Reading Tea Leaves
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Reading Tea Leaves

By David Scott Mathieson NOVEMBER, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.10


By searching for George Orwell’s past, Emma Larkin reveals his relevance to Burma’s present.


Review of Secret Histories. Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin. John Murray, London: 2004: 232 pp.

It’s not a bad way to spend one’s time, becoming a habitu of teashops, chatting to other bibliophiles, intellectuals, students, and the occasional nasty official. These unique spaces of Burmese life are the primary sources for Emma Larkin’s rich new book, Secret Histories, as she follows the trail of George Orwell’s time in colonial Burma.


Orwell spent five years during the 1920s as a policeman in the British colonial service, which Larkin argues “was the beginning of [his] uncanny and prophetic trilogy which told the history of present day Burma”, through the novels Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.


Larkin spent nearly ten years following Orwell’s career, to all his postings in the country, including Mandalay, Rangoon, Syriam, Twante and Myaungmya in the Irrawaddy Delta, Moulmein, and finally the bleak outpost of Katha in northern Burma, the setting for Burmese Days.


Burma made a powerful impression on Orwell. After all, he shot an elephant, watched men hang, hunted dacoits and murderers, beat up a few young boys at a train station, kept servants that he occasionally mistreated, and possibly had a Burmese mistress. He studied Hindustani, Burmese and even some Karen, expressing contempt for foreigners who didn’t bother to learn anything other than ordering around the “help”.

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