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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Book Review: ‘1984’ alive and well in Burma

    Book Review: 1984 alive and well in Burma

    The young American journalist was trying to find out if the old man had ever heard of George Orwell. He shook his head. “”The author of ‘1984,’”” she finally clarified.

    “”The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up,”” she writes. “”He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, ‘You mean the prophet!'””

    And why not? The two were sitting in a sweltering room in Burma, where a ruthless military dictatorship has ruled for the last half-century. It was the world of Orwell’s “”1984″” come to life.

    The author of “”Finding George Orwell in Burma”” calls herself Emma Larkin, a pseudonym she needed in order to operate in a country where outsiders are distrusted and a free press is nonexistent.

    The book is part travelogue ð- you can use it in the unlikely event that, after reading it, you want to visit – and part political commentary, as Larkin uses Orwell’s life and work as a lens to bring a shattered and sick society into focus.

    Burma, a small country wedged in between India and China, isn’t really on most Americans’ radar. The country Larkin discovered is terrifying, a world where government control over every aspect of its people’s existence is so extreme that truth no longer really exists.

    Larkin does not comment very much on what she witnesses; she often seems shell-shocked by it. Her voice is calm and reasonable, like a scientist describing an erupting volcano.

    In Burma, anyone who says or writes the wrong thing faces anything from censorship to torture and imprisonment. As in “”1984,”” even casual conversations are not free – you never know if the person you’re talking to is an informer.

    Larkin pays a visit to a newspaper office in Rangoon, Burma’s capital. The editor shows her pages that have been marked up by the censor for violating “”impossibly vague”” rules.

    “”I don’t think even the people at the censorship board know why any more,”” he tells her.

    Lies are as much a part of Burmese life as facts are in other societies. When Larkin asks a police chief about the astonishing crime rate, he responds with a smile, “”There is no crime here.””

    At times, you sense that it’s a relief for Larkin to retreat from the horrible reality into her research on George Orwell, her phantom guide to Burma.

    Orwell worked in Burma in the 1920s as a police officer, when the country was under British rule. After five years, he abruptly quit and returned home to become a writer.

    Larkin went to Burma because she was convinced that Orwell saw the seed of the country’s modern-day dictatorship in the much more lax British governorship, and that it inspired the totalitarian vision he described in “”1984.””

    She visits the buildings where Orwell lived, decaying and patrolled by suspicious guards. She visits tea shops to hold hushed, secret discussions about Orwell; “”1984″” is, of course, banned there. She talks to writers who have memorized stories that they know they will never be able to write down.

    In the book’s most haunting and disturbing scene, she visits one of Burma’s few remaining British cemeteries, where the gravestones have been broken and vandalized. Larkin meets a priest who tells her that the government will “”dig up the graves and feed the bones to the dogs”” as soon as the British lease on the site expires. As the government gives the living no respect, so will they give no respect to the dead.

    “”Finding George Orwell in Burma”” is an unforgettable portrait of a world where reality itself has become questionable, but where people manage to survive by clinging to every last scrap of their humanity. It is not a heartening book, but in Larkin’s ability to bear witness to Burma’s tragedy, one can find hope.

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