by D. J. Taylor
The Sunday Times, 22 August 2004
George Orwell is an elusive quarry at the best of times, but the five years that he spent in Burma as a servant of the Indian Imperial Police are a kind of black hole in his early life. No letter home survives, and barely a handful of reminiscences from the people who knew him there. Most of the official government records of his career were lost in the Japanese invasion of 1942. His important writings about Burma - the novel Burmese Days and the famous sketches A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant - were published some years after his return to England in 1927, his health already shattered by the ruinous local climate. Of the 2m or so words assembled by Peter Davison in his 20- volume Complete Works, all that can be dated back to the Burma years is a handful of amateurish poems.
Post-Orwell, the Burma of the fading colonial Raj, whose oppression he came to detest and whose remembered horrors informed his critiques of British imperialism, offers a particularly terrifying instance of life's fatal ability to imitate art. It took only a scant four years after independence in 1948 for General Ne Win to inaugurate his stifling dictatorship. Late-1980s democratic stirrings (the word "democracy" is currently unprintable in Burma) were brutally snuffed out by the current gang of military tyrants. The world of Animal Farm, in which the pigs steadily remodel themselves into nastier versions of the humans they overthrew, was replaced by an East Asian variant of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and there is a desperate inevitability in the spectacle of the Burmese ancient whom Emma Larkin questions about Orwell in her opening chapter, referring to him as "the prophet".
Secret Histories, the record of Larkin's wanderings in modern Burma (or "Myanmar" as the current bunch of military tyrants prefers to call it), is an odd hybrid of a book: half a companion guide to the twentysomething Orwell's time in the East; half a series of dispatches from a country in a state of internal siege, where informers lurk on every street corner and the glimpse of a white face anywhere off the official tourist trail is the excuse for an orgy of form-filling and clumsy surveillance. While the chronology is vague - the account seems to have been put together from a number of visits made over a period of several years - the geography is exact, following the route marked by Orwell's postings in Mandalay, the southern Delta, the capital Rangoon, Moulmein and finally Katha, which Orwell acknowledged to be the model for Kyauktada in Burmese Days.
With 80 years gone since Larkin's subject (then trading under his baptismal name of Eric Blair) was at large in the area, the scent has gone somewhat cold. Much of the architecture of Orwell's time remains, however - the police-training school at Mandalay with its haunted room, whose legends Larkin investigates, and the gruesome prison at Insein, the population now swollen to four times its size in the 1920s. Any disappointment the reader may feel at the lack of fresh Orwell material is swiftly anaesthetised by the glosses of local Orwell-fanciers. From the textual sleuth who deduces that the elephant in Shooting an Elephant is a giant metaphor for Imperialism itself to the retired elephant hunter who criticises Orwell's inability to put the beast out of its misery - apparently the trick is to aim for the point where the two eye-ear lines cross - these are never less than fascin- ating: a sudden sulphurous whiff from a world in which a writer finds himself turned into a glowing personal presence in the lives of thousands of ordinary people.
Larkin is sensitive, too, to the wider effect that Burma had on the young Blair's consciousness. The half-decade spent on the further side of the Indian Ocean is often seen by critics as a dreadful exile, tedious sequestration in an alien land, thousands of miles from everything he held dear. In fact, though Orwell may not have liked Burma (a childhood friend remembered letters in which he claimed to hate the place), the country was in his blood: his mother's family had lived there for years; his grandmother and aunts were virtual neighbours at one point. In this context Larkin takes a welcome look at the fragmentary notes for a novel entitled A Smoking Room Story, found among Orwell's papers after his death in 1950. Set on the steam ship making its way home to England from Rangoon, the outline looks like an attempt to return not only to the Maughamesque narrative conceits of his apprentice days but also to the scene of his political and literary grounding.
Unpretentiously written (in the complimentary sense of the phrase) though sometimes a touch shaky in its biographical detail - Orwell's sanatorium in the "green and pleasant Cotswolds" was actually a freezing hill settlement so spartan in its arrangements that Orwell's friends feared the stay might further undermine his health - Secret Histories contains several striking vignettes. In the most memorable of all, Larkin questions a 13-year-old boy sent up from the country by his impoverished parents to drudge in a Rangoon teashop for four dollars a month. "How often do you go home?" she wonders. There is a pause. "I haven't been home yet. Maybe I'm not going home any more." Later she peers through the shutters of the locked-up shop and sees him fast asleep on a table with his fellow-waiters. Yet more depressing than these accounts of ground-down lives and state-ordained misery is the thought that no Burmese citizen will ever have a chance to read them.
Note: The copyright for this article is held by the original content creator.