Big Brother Is Watching

George Orwell spent five years as one of the British Empire's policemen in Burma in the '20s. The experience provided him with the raw material for his novel "Burmese Days" as well as several of his best essays. It also soured him forever on imperialism. In 2002 Emma Larkin, an American journalist, spent the better part of a year traveling Myanmar--as the ruling military junta has renamed Burma--using Orwell's writing as a guidebook and revisiting locations where he had lived. The more she saw, she says in her sobering journalistic memoir "Finding George Orwell in Burma" ( 294 pages. The Penguin Press. ), the more convinced she became that Orwell had written not one but three novels about the country. "Burmese Days" is a withering description of the British occupation, which he observed firsthand. But his two novels about totalitarianism, "Animal Farm" and "1984," were, to Larkin, hideously predictive of modern-day Burma. When she tested her thesis on the locals, they were quick to agree. One man, when asked what he knew of Orwell, replied simply, "Oh, you mean the prophet."

Larkin, like Orwell, who was born Eric Blair, uses a pen name. But where Orwell's choice was purely personal--he didn't like his given name--Larkin's is one of necessity. She had to go to great lengths to disguise her purpose in touring Burma. She never used a camera and hid her own notes so thoroughly that sometimes she couldn't find them herself. Nearly every name in the book is made up to protect her sources, so harsh are the penalties for speaking out against the state.

But it's what she doesn't make up that sounds unbelievable. The generals who have run the country for the past half century have impoverished the population and bulldozed their civil rights. Laws in this country mean what the government says they mean--and what they mean today may be different from what they mean next month, a reality reflected in the Burmese nickname for the law: thayay-gwin, or "rubber band," because, as Larkin explains, it is so flexible. And in a move so Orwellian that you wonder if they didn't steal it from him, the censorship bureau is called the Press Registration and Scrutiny Department.

The alert, inquisitive Larkin doesn't really need Orwell's help to paint this splendid, if depressing, portrait of a country that she plainly loves. But her gimmick is a good one, and sometimes profoundly so. Near the beginning of the book, one of her sources points out that while the Burmese are voracious readers, not many people have read "1984" because it is banned. Then Larkin's friend asks the sad but salient question: "Why do they need to read it? They are already living inside '1984' in their daily lives." On the evidence of this disquieting profile of a country and its people, it is possible to say of Larkin what the critic and journalist Richard Rovere said of her inspiration: "Orwell saw through all the pretenses of his time and never made a fool of himself."

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