John Murray, 232 pp, $39.95, hardcover.
Many who have read 1984 and worship at the altar of George Orwell don't know, or conveniently ignore, the fact that the man born Eric Blair was a cop. Orwell arrived in Burma at the age of 19 and served in the colonial police for several years. Blair, evidently, was diligent in his work and whipped more than a few of his dusky charges over the years. In Moulmein, he's still remembered for it.
He wrote his first novel, Burmese Days, about a man, not all that unlike himself, stuck in this steamy outpost of empire. John Flory never got back to England; he killed himself. Eric Blair left Burma and transformed himself.
But he was not through with Burma. According to Emma Larkin--a journalist, student of Burmese language and history, and the author of Secret Histories--Orwell composed a trilogy about the country, the other two books being his most famous works: Animal Farm and 1984. As well, the manuscript Orwell was working on when he died of tuberculosis in 1950--a novella called A Smoking Room Story--was about a man revisiting Burma.
It is not necessary to have read Orwell or to like Orwell for this book to work. Orwell is the river, the rutted road, the ox track Larkin follows to the secret histories of this sad country that tolerates no secrets.
The fact that she got people to open up to her is astounding, for spies are in the tea shops, the shop houses, the marketplace, behind the check-in counters, disguised as Buddhist monks. Larkin must have been terrified, but she underplays it all and perhaps she shouldn't have. My only criticism of this terrific story is that she talks about terror but holds it at a distance. The horror of Myanmar is, therefore, something we acknowledge but don't feel. The closest she gets is when describing an attack on Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers on May 30, 2003, shortly after Larkin left the country.
But, perhaps, as in Myanmar, we must read between the lines. Here, then, is a condemnation of what is probably the world's most insidious dictatorship, disguised as a book about a dead western writer.