Myanmar tries to save the house where Orwell’s fact and fiction meet

The remote trading post of Katha on the banks of the Irrawaddy and the house lived in by George Orwell in the 1920s were immortalised in the acclaimed British author’s first novel, Burmese Days.


This picture taken on July 24, 2013 shows Myanmar artist Nyo Ko Naing standing in the house where British writer George Orwell is thought to have lived in the 1920s in Katha, a small trading post on the banks of the Irrawady river, 13 hours north of Mandalay by train.  A group of artists in a remote town in northern Myanmar has launched a campaign to preserve the house. Katha and the house lived in by Orwell, known then as Eric Blair, were immortalised in the author's first novel, Burmese Days.   AFP PHOTO/William DAVIES

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KATHA, Myanmar // Cobwebs cover its furniture and the 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 Nyo Ko Naing, an artist and Orwell fan.

The two-storey house stands abandoned in an overgrown tropical garden in the remote town, which lies about 250 kilometres, or a 13-hour train journey, 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 been demolished as investors flock to what they hope will become the region’s hottest economy.

A young Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, arrived in Burma, now called Myanmar, in 1922 and stayed for five years. He worked 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 to commerce 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 much of their time has closed.

The local Anglican church, the setting for the climax of the book, still stands and remains in use. The local priest points out where the book’s protagonist, John Flory, would have sat.

“People come here from Germany, Sweden, America,” said Reverend Daniel Say Htan. “They come here to see the real places in the novel.”

Orwell’s time in Burma helped shape his 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,” said DJ Taylor, who wrote the award-winning biography, Orwell: The Life.

“He actually went out to the East with standard beliefs. Half of him believed in the rights of the Burmese and the other half did not, 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” said Taylor. “It is a crucial early step in his political development.”

The work of Orwell, who died in 1950, still resonates with readers. When the recent National Security Agency scandal broke after revelations by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former US intelligence contractor, sales of Orwell’s novels raced up the bestsellers charts.

Artist Nyo Ko Naing has read Burmese Days five times, in both English and Burmese, and said he would carry on doing all he could 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.

* Agence France-Presse