larkin squares the circle by subscribing to the dissident Burmese intellectual jest that Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days (1934), is part of a "Burmese trilogy", the sequels being Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The point is that the latter novels, while not overtly about Burma in any way, nonetheless predicted the sort of regime that exists there now.

Among some Burmese, Orwell is known as "the prophet". So this manoeuvre is not as disingenuous as it may seem, for all that there are as many differences as similarities between Orwell's nightmare future and Burma today. But, for Emma Larkin, the conceit provides an alternative way of authenticating what, from the outset of Secret Histories, is an earthly hell.

The reviewer is author of the 'Rough Guide History of Islam'

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