Thursday, June 2, 2011

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Title: Finding George Orwell in Burma
Author: Emma Larkin
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 304

I think this and the English version of Yukio Mishima's  午後の曳航 (because the last time I tried to take on Mishima's works in Japanese it was just too much) will be the last English book I'll read for a while. Every once in a while I like to have an English book binge.

Summary:  In Burma, George Orwell is known as "The Prophet" because three of his works, Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984, can all be looked at as books about Burma.  The first represents the British colonial days of Burma,  and the latter two are more closely tied into what modern day Burma is like.
A journalist travels inside Burma, where travel is hard and the government's eyes are everywhere, to see what the places where Orwell was posted as a military officer in his young look like today, and now much modern day Burma is just as dystopian as the settings of Orwell's novels.

Plot: It's amazing how much Burma (also known as Myanmar, but I will refer to it as Burma) is like a living dystopia. Tracing Orwell's steps is sort of a gimmick, and I would still  have read the book if it didn't have it, namely because I know so little about Burma, but being a fan of dystopian novels (Orwell's and, more recently, Kino no Tabi), it was both surreal and horrifying to know that something like what is in those novels exists. One of this things that immediately endeared me to the Burmese people was their love of books. Most of them were voracious readers of classic novels in English, as that was one of the few ways they learned anything about the outside world. The newspapers were always false, and the "official" view of history was often changed. Articles about Burma, and current events that might provoke people to revolt were taken out of imported magazines in English, so it was hard to get any "real" news at all.

Prose: Even though the author is an American (although she did go to a British college), the book was published in England first, under the slightly flashier title of  Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop, and as such, has British spellings throughout. This is really a trivial detail but normally I have no problems with reading British English (as a big fan of Harry Potter, Monty Python, and having read a lot of, and even prefer British classic literature to American classics in most cases, because I find it to be generally more literary eloquent) but I dare say there were a few times when I found I had no clue what a few nouns were referring to ^-^; which made the novel even more exotic in a way... anyway, it didn't interrupt my enjoyment of the book much, and in general I found the prose flowing and lively, with more humor throughout than I expected.

Who I would recommend this to: Readers of travelogues or dystopian novels.


  1. yeahhhh british english ftw!! ;)

    American literature has it's own kind of eloquence though, i love Kerouac and the other beat writers. hahah even Bukowski has his own form of eloquence...um, sorta...lol

    Does british has different nouns...?! i never knew...

    of course Orwell is great, i've never read Burmese Days though...

  2. Hmm, I've never read Kerouac...I mostly read classic (usually British) literature growing up...I think Harry Potter was the only "popular book" I ever liked (I think I tried to read Twilight and The Da Vinci Code once to see what all the fuss was about, but whenever I find myself mentally correcting sentence structures, and attacking the author's literary style, without even having fun bashing it, then I know it's time to quit reading a book, so I retreated to the classics, and lamented the state of modern literature. ^^; I also got into translations of Japanese literature after a while, but now I prefer to read the original if I can.

    Yeah, I think a lot of the difference between the two types of English has to do with nouns (besides some pronunciation and grammar differences). There are whole lists detailing differences between the two(e.g http://peterviney.wordpress.com/about/elt-articles/british-and-american-english-1/) which I find amusing, and also like in the American version of Harry Potter, most of the things they changed were nouns (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/about/books/ps/differences-ps.html), or maybe it's just that verbs are easier to figure out from context? Generally I think British spellings look better, though American ones tend to be shorter, which is nice too. I don't know if this is common with Americans who loved British literature from a young age (I know a few other literature fans who went through it) but for a while I even went through a "British spellings phase", where I spelled everything the British way because I thought it looked cool, until one day I got a paper back filled with red marks, and got told off by a teacher who said he would give me a low final grade if I didn't start writing things the American way. ^^; I switched back to American spellings that day, although I kept the one spelling I didn't know was British, "grey"(vs. "gray") , because I'd seen it so many times that I'm pretty sure it has crept into the American lexicon. Although it's possible I'd read so many British books I just thought it did, but I was pretty sure I'd seen it on crayon labels and such growing up. It's fun to play with language.^^ I wish I could something like The Engine Room (http://engineroomblog.blogspot.com/), that shows the use and misuse of language, only in Japanese.

    Me neither. From the excerpts in the book it seemed like it was about imperialism, and didn't seem as interesting as Animal Farm or 1984 were.

  3. oh yeah!!! i couldn't think of any when i was thinking about it for myself, but reading that blog, i really remember very clearly reading american childrens books and stumbling over certain words loads of times... things like "slacks", "sneakers", etc. "take off your pants" always made me giggle hahah!

    i dunno, i don't think Americans really need to change the words... kids tend to pick up this stuff easily, even if they do stumble a bit. The same kind of thing happened when i was reading old books like the Enid Blyton series when i was a kid too, with older english words and phrases...

    Well, i never bothered to read Twighlight, but i've always loved Harry Potter!! I've read them sooooo many times, so it's nice to read them in Japanese now, i know the stories off by heart :)

    The only children's books that i read for the first time as an adult (barring the later harry potter books) and really liked as an adult were the Philip Pullman "his dark materials" series. Definately, during the 2nd and 3rd book, i couldn't put it down.

    If you get chance, you should definately give Kerouac a go!!! He was my favourite author when i was 15... though i didn't like his most famous book, "On the Road" that much, i think my favourite was Desolation Angels. It's kind of stream of consciousness stuff, but really beautiful in a lot of places, i thought. (i haven't read anything of his since i was about that age though, so...)

    Oh, also i loved plenty of other authors translated in english, there's lots of good european and russian ones! George Orwell's "Road to Wigan Pier" i also enjoyed as well. And of course, Oscar Wilde! hahah, he's great!

  4. *looks up the word "pants"* Oh, now I know where パンツ comes from. LOL

    Yeah, one of the things I like about English is that it's so diverse. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to take interesting slang, and other words from the other types of English, and adopt them into my speech, even if it meant confusing some people. XD

    Harry Potter in Japanese is fun, I think I'm going to have a hard time not spending a lot of time on Pottermore when it comes out! If only it was going to be in Japanese...Which reminds me that I need to see the new HP movies coming out soon, even if it ends up being ultimately a poor adaptation of the book (I was disappointed with the last one, so I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much). I wish I could find a Japanese version of Quidditch Through the Ages online...

    "His Dark Materials"? I think I've heard of that...There was a movie out a while ago called "The Golden Compass" (though I think the British title was different?), and when I saw it, It just felt like it was trying to cram too much info into one film, leaving people who haven't read the book, like me, very confused. I might check it out on my next English book binge (in between my usual Japanese book reading, once in a while I let myself read a few books in English XD).

    Desolation Angels huh? I like the title...I'll put that on my huge "English books to read" list (Yes, I have separate lists for Japanese and English XD). I should probably read some more non-British authors anyway...I've probably idealized England as a land of literature, just as I idealized Japan as a land of anime before I went there, except my vision of England is probably stuck in the 19th century, or worse, Shakespeare's time xD, still, I want to visit there someday and take a literary tour or something.

    I haven't read "Road to Wigan Pier", but the plot looks interesting...
    Ah, Oscar Wilde. I wish I could find a Japanese author as witty as him. My sister has an antique copy of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", and I was surprised at how poignant his poems were.