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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

Secret Histories
(Finding George Orwell in Burma)

Emma Larkin

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To purchase Finding George Orwell in Burma

Title: Secret Histories
Author: Emma Larkin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 290 pages
Availability: Finding George Orwell in Burma - US
Secret Histories - UK
Finding George Orwell in Burma - Canada
À mots couverts - France
  • UK title: Secret Histories
  • US title: Finding George Orwell in Burma
  • UK sub-title: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting glimpse of Burma

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 31/5/2005 Lilian Handlin
Financial Times . 14/8/2004 .
Foreign Affairs . 5-6/2005 Lucian W. Pye
The Independent . 9/9/2004 Justin Wintle
The NY Times . 7/6/2005 William Grimes
Newsweek . 4/7/2005 Malcolm Jones
The Observer . 8/8/2004 Tom Templeton
Salon . 23/6/2005 Priya Jain
Sunday Times . 22/8/2004 D.J.Taylor
The Telegraph . 25/8/2004 Patrick Skene Catling
Times Higher Ed. . 17/9/2004 Pascal Khoo Thwe
TLS . 17/9/2004 Martin Morland

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Larkin's engaging prose reveals an observant, compassionate, and sensitive traveler whose often elegiac narrative draws on naturalistic descriptions to mirror the somber mood and agonizing tales she hears. But Finding George Orwell in Burma discloses more about Larkin than about the country she explores, since the combination of Orwellianisms and imported preconceptions does not produce a subtle understanding of contemporary Burma." - Lilian Handlin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Larkin's book is partly travelogue, partly reportage of life in Burma and partly an account of Orwell's experiences there, all overhung by the dreadful relevance of his novels to a society that is banned from reading them. What shines out is the resilient, subversive humour of the people whom she meets" - Financial Times

  • "By gracefully stepping back and forth between the writings of a great novelist and the history of a troubled country, and recording it in smooth, flowing prose, Larkin shows herself to be a master both in a great literary tradition and of reporting on a brutal tyranny." - Lucian W. Pye, Foreign Affairs

  • "She meets any number of people willing to speak against the junta under the cloak of anonymity in relatively safe tea-houses and inscribes what they tell, so that hers, too, becomes a "witness" account. But we are never taken beyond that. However truthful the testimonies, they fall far short of a definitive picture. Larkin knows this. To make her book work, she hooks it onto George Orwell" - Justin Wintle, The Independent

  • "Her mournful, meditative, appealingly idiosyncratic book is a hybrid, an exercise in literary detection but also a political travelogue that uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell -- especially the Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four -- to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar (as it is now known)." - William Grimes, The New York Times

  • "The alert, inquisitive Larkin doesn't really need Orwell's help to paint this splendid, if depressing, portrait of a country that she plainly loves. But her gimmick is a good one, and sometimes profoundly so." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "Larkin's reportage on modern Burma is every bit as fascinating as Orwell's Burmese essays of the 1930s. Her ability to listen to the Burmese without putting words in their mouths and her unexaggerated prose paint an enlightening portrait of the country. (...) Burma's dictatorship is no more like Oceania's than those of North Korea or Turkmenistan, and Larkin's superb account of life in Burma's exotic tragi-comedy is only diminished by shoehorning in Orwell." - Tom Templeton, The Observer

  • "Larkin's fluency in Burmese and determination to slip past military intelligence under the guise of a tourist make her a unique guide, though penetrating the fortress of censorship still proves difficult. (...) But considering the obstacles to her reporting, Larkin gleans an admirable amount of information. Hers is a book designed to pique curiosity but not sate it, and perhaps that's for the best; Burma could use a little more attention from the outside world." - Priya Jain, Salon

  • "Secret Histories, the record of Larkin’s wanderings in modern Burma (or "Myanmar" as the current bunch of military tyrants prefers to call it), is an odd hybrid of a book: half a companion guide to the twentysomething Orwell’s time in the East; half a series of dispatches from a country in a state of internal siege, where informers lurk on every street corner and the glimpse of a white face anywhere off the official tourist trail is the excuse for an orgy of form-filling and clumsy surveillance." - D.J.Taylor, Sunday Times

