Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese teashop by Emma Larkin
Reviewed by Sean Badal
Being an avid Orwell votary, I tend to grab anything with Orwell’s name on it. Why, I even bought Orwell’s Victory by that well-known “leftwing” intellectual Christopher Hitchens – though I have to say, like all his recent pontifications from his Washington Eyre, it was a load of crap. The amazing thing is, in the US, they think he’s the “natural heir” to Orwell. All I can say is, “my arse”. Excuse my French.
The last couple of years have been spectacularly good for Orwell fans. The 25th of June 2003 was the centenary of his birth and a number of excellent biographies have been published. My favourites were D. J Taylor’s brilliant Orwell: The Life, and Jeffery Myers’ Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. I also recently succumbed (Sonia being the equivalent of Yoko One to Lennon fans or Isabel Arundel to Burton obsessives) and read The Girl in the Fiction Department, a pathos-laden heartbreaking account of the somewhat miserable life of Sonia Orwell by her friend, Hilary Spurling. It was, I have to admit, a sad and utterly compulsive read.
Emma Larkin’s book seems, at first glance a flimsy excuse for a historiography into George Orwell. At times, her overwhelming desire to attach Orwellian significance to all kinds of minutiae seems contrived and artificial. All this is worth the ride however. What Larkin does effectively is take the reader directly into the dark heart of Burma, or Myanmar, as it is known these days.
Orwell himself pretty much had a love-hate relationship with colonial Burma. In 1922, the nineteen-year old Orwell went to Burma to serve as an officer of the Imperial Police Force for five years. Whilst he may have, by many accounts, behaved as a typical British officer, there is no doubt that his experiences there shaped his anti-colonial sentiments. Two of my favourite Orwell essays are Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging. Anyone who has ever read these essays will never fail to understand the sheer impact of Orwell’s deceptively simple narratives and the manner in which he shows how colonialism degrades both the conquerors and the conquered.
Orwell’s first novel was Burmese Days, an overblown turgid weepie of a novel that is, quite frankly, unreadable, but the experiences of Burma obviously lingered. (In Burma the joke is that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but a trilogy comprising of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984).
Just how Orwellian Burma has become is quite clearly elucidated by Larkin. The generals that run the country via the State Peace and Development Council (yes, that’s the name of the army) have a tight grip on Burmese society that is to a degree unimaginable to the rest of us – even when compared to the depredations of the current Chinese setup (China of course being one of the junta’s most fervent supporters - funny how you don’t hear China as part of the Axis of Evil. Mmm.., let’s see, that couldn’t have anything to do with the millions of Western dollars being poured into the Chinese economy?
There is a quote in the book from an unnamed Burmese official that would have been quite funny if it weren’t so nightmarishly real for the Burmese people.
“Truth is true only within a certain period of time. What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.”
It could have come straight out of 1984. As a matter of fact, I may have to check….
Title: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese teashop
Author: Emma Larkin
Publisher: John Murray - 21/3/2005
DJ Taylor's books for Orwell-lovers
Critic, biographer and novelist DJ Taylor is the author of Orwell: The Life which has won the Whitbread biography.
1. Orwell: The Complete Works, Volume XI: A Kind of Compulsion, 1903-1936 by Peter Davison
Professor Davison spent 15 years on his 20-volume collected works. This volume is recommended as a sample of his painstaking scholarship and meticulous footnotes (these have to be read to be believed!) all set down with the lightest and most enthusiastic of touches.
2. Orwell: A Literary Life by Peter Davison
See above for my opinion of Peter Davison. This is a 'literary' study rather than the full chronological Monty. Later biographers, myself included, have thanked God that Professor Davison didn't choose to go the whole hog.
3. Orwell at Home by Vernon Richards
The best-known (and best-executed) file of Orwell photographs were taken by his anarchist chum the late Vernon Richards at Orwell's Islington flat in the winter of 1946. This collects all Richards' snaps - some of them rarely seen - together with Richards' obituary of Orwell and essays on Orwell's anarchist leanings by Colin Ward and the late Nicholas Walter.
4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
Gissing was England's best novelist, according to Orwell, and a decisive influence on his work. New Grub Street, first published in 1891, is a tremendously gloomy account of the late-Victorian literary marketplace (ominously enough, its hero - like Orwell - dies of lung trouble) and an obvious forerunner to Orwell's own Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
5. Infants of the Spring by Anthony Powell
The first volume of Anthony Powell's four-part memoir, To Keep The Ball Rolling. Powell was one of Orwell's greatest friends, and kept a close eye on him for the last 10 years of his life. This contains one of the best sketches of him ever written, including a deeply weird account of our man, invited to inspect Powell's infant son John, absent-mindedly leaving a nine-inch Bowie knife in the cradle.
6. George Orwell: A Memoir by Tosco Fyvel
'Tosco' (TR) Fyvel worked with Orwell on Tribune in the 1940s and succeeded him as the paper's literary editor. This memoir is full of beguiling biographical asides, and is particularly interesting on Orwell's occasionally ambiguous attitudes to Jews and Jewishness. In particular, Fyvel's criticisms of a Tribune piece seem to have convinced Orwell of his anti-semitic tendencies and encouraged him to make amends.
7. The Girl in the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling
Spurling's memoir of her great friend Sonia Brownell, who married Orwell as his second wife across his death-bed in late 1949. The title refers to Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for whom Miss B may have been a model. Spurling is horribly partial (many observers rated Sonia as a gold-digging drunk) but her grasp of milieu and motivation is first-rate.
8. Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick
Authorised by Sonia who died, shortly after it appeared, wishing she had never countenanced it. Quite why remains a mystery, as this is groundbreaking stuff, to which all subsequent biographers have endlessly to refer.
9. The Unknown Orwell by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams
Not countenanced by Sonia, but apparently the goad that provoked her into sponsoring Crick. Thoroughly researched and, even now, turning up many a hare that later scholars have yet to chase.
10. Eric and Us by Jacintha Buddicom
Long out of print but an entertaining childhood memoir written by a neighbour of Orwell's (whom she knew as 'Eric Blair') from his teenage years in Henley-on-Thames. Orwell's youthful poetry is much quoted and there are some salutary slaps at the myth of his unhappy childhood ('a happy smiling boy' Ms Buddicom retrospectively pronounced).
*** Once again, many thanks to Sean for providing this book review.