With the exception of the Tom Swift science fiction books of my childhood, I have never been much of a fiction reader. But I do dabble from time to time. George Orwell was someone whose books I found eminently readable given my short attention span. Recently, I read Orwell’s first published novel, “Down and Out in Paris and London” for the first time. I loved it, so I then went on to read a book by Emma Larkin called “Finding George Orwell in Burma.”
In “Finding George Orwell…,” the author Emma Larkin goes to Burma in order to retrace Orwell’s history there. Orwell spent several years in Burma as a police officer for the Indian government while Burma was in Britain’s hands, and his experiences there undoubtedly helped to shape some of his views of the effects of totalitarianism.
As is my wont when I enjoy a book, I looked up “Emma Larkin” to find out a bit more about the author. After all, a lone woman foraging through occasionally remote areas by herself in a country that periodically jails and tortures anyone who looks askance at the wrong person or who utters the wrong words is something approaching heroic (or stupid?) proportion.
What I found out about Emma Larkin was intriguing and a bit annoying. First of all, Emma Larkin is a pseudonym, a fact which unto itself is charmingly synchronous, given that her book is about searching for the remnants of George Orwell, which is also a pseudonym. Eric Blair—Orwell’s given name, chose to use the pseudonym partly to allow himself continued anonymity as he posed as poor, but also it afforded his family some distance from the controversial stands he was taking. Not long after Eric Blair published as Orwell his real identity was revealed. Even J.K. Rowling, with her fantastic resources, couldn’t hold on to her true identity for too long when she published her recent novel under a nom de plume. But who, pray tell, is Emma Larkin?
I was once told that it was really easy to find anyone, with one exception. The exception is when the person doesn’t wish to be found. Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge in this millennium, knew some key facts about Emma Larkin, but it didn’t know (or reveal) who she really is. We do know that Emma Larkin lives in Thailand, that she was born in the U.S., and was educated in the U.K.
Although Burma recently underwent significant reform, it is still far from being a safe place to speak openly about the military government. Revealing the true identity behind the Emma Larkin nom de plume could likely put her in danger. The military government in Burma still has eyes everywhere, and the threat of writers and others being jailed for merely expressing critical thoughts about the government at a tea shop remains.
But knowing who Emma Larkin really is would also potentially endanger the people who she interviewed, as the military intelligence watched and followed her throughout her various journeys. And it would, at the very least, make future visits to Burma impossible, at least so long as the current regime remains in power.
The idea of searching for someone who doesn’t want to be found seems like a fun project, like solving a Rubik’s cube. I can easily imagine a documentary. I would call it “Finding Emma Larkin in Thailand” in the spirit of “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” But then what? Assuming one were successful, it would only be the right thing to do to keep her identity secret. So, I suppose, one would have to keep the film in the can until such a time that it wouldn’t matter if her identity were exposed. That would either mean until the world is a much safer place or her soul departs her body. One would hope the former came sooner and the latter a long time later.