(This interview was originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in July 2005)
In 1922, 19-year-old Eton graduate Eric Blair went to Burma to become a colonial police officer for the British Empire. Over the course of the next three decades, Blair evolved into George Orwell, one of the most important writers of the 20th century, with his novels “Animal Farm” and “1984” being blistering assaults and parodies of the totalitarian regimes that wracked the century he knew.
Emma Larkin, an American journalist working in Asia, has written “Finding George Orwell in Burma”(Penguin Press, $23), an engrossing book tracking Orwell’s unhappy five-year stay in Burma. Using bits of his autobiography, his masterful anti-colonial novel “Burmese Days” and trips to Burma to search out Orwell’s postings, Larkin has come up with a book that is part-travelogue, part-history and partially an examination of the brutal and corrupt present-day Burmese military regime, with its low-tech and pervasive surveillance system that would make Big Brother proud. With deft writing, Larkin (which is a pseudonym) searches out the colonial roots of Orwell’s family. She stumbles into a Burmese army artillery exercise and finds herself harassed and followed by Burmese Military Intelligence. She meets with Burmese dissidents, whose black humor about their government keeps them sane and where reading a forbidden book is a dangerous act of defiance.
Larkin, 34, was raised in Asia and educated at the University of London, where she studied Burmese languages. She is based in Bangkok and this is her first book. Larkin spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley from San Francisco, where she was on a West Coast book tour.
Q. What inspired you to write about Orwell and his days in Burma?
A. I first went to Burma in the mid-1990s. I was reading all the books you read when you go to Burma, so I read “Burmese Days.” It is amazing when you read it in Burma, with all his descriptions of the market and the way people dressed. It is almost as if it is a country stuck in time. I found that compelling and asked Burmese friends about what Orwell’s writing meant to them. I had some intriguing responses. One old scholar called Orwell “the Prophet.” The Burmese joke is that Orwell wrote a trilogy--“Burmese Days” is the colonial period, “Animal Farm” is Burma’s socialist period, and “1984” is the totalitarian state it is today. I got it into my head that it could be a key to modern-day Burma, a code that could be unraveled, by traveling to the places that Orwell lived in Burma.
Q. What was your own experience traveling in Burma?
A. I’m a journalist, but I’ve always avoided writing about Burma. I’ve had journalist friends based in Bangkok, who when they write about Burma, they are instantly banned. That was one of the reasons I stayed away from writing about Burma. When I finally did, I had to come up with this pen name, which has been frustrating for me.
Q. How would you describe the Burmese government’s system of surveillance and informants?
A. Journalists who slip into Burma always make it sound like (Burmese) Military Intelligence is similar to the Keystone Kops, but for the Burmese, they are much more threatening and terrifyingly efficient. I found the surveillance quite overwhelming. There were times when I had to flee the country. During the early periods, I wasn’t used to it at all. I would leave Burma much sooner than I planned. I felt that I had lost all sense of perspective on how to judge people. A waiter would ask me the most normal questions-- “Where are you from?” and I’d become immediately suspicious and thus curt with him. Trying to report from a country when you are in that state of mind is not right. The Burmese people, who have lived under this surveillance for a lifetime, do it terribly well.
Q. How do you think Orwell went from being a colonial cop to a disillusioned Empire man?
A. Orwell was very much a man of his time. (Stories of Orwell hitting a native Burmese boy with a stick) weren’t as much a shock then as it would be now. It was in the context of his time and he was a member of the colonial ruling class. Moving from Eric Blair to George Orwell the writer, it is my sense that he was already there before he left for Burma. At Eton, he was a bit of a misfit, but it was part of his family tradition to go into the colonial service. Being in this place that was so far away from home and what he believed in, maybe it amplified in him what he wanted to do.
Q. You traveled through many of Orwell’s posts--Rangoon, Moulmein and the Delta. Did you see any ghosts in the ruined British mansions and colonial buildings?
A. Everywhere. My friends said to me, “You must find Orwell’s Burmese love child.” That was on my mind. I didn’t find his love child, but I did see remnants. In one colonial city, a woman in her late 80s came up to me, dressed in rags with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She was half British. She said to me how nice it was to see an English lady again. You do meet ghosts in the people, the ghosts of history.
Moulmein, the old British hill station, has intact mansions, though they are quite dilapidated. Perhaps because I spent a lot of my childhood in England, I tend to romanticize these things a little. There is something so terribly sad about these buildings. They were built for such a different time when the Raj was strong, and had a sense of its own right and its reason for being. The world’s a different place now.
Q. You book is infused with colonial diaries, colonial documents and even police reports that Orwell filled out in Burma. Where did you find this material?
A. The British Library’s India Office records is an incredible place. They have just about everything we could possibly want to know about the British Empire, everything from the old government records from India and Burma to personal momentoes. You could call up trunkloads of old letters and diaries. It’s the British mentality of ferocious documenting.
Q. Orwell only left behind scraps of autobiographical material on his views on Burma. Was that hard in researching the book?
A. It was frustrating. When I was in Moulmein, I had the realization that I had missed the boat a bit. If I had done this 40 years earlier, I’d have found people who’d have known him.
Q. What is the state of modern Burma today?
A. There is an absolute political stalemate. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any positive news coming out of Burma. When I was working on the book, my London editor wanted very much for me to have a positive ending. She asked me to rewrite the epilogue, which is only two or three pages long. After a month, I just couldn’t come up with anything positive.
Q. How do you view Orwell after studying him so intensely for the past several years?
A. I’ve always loved Orwell’s work and I’ve always liked his flailing, flawed heroes. He once wrote that he didn’t want a biography. I’ve always felt a bit of guilt about going into his Burmese period. I kind of felt like it was disturbing flowers on his grave. I still feel this way. If I ever bumped into Orwell’s ghost, I don’t think he’d be very friendly to me.