What effect did George Orwell’s stint as a police officer in imperial Burma have on his writing? Emma Larkin’s answer to that is Secret Histories, which goes beyond the question to provide a blend of literary commentary, travelogue and exposé of current conditions in the hapless Southeast Asian country.
Larkin starts with the joke about Orwell’s having written three books on Burma: Burmese Days, about its colonial past; Animal Farm, about the military takeover; and 1984, about the present. As she travels to the places Orwell visited, such as Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein, she uncovers the effects of the repressive regime on the Burmese people. Random and harsh imprisonment, paranoid censorship and economic mismanagement are just some of the crosses they have to bear; yet, Larkin finds dogged optimism and quiet humour shining through the cracks the junta tries to paper over.
Larkin – the nom de plume of an American reporter—has a gift for vivid description. Her conversations with people nostalgic about Burma’s past are moving, and her accounts of the treatment of defiant writers in prison chilling. Required reading in an age when, as she says, “the most staggering thing about Burma [is] that the oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million people can be completely hidden from view.”