Monthly Archives: January 2013

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Monday 21 January was designated by someone as Orwell Day, in commemoration of the anniversary of the writer’s death. Penguin Books offered a generous discount off the ‘Classic’ editions of his works and various media outlets took the opportunity to highlight his journalism. Lib Com had one of the best examples, this essay on the myth of freedom of the press, as evidenced by the difficulties Orwell experienced in finding a publisher for Animal Farm. The New Statesman went one further and declared Orwell Week, prompting the Spectator to point out that the writer and the NS editors had not always seen eye-to-eye, quoting this from an Orwell Tribune column:

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly turn to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

As someone who has always preferred to mark Orwell’s birthday, I suggest ignoring all of this hoopla, especially as it seems a reasonable bet that he would have hated the idea of Orwell Day. Instead, pass some time with Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, a mixture of travel, historical and political writing, which contains much to surprise and inform even the dedicated student of Orwell.

FindingGeorgeOrwellinBurma

Despite having spent over two years living in Asia, before reading this book I had to confess to ignorance of all but the broadest facts of Burma’s recent history. How the country journeyed from the colonial past depicted in Orwell’s Burmese Days to control by its straight-out-of-Nineteen Eighty-Four military junta via the betrayed revolution of Animal Farm is detailed here, not only with factual observations but also through the lives of Burmese people. On her travels through the cities and countryside – ostensibly researching locations that Orwell and his mother’s family lived in and visited – Larkin encounters former prisoners, booksellers, journalists, teachers, the remnants of the Anglo-Burmese population and many others determined to share their stories in spite of the dangers. On expressing her surprise at their vitality, one friend retorts:

What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?

That would certainly be one likely response to coping with Burmese levels of doublethink, elements of normality everywhere from the tea shops – ‘an integral part of life’ – to the love of books and reading for pleasure – mention that ‘books are sold… at the night-time book bazaar in Mandalay’ and my ears prick up. Yet those same tea shops are ‘treated by the regime as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities’ and thus the happy hunting grounds of informers, while one writer tells her that they are:

free to write whatever we want. We’re just not free to have it published.

Visits to dilapidated colonial buildings, old Christian cemeteries and key locations in Orwell’s history carry the story along, including one to the Police Training School – still used to house policemen today – where the young Eric Blair was trained in the methods of surveillance and population control that the military continued so enthusiastically after the British left. As a foreign female tourist, Larkin attracts attention from Burma’s diligent security operatives wherever she goes. In this fascinating interview, she talks about the methods she uses to avoid attracting attention and to protect her sources. (She also selects her five favourite books about Burma if, like me, you are keen on further discovery.)

Larkin seemingly has her own version of doublethink, captivated by Burma’s beauty while despairing that the army’s control can ever be relaxed. It must be like visiting a good friend serving a life sentence in prison, as one interviewee describes the population as the 50 million hostages of the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi – released from house arrest since the publication of the book – and her National League for Democracy perhaps offer some hope. Yet, as she travels, Emma Larkin muses on Winston Smith’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four,

Where does the past exist?

and their relevancy to Burma, where all mention of the huge uprisings which took place in 1988 and their suppression have been erased from official histories. Restoring the country and its people to ‘normality’ will be no easy task.

A quote from the New York Times on the back of my paperback edition of Finding George Orwell in Burma notes that the book

uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar.

It is an excellent and engrossing read, informative yet not in a dry way, featuring characters who, although they must be heavily disguised, remain vital and lively companions. I found it to be an illuminating tour through a country which shaped Orwell, informing his most celebrated books and turning him from disaffected colonial policeman into a writer unafraid to denounce totalitarianism, wherever he found it.

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A year in reading

It seems that ‘inspired by’ is the term to use when one is shamelessly borrowing another’s good idea. With that in mind, this post is inspired by/pinched from Sean Lotman’s wonderful post of the same name. You are encouraged to take a look at the original as well as this weak derivative.

An earlier post on ten minutes hate details my early designation as the family bookworm and the part that public libraries have played in creating my reading habits. There are times when a ‘to read’ list is put into use, but more often it is the joy of discovering something unintended that makes a trip to the library worthwhile. So it was around the time that borrowing took over from buying books that, realising that some gems would no doubt be forgotten along the way, I started making a note of titles and authors as I travelled.

Engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

The writer, engrossed in a book, Singapore, Christmas 2010

Looking at my list, the first failure to note is that it doesn’t come close to Mr Lotman’s staggering 42 books. Shamefully, mine is barely half that. It is interesting that in the comments to the original post, the balance between reading and writing is mentioned and it is true that, for the first half of the year at least, writing took up almost every available moment of my free time. Then there was the temptation of reading long-form journalism on my phone instead of carrying physical books on commutes and journeys. Although some of the listed books were read on a Kindle app (being too lazy to buy yet another gadget) the majority of them were paper and ink and, however much technology adds to other areas of my life, I foresee that continuing.

Another notable trend is that, while reading will always be something done primarily for pleasure, there are words here that I took a more professional interest in. Mr Lotman talks about the joy of reading, saying that often, too many readers see it:

as a way to pass the time rather than an action worthwhile for its own sake.

Usually I would be in complete agreement, however other motivations for reading have intruded this year. My list contains a few books that were of interest for research purposes, or read in draft stage and edited, or – in perhaps the biggest leap of personal development – read in order to develop a hopefully interesting and stimulating literature curriculum. Teaching classes based on loved books, having hated everything school forced me to read in English class, was at times tough, although ultimately enjoyable. Still, it is rare for a book that you feel you ought to be reading to become as much of a favourite as one you are free to delight in.

This joy of discovery shows in the publication dates of many of these titles, few are contemporary, perhaps only a couple would have been marked ‘the book of the moment’ or reviewed by a Sunday newspaper. That is due to distance: picking up books via second-hand bookshops and swapping with fellow expats tends to rule out hardbacks and new releases. Many of my list were gifts or recommendations and there is something lovely about hearing ‘I think you will enjoy this book’ from a friend before finding that to be true.

Here then is my list of books read in 2012, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. Let’s Start Again, ABCTales short story compilation
  3. Hana Walker’s Half-Life 2:46, Our Man in Abiko
  4. Babylon Revisited, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Musings of a Monkey, Steven Baxter
  6. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  7. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Moonraker, Ian Fleming
  10. Manituana, Wu Ming
  11. Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren
  12. In Pursuit of the English, Doris Lessing
  13. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
  14. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  15. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
  16. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. Dr No, Ian Fleming
  19. Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore
  20. The Mammy, Brendan O’Carroll
  21. Bon Voyage, Mr President, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  22. A View from the Chuo Line, Donald Richie
  23. The Maginot Line, Fiction Desk short story compilation
  24. Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

I managed 24 books, two for each month. Four were re-reads, six were ebooks, eight were purchased by me and the rest were passed on by friends.

Impossible to choose one favourite, but the books by Doris Lessing, Wu Ming and Knut Hamsun were particularly enjoyable, for wildly different reasons. With Lessing taking her ‘pursuit’ into a post-War London suburb, the Wu Ming viewing the American Revolution from an unconventional perspective and Hamsun’s anti-hero lurching around late 19th century Kristiania (Oslo), my love of stories set outside my own time is clearly demonstrated. Despite their differing subject matter, all three were lively, gripping tales, fascinating and relevant.

Publishers will tell you that compilations of short stories never sell, however a busy year meant this format was far easier to dip into and out of than a 900-page novel. From the Fiction Desk compilation, The Maginot Line, Benjamin Johncock’s The Rocket Man was a haunting tale of a small girl grappling with an uncertain future, soundtracked by Bowie. My first reading of a Helen Dunmore novel also provoked the first negative review I have ever been bothered to write, while Haruki Murakami demonstrated more flaws than claims to greatness and Will Wiles’ first book sadly did not make me long for another from him.

Finally, it is with a sense of guilt that I note that there are five downloaded but yet to be either started or finished books lurking on my Kindle app. This is something that I hope to address very shortly, as an extended holiday break in England with typically wintry weather offers little incentive to venture outdoors. With a little luck, 2013’s list will offer even more gems than this one.

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P. G. Wodehouse and George Orwell

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I have been reading the rather excellent ‘P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. It is full of gems, with sparkling slang – which has me resolved to address more people as ‘old cake’ this year – and crammed with indiscretions, just as any good biography should be. Here is Pelham Grenville’s take on one Eric Arthur Blair:

Orwell. I only met him once. We got on very well and corresponded fairly regularly, but he struck me as one of those warped birds who have never recovered from an unhappy childhood and a miserable school life. He took everything so damned seriously.

In many ways, Orwell and Wodehouse shared an upbringing: parents in the colonies, boarding school, Kipling, determined writers from an early age. Yet these similarities produced such very different outlooks on the society they shared.

I couldn’t imagine my bookshelves without Orwell, but I wouldn’t see them without Wodehouse either. Testament, perhaps, to the skill that they both employ, in the achievement of widely different aims.

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