This could well be my book of the year. Ostensibly an attempt to retrace the physical origins of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, Secret Histories is actually a superbly concise and deeply scary history lesson in the fate of pre and post-colonial Myanmar. (It’s been published in the USA under the less lyrical title Finding George Orwell In Burma)
Governed by one’s of the world’s longest serving military dictatorships, which has managed to wholly destroy the infrastructure and prosperity of arguably Asia’s most naturally wealthy country, Secret Histories provides a ground-level view of the perils of living in modern-day Myanmar. Emma Larkin, a British woman who speaks fluent Burmese (sadly her biographical sketch is, indeed, too sketchy to ascertain much else), follows the geographical path of Orwell’s five year residency within Burma, revisiting the cities and outposts of one of the former British Empire’s most far-flung territories.
Along the way she exposes quite how much Myanmar has become the living embodiment of Orwell’s 1984.
All politics, teaching and literature are ruthlessly policed and scrutinised, with imprisonment for the smallest misdemeanours regularly meted out. Torture and disappearance are the norm. Corruption and unemployment are rife, and Myanmar’s one sole beacon of hope, the activist Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest. (Larkin explains the reverence surrounding Suu Kyi is due to her being the daughter of Aung San, who is widely considered the hero-father of the nation who led Burma’s independence from the British; her continued refusal to be intimidated by the murderous tactics of the regime have led them to repeatedly smear her as a “foreign devil” thanks to her marriage to Englishman Michael Aris).
Secret Histories, like Anna Funder’s Stasiland which describes life in the totalitarian communist state of East Germany, provides a personal perspective of a truly appalling regime that lets the reader begin to understand what it is like to live day to day under such an oppressive government.
One thing that endeared me to the Burmans straight away was their love of reading, as described by Larkin: unsurprising due to the lack of real information which they receive, but also a national pastime and passion that has led numerous people to preserve secret libraries of books that have otherwise been banned by the authorities.
Whilst everyday life is undeniable misery in Myanmar, the people who Larkin describes are still full of life, some how finding the will to live and live fully despite their most restrictive of circumstances and to try and make tiny but vital movements towards making their country become free again.
This book is transformative – before I began reading it I knew virtually nothing about Burma – at the end of its 230 pages, I feel I’ve gained at least a valuable gloss on its modern history and, wholly secondary to that, an insight into what drove Orwell to write – it was on his return from Burma to England that he horrified his family by announcing his intention to resign from the colonial service and become a writer.
Secret Histories is truly a vital book, and, with Stasiland, seems to be opening up a new genre (I’m hating myself for writing these words): female writers providing a personal perspective of political troubles; not personal as in their own perspectives, but in that they piece together the histories of the states they’re writing about through the stories of those who have lived within it. This strikes me as a vital counterbalance to our more traditional, and of course wholly necessary, overview histories.