Sun, Mar 27, 2005 - Page 18 News List

'Secret Histories' of Burma revealed

A travel book that appears to have it all fails in most other respects

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Secret Histories
By Emma Larkin
232 pages
John Murray

The subtitle of this book is Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop. It looks, and is, characteristic of the large number of Asia-located travel books currently coming out from the UK publishers John Murray.

These can be defined respectably written, honestly conceived and decently researched travel records. The authors are often young, and you can imagine them approaching their prospective publisher with a clear-cut project and an educational background to suggest they will probably carry it out efficiently by the agreed deadline. What they won't be, however, is great stylists or writers with a really good idea.

The premise of this book is to revisit the places in Burma that George Orwell lived in for the five years that he was an officer in the UK's Imperial Police Force there. It was his first job, and he undertook it before he entertained any ideas of becoming a professional writer. But afterwards he did write a novel about colonial life in the country, Burmese Days, published in 1934.

Emma Larkin's book is easy to read and untroubling to the heart or mind. She travels to Rangoon, Mandalay, Moulmeim, Katha and elsewhere.

There she tries to find the buildings Orwell worked or lived in, and in addition talks to huddled groups of Burmese in teashops about Orwell, books in general, and quite often the dire political situation in the country today.

She tells us about such things as the reception of Orwell's various works in the Britain and Burma of the day and interesting historical events unconnected to Orwell that occurred in the places she visits. Any writer will see the problem she faces and the technique she uses to overcome it. Books are long things, and as often as not writers have to look around for various ways to fill them.

This doesn't in itself mean that this is an uninteresting book. It may rather often opt for the cliched phrase -- "lush paddy fields", "a spectacular sunset", "a dog-eared copy," "bustling markets" -- but the general tone is intelligent and humane. It's just important sometimes to make certain distinctions. This is not, then, a book written by someone with a burning mission, an unusual personality or a genuninely witty and engaging style. It isn't, in other words, Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar, Michael Heller's Despatches, Jan Morris's Hong Kong or Michel Huelbecq's Platform, all of which treat Asia in ways that show their authors to be, in their very different ways, outstanding writers and quite exceptional people.

There is something a touch routine, in other words, about Secret Histories. The author will probably be furious at me for saying this, and I don't want to minimize the book's virtues. But there were times when I simply wished it was more outrageous, more personal or more opinionated. Burma is a shocking place, but this book didn't shock me. Its references to the fate of democracy activists and many ordinary people, both in the catastrophe of 1988 and afterwards, made me sad, but they didn't make me angry.

Many Burmese whispered their political anxieties to Emma Larkin, as well as explaining such things as how they got to know what was going on in spite of news blackouts. She tells how she managed to travel without raising suspicions she was planning to write a book about the country (surely no very hard task). But she never breaks down and cries. She never berates Orwell, his critics or anyone else. Instead she and an informant go into a hotel and are brought two "extraordinarily frothy cappuccinos," alongside the "expatriate housewives" and Burmese and foreign businessmen.

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