Big Brother Is Watching; A Journalist Retraces George Orwell's Steps in Burma

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

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. …