Friday, August 03, 2007

books, and a watchmaker from Madagascar

I'm pleased to announce that I took a whole leisurely week to read through Harry Potter 7 while avoiding all spoilers. I was satisfied by the end of the series. In fact, I now feel like I'd like to go back and re-read the previous six books because of some shocking late revelations relating to my favourite character. This really shows the skill of the author: she made the earlier books even more interesting through this final volume.

On the topic of reading, I realized I have yet to tell you about another great book: non-fiction this time. A couple of months ago, I was browsing in the (now closed) discount book store at Bloor and Bathurst. Thanks to its attractive cover and evocative title, I ended up taking home Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin (published with a less charming cover and title in the US). You know 'teashop' would be a key word to catch my attention, but also, I'm interested in George Orwell since my dad is a bit of a fan. This book purchase happened even before the idea of traveling to Southeast Asia this year was raised.

From the prologue is the premise of the book: "In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four." First things first, I had to do my prep work and get Burmese Days out of the library. Burmese Days is based on Orwell's five years of experiences as a member of the Imperial Police. I found the main character, John Flory, to be sympathetic as the reluctant imperialist. Flory was very relatable for me... right up until the rather abrupt ending of the story, enough said.

On to Secret Histories: the author follows George Orwell's path through Burma, using his writing as the lens through which she views the country. She meets oppressed academics, is trailed by government agents and visits decaying traces of the colonial past. To protect her Burmese friends and informants, the author's true name and biography have not been revealed. Before reading Secret Histories, I knew precisely nothing about Myanmar apart from the occasional snippet of bad news from the BBC. Now I feel as if I have some idea of what life is like for regular Burmese folks. There were so many moments in the book when I had to pause to have a good, long think about what I had just read. Not just about the living conditions in Myanmar or the many thoughtful local proverbs Larkin records, but smaller things. The author mentions a crumbling workshop in an abandoned colonial town which had belonged to a watchmaker from Madagascar. A watchmaker from Madagascar in colonial Burma? Who would have though such as person would exist? I had to ponder that for a good long time. The world is astonishing.

1 comment :

Northumberland Independent said...

I came across "Secret Histories" about a year and a half ago at a used book store in Kingston. I was drawn to it by my love of everything Orwell and really enjoyed the book.

It was so interesting to read about the plight of the Burmese people and its relation to Orwell's 1984.

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