December 15, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Finding, or avoiding, Donald Trump in Myanmar

Orwell's Burmese days hold lessons for contemporary politics

JOE FREEMAN

The Irrawaddy River flows through Katha, where George Orwell spent time as a British colonial policeman and set his novel "Burmese Days." (Photo by Poppy McPherson)

A few days after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president I traveled from Yangon to Katha, the town on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where George Orwell spent time as a British colonial policeman, and where he set his first novel, "Burmese Days."

Today's Katha, called Kyauktada in the book, is not so different from the late 1920s, when Orwell lived there. The river still flows "huge and ochreous, glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun." Beyond, "great wastes of paddy fields" still stretch into the horizon, meeting a "range of blackish hills."

The jail mentioned in the book is still operational, and the authorities have positioned sharp wooden spikes just outside the walls to deter thoughts of escape, as they may have done a century ago. The tennis court has survived, with a repaving or two. So has the British Club, which now hosts a local cooperative. According to a local Orwell scholar, the writer's two-story teak house is still standing.

Fittingly, perhaps, it is occupied by the chief of police.

I am hardly the first to travel in the footsteps of Orwell, nor will I be the last. But he has long been a personal hero. I included a line from Orwell's essay on Gandhi in my high school yearbook, where graduating students provide photographs and quotes they find meaningful. I devoured his nonfiction books "Homage to Catalonia," "The Road to Wigan Pier," and "Down and Out in Paris and London." I am not sure I would have become interested in writing without these books.

What I love about Orwell is the way he seems to be writing about many things at once, even though he doesn't appear to be doing so at the time. His essay on Gandhi is really a reflection on what it means to be human and the importance of forming bonds that will inevitably be broken.

At least that's how I read it. Great writers are open to interpretation. As Emma Larkin observes in her book "Finding George Orwell in Burma," there is a joke that he wrote not one but three books about the country: "Burmese Days," "Animal Farm" and "1984." The first was set in Myanmar, while the others contain striking parallels with the country's five decades of life under authoritarian and military rulers.

APOCALYPTIC FUTURE I wasn't dwelling on this when I set out from Yangon, first on the overnight bus to Mandalay, then a 12-hour train journey to Naba, and finally on a 45-minute truck ride to Katha. The truth is, I didn't go merely for the sake of literary pilgrimage. Even though I was in Myanmar, thousands of miles away from Washington, I felt like escaping.

I didn't want to sit in Yangon and dwell on the apocalyptic future of the world, or field questions from my non-American friends about the U.S. elections. I was hoping that, for a few days, I could forget Trump. And what better place to do that than in far-off Katha, surrounded by those blackish hills and paddy fields and that ochreous river?

But something happened on the bumpy train from Mandalay. Orwell's ability to write about something larger than his immediate topic surfaced on page 190 of my Penguin paperback of "Burmese Days," with the introduction of the character Lieutenant Verrall, a polo-playing member of the military police.

"He had a surly, boyish voice," Orwell writes, adding later that he came from a wealthy family and managed to maintain his lifestyle by "seldom paying a bill until a writ was issued against him." It seemed to me that Orwell was describing Trump, in the most revealing and trenchant language.

"Somehow, nothing very serious ever did happen to Verrall, however offensive he made himself. Up and down India, wherever he was stationed, he left behind him a trail of insulted people, neglected duties and unpaid bills. Yet the disgraces that ought to have fallen on him never did. He bore a charmed life ... ."

As Orwell picks apart Verrall, the uncanny parallels with Trump accumulate. "Women he abhorred. In his view they were a kind of siren whose one aim was to lure men away from polo and enmesh them in tea-fights and tennis-parties." He was "not in the habit of apologizing."

Maybe I was taking my train reading a little too seriously. But that's OK. This is a time to think seriously about what has happened in the U.S., wherever we happen to live. For me, reading Orwell in Burma, on the way to Katha, was a good place to start.

Joe Freeman is a Yangon-based writer.

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