Activist artists fight to save George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ inspiration on the banks of the Irrawaddy
Cobwebs cover its furniture and its rooms are long deserted, but a crumbling house in northern Myanmar is at the centre of a conservation battle by locals who say it was once home to George Orwell.
The remote trading post of Katha on the banks of the Irrawaddy — and the house lived in by Orwell in the 1920s — were immortalised in the acclaimed British author’s first novel, “Burmese Days”.
Decades later, as the country emerges from nearly half a century of harsh military rule, a group of artists has launched a campaign to protect the legacy of one of literature’s most scathing critics of dictatorship.
“I am trying to do what I can to restore all the buildings in the book and to attract attention to the country and to the town,” said artist and Orwell fan Nyo Ko Naing.
The two-storey house stands abandoned in an overgrown tropical garden in the remote town which lies about 250 kilometres (155 miles) — or a 13-hour train ride — north of Mandalay.
The campaigners want the home and nearby European country club turned into a museum, in a country where many colonial-era buildings have already fallen victim to the wrecking ball as investors flock to what they hope will be the region’s next hottest economy.
A young Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, arrived in Burma — now called Myanmar — in 1922 and stayed for five years, working as a policeman in the country, which was under British rule at the time.
In the novel, Katha is called Kyauktada, but everything else is the same.
“The Tennis Court, British Club, jail, the police station and the military cemetery are in the book and really exist in the town.” said Nyo Ko Naing.
The wooden and brick house has been empty for 16 years.
Some old pot plants have withered and died and the upstairs balconies are too unstable to stand on. The empty rooms echo with Nyo Ko Naing’s footsteps, which leave prints in the dust that has built up over the years.
“Orwell took many raw materials for his book ‘Burmese Days’ from here,” Nyo Ko Naing said. “I think this house and all the other places in Orwell’s book should be turned into a museum.”
“Burmese Days” is a scathing critique of British colonial rule, with the European characters’ constant drinking and poor treatment of the Burmese locals a running theme.
The Burmese characters also come in for harsh criticism, with the magistrate portrayed as scheming, obese and corrupt.
Myanmar is now opening up and over the past couple of years more and more tourists have come to Katha, on the trail of Orwell.
“The country is open now. It is no longer isolated,” said Oo Khinmaung Lwin, the headmaster of the local school. “I will teach my students so that they know more about George Orwell.”
Although long thought to be Orwell’s home, there is some doubt whether a policeman would have lived in such a grand house.
Across the road from the house lies the tennis court, and beyond that the European club.
In “Burmese Days”, the club is described as “the real centre of the town… the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power.”
Today it is the offices for a local business cooperative, and the bar where the Europeans would have spent most of their time has closed.
The local Anglican church, the setting for the climax of the book, still stands and is still in use. The local priest points where the book’s protagonist, John Flory, would have sat.
“People come here from Germany, Sweden, America,” Reverend Daniel Say Htan told AFP. “They come here to see the real places in the novel.”
Orwell’s time in Burma helped shape his future career — he became one of the 20th century’s most important writers, with novels such as “Animal Farm” and “1984” providing some of literature’s most biting criticism of authoritarianism.
But those who met him when he was in Burma would not have guessed at those feelings.
“The few accounts of people who met him whilst he was in Burma suggest he was a perfectly conventional policeman,” D.J. Taylor, who wrote the award winning biography, “Orwell: The Life”, told AFP.
“He actually went out to the East with standard beliefs. Half of him believed in the rights of the Burmese and the other half didn’t as he was often so sick of them,” he said.
But his time serving in the British Raj did begin a slow change in perspective.
“Burma provided the raw material for plenty of thoughts later” Taylor said. “It is a crucial early step in his political development.”
The work of Orwell, who died in 1950, still resonates with readers today. When the recent National Security Agency scandal broke after revelations by fugitive former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sales of his novels raced up the best sellers charts.
Artist Nyo Ko Naing has read the book five times, in both English and Burmese, and says he will carry on doing all he can to preserve the places that form the basis for Orwell’s long road to greatness.
“We are trying collectively to maintain and restore everything related to George Orwell, Burmese Days and Katha town as we regard it as a precious legacy,” he said.