Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin John Murray $275 The Myanmese love to tell jokes. The language is full of wordplays and puns, and laughter is heard in every teashop - which is strange, given that reports about the world's longest surviving dictatorship, one of the last great totalitarian regimes, make it clear that Myanmar is no laughing matter. In a country where giving voice to thoughts can lead to imprisonment, torture and death, laughter may be all that is left. As George Orwell wrote: 'Every joke is a little revolution.' Bangkok-based journalist Emma Larkin has been visiting Myanmar for more than 10 years and most recently reported on Karen refugees in camps along the Thai-Myanmese border. She became fascinated by the writings of Orwell (pen name for Eric Blair), who spent five years as a policeman in Myanmar in the 1920s. Eton-educated, he joined the Imperial Police Force at 19 from a middle- class English family that had served the British empire for generations. 'I began to imagine that Orwell had seen something in Burma, had had some thread of an idea, that had worked its way into all of his writings,' writes Larkin, as she sets out to trace the young policeman's path from Mandalay to the mosquito-ridden Delta, Rangoon, Katha in the far north, and Moulmein, where his mother grew up. 'All his novels explore the idea of individuals being trapped within their environment, controlled by their family, the society around them or an all- powerful government,' she writes. Larkin says three of Orwell's books - Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four - can be read as a prophetic Myanmar trilogy. The first chronicles the country's history under the British; the second, about a group of pigs who overthrow the farmer and run the farm into ruin, parallels the rise of dictator Ne Win; and the final is 'a chillingly accurate picture of Burma today'. Something happened in Myanmar that made Orwell abandon a secure career in the colonial service for the uncertain path of writer for the downtrodden and dispossessed. Larkin says he may have had an encounter with himself, which shaped his pessimistic world view. He knew what it was like to have absolute power over someone and be free to act with impunity. He was a participant in the apparatus of empire, which used surveillance, fear, violence and even murder to control its subjects. Secret Histories is a powerful anti-travel book, peeling away the 'irresistible images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendour' that still linger when a place such as Mandalay is mentioned, and revealing a stark and disturbing reality. 'Truth is only within a certain period of time,' Larkin quotes a regime spokesman as saying. 'What was truth one day may no longer be truth after many months or years.' It is impossible to miss the resonant gong of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Larkin's teashop allusion in the subtitle is apt. For the serious tea drinker, Orwell is in the pantheon of champions. He understood 'the magical powers of tea' and wrote some fine essays on the subject. Orwell preferred his tea strong and black. Larkin takes hers strong and not too sweet in bustling teashops as she converses with those prepared to speak about their lives, ever mindful of being overheard. Suddenly suspicious of two men at an adjacent table, one of her sources clears his throat and says: 'A man travels far, to another country, to seek out a dentist. The dentist asks why have you come so far? Do you not have dentists in your own country? Oh, we have dentists, but we are not permitted to open our mouths.'