  • "Secret Histories is a travelogue as well as a contemporary political, social and spiritual history of a country that has been mainly forgotten by the outside world. The descriptions of the people she encounters are amusing as well as touchingly sad, whichever side of the political divide they are on." - Pascal Khoo Thwe, Times Higher Education

  • "The book is perhaps a little hard on Britain's colonial record. (...) (A) many-faceted book, beautifully written by almost the only Western writer who speaks proper Burmese, knows Burma and its inhabitants well, and has been able to record their feelings under the shadow of the tyranny." - Martin Morland, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Secret Histories -- or, as the US title has it: Finding George Orwell in Burma -- is an odd sort of mix of travelogue and literary tour of this isolated nation that now calls itself 'Myanmar'. Emma Larkin essentially goes in the footsteps of George Orwell, who spent several years in Burma as an officer of the (British) Imperial Police Force. But Larkin also wants to give an idea of life in a country that has been misruled by one of the most repressive regimes on earth for decades now. Hence also the thesis that, as the Burmese joke (apparently) goes:

Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
       It's not nearly the stretch one might imagine, and Larkin dutifully makes the appropriate comparisons, from media control (where one of the ways you can tell that something is up ... say, with the banking system ... is when the media don't report on it) to methods of torture.
       Among the difficulties of writing about Burma from within Burma is that it is such a police state. Anyone might be an informer, and many of the people she talks to -- or the guesthouses she stays at -- get hassled by the authorities because of their contact with her.
       As Larkin notes:
     The authoritarian rule of the Burmese generals is well-hidden behind a curtain that is held tightly closed by strict control over the country's movies, music, books and newspapers. Indeed, I often knew more about what was going on in Burma when I was away from it.
       A fluent Burmese speaker, Larkin is at a great advantage over most visitors to the country, and she does recount many encounters and conversations. Everyone is desperately cautious, but people do open up to her, and she does give a sense of what it is to live in such a stifling atmosphere. Still, that only goes so far, and anyone vaguely aware of the situation in Burma won't be surprised by much that she (or those she speaks with) recount. Indeed, there are so many conversations -- and because practically almost all the names have been changed to protect those who spoke to her -- it all becomes rather indistinct and anonymous. Only a few memorable figures stand out.
       Too often, too, the complaints are reduced to the obvious. Yes, it's heartbreaking to hear the old lady say:
This country used to be a fabulous place, you know. It was rich in nature and people, and so very beautiful. They have managed to turn a paradise into something not much better than a living hell.
       But that only packs so much of a punch after a while.
       More interesting is that shadowy authoritarian omnipresence -- almost never revealed in its acts of brutality, but rather lurking, as when a publisher tries to explain the way censorship works, including noting that:
     'They never tell us exactly why something is banned,' said Ko Ye. 'We just have to guess.'
       Larkin does sketch out a fair amount of history and the current state of affairs, but one really only gets half a sense of the country and its many woes -- just as in restricting her travels (for the purposes of this book) to Orwell-territory she ignores much of the country, including the amazing site of Pagan. (Since the period Larkin was in the country the military junta has also moved the seat of government and the capital away from Rangoon (Yangon) to pretty much the middle of nowhere, in a typically bizarre and inscrutable step.)
       The Orwell-connexions are of some interest, as she does try to follow in his footsteps where she can (which also brings her to places more off the beaten track, like Myaungmya and Katha), and the frozen-in-time aspect of so much of Burma lends itself to this exercise as well, as she finds numerous Orwell-traces (generally accompanied by depressing signs of decay).
       Nevertheless, this feels very much like a book that can't decide what it wants to be: it likely would have been considerably more compelling as either a straight travelogue, or completely focused on Orwell-in-Burma (then-and-now). Orwell also proves something of a distraction in making her points about the awful regime that has destroyed the country, the Big Brother and Animal Farm comparisons occasionally almost seeming to trivialize the real suffering going on in Burma.
       A decent introduction to contemporary Burma, Secret Histories isn't entirely satisfying either for readers who know nothing of the country, or those who have followed it more closely -- or for those familiar with George Orwell's life and work. There are a number of scenes and observations that do make it worthwhile, but simply not nearly as many as one might have hoped for.

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Secret Histories: Reviews: George Orwell: Other books by Emma Larkin review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Emma Larkin' is the pseudonym of an American journalist.

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