Emma Larkin is a pseudonym for a writer who has lived in Thailand and has crossed the border into Burma (now Myanmar) several times to write about the country and its human rights issues. In this book, she traces the time George Orwell spent in Burma as a member of the British Imperial Police. His experiences there influenced his later writings, and he is sometimes refered to as The Prophet because 1984 seems to predict what happened in the country after the British left.
When I started the book, I was hopping on and off Wikipedia to refresh my memory of Orwell. I had a disastrous introduction to him with Animal Farm in the eighth grade and never got over it. Who has an eighth grader read Animal Farm as an independent reading choice and gives no background information??! I thought it was a book about talking animals and was horrified at the D on my book report. To this day, I am bitter. At some point I picked up 1984 and read it, but I remembered very little and had twisted it in with the plot of Fahrenheit 451. I was not prepared for this book.
Having a foggy memory of Orwell and almost no background on Burma or Myanmar, I struggled with this at first. I tried to find connections to my own life or topics that interested me, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through. Asian culture is something I do not identify with and the history of the country, the politics and the customs felt completely foreign. I also had to take a detour into the expansion of the British Empire, which is not a quick trip.
However, knowing I had a book group to support me when I finished, I slogged through the first chunk and found myself getting more interested. There’s an edge to the story because of the political unrest and I kept expecting Larkin or her friends or interviewees to be imprisoned. She is often followed as she explores Orwell’s path but she knows how to work within the system and manages to stay safe.
I didn’t google her until about halfway into the book, but I finally did because I couldn’t figure out how she managed to travel alone in the country without being arrested or deported. “Emma Larkin” sounds like a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes to me (what does that say about my stereotyped expectations?) but learning this was a pseudonym, it made sense. She needs to remain anonymous so she can publish her stories. She also needs to gain the trust of Burma’s people and she carefully changes names and places and writes in code to protect them, and herself.
The political structure in Burma is incredibly depressing, especially because at one point in history it was seen as a flourishing nation. Older generations remember this time. Some of them are beaten down by the changes, while others are angry and quietly fight against their government.
As Larkin visits the places where Orwell was, she describes the parallels between what has happened in Burma and the stories Orwell wrote. It is easy to see why he is called The Prophet. Did he write 1984 knowing it would happen in Burma, or was it coincidence? I think the book could be read against many countries’ practices now and would hold up as a prediction.
Having this as a book group choice was fantastic because when we met we realized there were a lot of depressing and scary parallels between what had happened and is happening in Burma/Myanmar and what is happening in America. What started out as an alien book turned into a discussion of what our own government is doing. We were mixed in our knowledge of Orwell and Burma, and it made for a great meeting as we pooled knowledge and made connections.
The end of the book is both depressing and hopeful. When Larkin finishes writing, Aung San Suu Kyi has disappeared and was feared dead. The government had kept her under house arrest for years and tried to isolate her from the people and the United Nations because she promotes democracy and many of the people support her. However, after the book was published, she was again released and continues her work for free elections. The country is still a disaster in terms of human rights, health care, political corruption and much more. I wonder how much hope the people have, especially the younger generations that don’t remember anything before the current government.
Side note: Our next book club choice is 1984 and I look forward to rereading it knowing more about Orwell. It will also be interesting to compare my reaction to reading it on my own in high school and my response to it today.