Many years ago I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty Four (which rather terrified me as it was before the real 1984 and I was scared it might come true) The Clergyman’s Daughter and Keeping the Aspidistra Flying. I enjoyed them all – but until I came across this book in 2007 I sort of forgot all about dear old George. This book instantly fascinated me I particularly remembered..
“George Orwell’ I repeated ‘The author of nineteen eighty four’ The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said ‘You mean the Prophet’
In the 1920’s George Orwell (still living under his real name of Eric Blair) lived in Burma for five years working as a police officer for the imperial police force. In her book Secret Histories Emma Larkin explores the impact of this time upon his work. She asks whether there was something about his experiences in Burma that allowed him to foretell the brutal dictatorship which exists today – but was still almost forty years in the future when Orwell lived in Burma. There are those who Emma Larkin tells us – don’t believe that Orwell just wrote one book about Burma, but that he wrote a trilogy, Burmese days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. I only read Burmese days this year – it has been in the back of my mind to do so ever since I first read this fascinating book. My re-reading of Secret Histories was enhanced by having read it so recently. In 1950 as George Orwell lay dying of TB – having had his typewriter confiscated – he was working on a novella – also set in Burma. So whether or not Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four were really about Burma or not is probably not clear – and it is something Orwellian scholars can debate I am sure, but it would seem that George Orwell was affected by his time there. His novel Burmese days – published a few years after his sudden return from Burma was a savage and stinging critique of the racist colonialism that he would have been a part of. This was after all the time of Kipling’s Raj.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay! ( R Kipling)
It is interesting to note that the name Mandalay is one of the few not changed by the regime – they changed the name of Burma to that of Myanmar – just like in nineteen Eight-four – trying to wipe out the past and re-write history.
Secret Histories – is part literary criticism, part travelogue – I found Emma Larkin to be great company. She was a lone woman traveller in a part of the world wary and suspicious at best of foreign visitors – yet she shows no fear. She is careful to protect the identities of the people she meets. These people are wonderful, chatty and book loving. These people are only too aware of the truths that are hidden from them – they have their own ways of deciphering what is really going on by looking for what is missing from the government’s newspaper. Larkin’s affection for Burma and its people is obvious, combining this the way she has with a close examination of Orwell’s work is fascinating and utterly compelling.