FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA

By Emma Larkin

Penguin Press. 294 pp. $22.95

George Orwell himself probably could not improve upon the name of the vicious junta that now runs Burma: the State Peace and Development Council. Several times in the past decade, if I read correctly, a Caucasian woman who speaks fluent Burmese traveled carefully around the country (now dubbed Myanmar by its rulers). She was looking for traces of Orwell, who spent five years working as a policeman for the British colonial regime there during the 1920s before he got sick of it and went home to write such classics as "Animal Farm" and "1984." The woman traveled incognito, or at least as incognito as she could manage, since Burma's regime is notoriously repressive, one of the very worst in the world. Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) didn't want to end up in jail.

Her highly original, idiosyncratic book has two purposes: The first is hunting down clues of Orwell, who is thought -- even as he put in his time enforcing British rule and suppressing any glimmer of Burmese independence -- to have begun work there on an autobiographical novel, "Burmese Days," published in 1934. The second is to see how his own grimmest visions have been realized there decades later.

The colonial life has been described in dozens of other English novels -- the loneliness, the humidity, the malaria, the tennis, the gin and tonics before lunch, the claustrophobic, repetitive nights spent at the club, the offhand use of indigenous women by British men, the increasingly jaundiced and neglected British wives, the constant burden of nothing to do but assert one's racial and social superiority. Rudyard Kipling unashamedly loved the life; his "Plain Tales From the Hills" still shines with authentic exuberance. E.M. Forster detested colonialism but was fascinated by its complexity; "A Passage to India" attempted to dissect the relationship between those Brits who so often operated in shameless bad faith and the "natives" who detested, envied and sometimes even liked their occupiers at the same time. Graham Greene happily used the whole construct as a map of all human sin.

Orwell's own "Burmese Days" is full of homesickness, alienation and, finally, the suicide of its protagonist. But the author himself was not above beating Burmese unfortunates with his cane and behaving in other brutish ways. Bad government, he came to realize, brutalizes everyone it touches. Orwell saw a nightmare in Burma, wrote of it, then came home and imagined two more nightmarish societies. It is Emma Larkin's contention that as he composed the three books, he was writing a trilogy, albeit unconsciously. As her own book begins, Larkin queries an old Burmese scholar about Orwell: The scholar labels him not a novelist but "the prophet!"

Larkin's second purpose here is postcolonial; she seeks to describe a country gone well and truly to the dogs -- a place where the principles and practices of "1984" aren't the dark fantasies of an upper-middle-class Englishman but dictatorial business as usual. (The name-change to Myanmar in 1988, Larkin reminds us, wasn't just a form of "country-improvement" but a move to erase a giant segment of history -- to suggest that there never really was a "Burma," only an invented, controlled place called Myanmar.) Almost every other person is a spy for the government -- or could be. Or maybe absolutely every person is; no one can be sure.

Larkin wanders the country, looking for dissidents or people who knew Orwell. But these conversational sections of the narrative sound curious, even bogus. In a small, spy-riddled police state, wouldn't a Caucasian woman traveling alone find herself more than passingly conspicuous? Wouldn't she be endangering everyone she speaks to every moment she speaks to them? Her acknowledgments, she writes, "would be several pages longer if I were able to name the people in Burma who helped me without putting them at risk." But hasn't she already put them at risk? Does she really think that those she queried -- the little group of Anglo-Burmese spinsters who get together for tea in the small southern port city of Moulmein, for instance -- won't be in trouble when an official gets around to reading their remarks?

"We Burmese people are totally content," a stranger in a tea shop tells her. "Do you know why? Because we have nothing left. We have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until there is nothing left." Or, from one of those Moulmein spinsters: "You know, dear, our government is bad -- very bad. It took our wonderful, precious country and broke it into pieces. Now we are all condemned to living in a kind of purgatory from which there is no release." Yes, somewhere in the country a saintly woman named Aung San Suu Kyi -- Burma's leading dissident and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize -- remains under house arrest and attracts sporadic international attention by defying the authorities, but Larkin doesn't try to see her. The author has given Burma up for dead.

Which doesn't mean she can't write first-rate travel literature about it. When she's not researching Orwell or recording citizen complaints, Larkin paints evocative pictures of Rangoon and Mandalay and the magnificent Irrawaddy River, of nighttime markets twinkling with fairy lights, old colonial mansions (still crumbling but grand), children playing in the streets, adults laughing in teahouses. Humans can be incredibly resilient. The Burmese may reside in an awful form of purgatory, as that spinster said, but even the most wretched of them may cherish a hope for some form of salvation. At the very least, the country has been blessed in Orwell, its own anguished prophet.