Finding George Orwell in Burma

By Emma Larkin. <i>The Penguin Press</i>.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


In 1950, George Orwell started work on a sequel to his novel Burmese Days, based on his stint as an imperial administrator in Mandalay. He got only three pages into the new story before he died of tuberculosis. In Finding George Orwell in Burma, journalist Emma Larkin takes up this unfinished task, trying to decode the country with the help of the author who is known by some Burmese simply as “the prophet.”

In the pseudonymous Larkin, the secretive Burmese dictatorship has found its perfect foreign narrator. All we know for sure about her is that she is an American who was born and raised in Asia, is based in Bangkok, and speaks fluent Burmese. She heads to Burma in the mid-1990s, as it endures a severe crackdown on its pro-democracy movement. With intelligence men close behind, she travels from Rangoon to Orwell’s old up-country post and points beyond, meeting with intellectuals, shopkeepers, and hoteliers, who also must take assumed names for their own protection.

What Larkin discovers is, well, Orwellian. Describing the junta, she writes, “The grand plan, if there is a plan at all, is to abolish the power of thinking.” In Mandalay she finds a George Orwell book club debating the author’s legacy. Not surprisingly, 1984 is banned there, but a book collector digs up an old copy of Animal Farm, calling it “a very Burmese book…. Because it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country!”

Though she faces greater constraints than Orwell, and could have easily fictionalized her experience, as he did, Larkin sticks to the facts. The result is one of the most unusual travelogues to come out of Southeast Asia in some time, and a truer picture of authoritarianism than anyone has written since, perhaps, Orwell himself.

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate