The thing is, Burma was already a disaster of epic magnitude when Nargis hit. Since 1962, the country—once a powerful kingdom, briefly a British colony, and then finally an independent republic—has been ruled by a military junta, led since 1992 by a reclusive general named Than Shwe who rarely appears in public and has strengthened the regime's totalitarian grip on the country. Than Shwe moved the capital from Rangoon and built a new, eerily empty one on the mostly vacant plains of central Burma, a geographical affirmation of his government's remoteness and unapproachability.
Burma is an international pariah, a status with which it seems content, propped up economically by its powerful neighbors in China and India. The junta has made itself rich while miring most of its roughly 50 million people (there hasn't been a census since 1983) in deep, desperate poverty. Burma's government is, by many measures, the worst on earth.
That is why an optimist could view Nargis, catastrophic as it was, like something close to an opportunity. Would the influx of foreign rescue aid help lead, somehow, to political change? "Is it time to invade Burma?" wondered Time magazine, as U.S. Navy ships waited in the Andaman Sea—to deliver supplies, of course, but it took little imagination to see it as a military move.
That is probably how the Burmese government saw it, and so they declined offers of help from most of the world's major players. America, France, the United Nations and England (which had once colonized Burma) were all rebuffed. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the country fell into chaos, ruin, death. Because so little information escapes from this tightly sealed country, it isn't clear whether Burma has really recovered.
Although we may have forgotten about Nargis, it has not escaped Emma Larkin—or rather, the American journalist who writes under that pseudonym (the only way she can keep a cover in Burma). Larkin is based in Bangkok—she has lived there most of her life—and studied Burmese in London. Her new book, Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (the title is from a Bob Dylan song) is an eyewitness account of the cyclone's aftermath, and one that is highly recommended around the Christmas season. If nothing else, Everything Is Broken will remind readers to be grateful for all that they have: relative comfort and wealth, national and personal health and, above all, freedom—freedom in its essential form: the right to do what you want with your body and mind. The right to live as you wish to live. The right to be.
The difficulty, of course, in writing an eyewitness account of anything in Burma is that it is a heavily surveilled police state of Orwellian dimensions. In fact, this is Larkin's second book about the country; the first, called Finding George Orwell in Burma, traced the great author's footsteps left in his early adulthood, when he served in Burma as part of the British Raj's Imperial Police force. Part travelogue, part historical nonfiction detective story, part attack on the Burmese junta, the excellent Finding George Orwell advances the compelling argument that Orwell's famous works about political power and poverty all sprang from his early experiences as an oppressor in Burma (he was once in charge of 200,000 people there), a country which has since grown into the very monster of totalitarian brutality he warned of. In Larkin's first book, a Burmese man waved a copy of 1984 at her and loudly insisted that the Burmese didn't need to read it because they were already living it.
Larkin traveled into Burma multiple times after Cyclone Nargis—she seems to go in and out of the country often, somehow maintaining her very vulnerable cover—and much of her report of those travels involves the sheer difficulty of separating fact from fiction, rumor from truth, as well as simply finding a way to get herself down into the delta where the worst of the damage occurred. That is just how the Burmese government thrives, controlling information and sending out misinformation so that it becomes virtually impossible to tell what's really happening; and by the outright barring of people, whether they be tourists or aid workers, from access. (When I was considering visiting the country in 2008, just before the cyclone came, my guidebook noted that much intra-regional travel in Burma was by air only: the government didn't want tourists seeing much of the country via land.)
Thus fact is wrested from rumor. Did a Rangoon wet-market vendor really find a human finger in the belly of a delta-caught fish? Was the Burmese government being serious when it reported the exact number of chickens killed in the cyclone? Had one boy survived Nargis by riding the storm-surge floodwaters on the back of a crocodile? Were the Americans going to invade, and would that be good or bad? Is the person you're talking to a monk or a mole? Everything Is Broken is in fact a little frustrating to read here and there, because it does not resolve into the truth. In that, it is true to its subject and never truckles to the demands of tidy narrative.
In both of her books, Larkin tries to act on a Burmese friend's suggestion to find the truth in Burma not by what is visible, but by absences. (That is echoed by one Burmese man's observation that, on the night before Cyclone Nargis hit, the Irawaddy delta sky was conspicuously empty of its customary bats.) What you don't see is what's true. It is a useful way of understanding how a country like Burma works (or rather, doesn't work), but at ground level it is sort of like trying to describe the contents of a house after being allowed only to stand before its closed doors. When Larkin, after snooping around Rangoon, finally makes it down to the delta in the latter part of the book, she navigates its twisting network of waterways there with the same difficulty as she navigates the flooded tributaries of rumor and half-truth, suggestion and rhetoric that she sometimes has no choice but to follow as if they might lead to firm fact and clear comprehension. "In a society where nothing can be taken for granted," she writes, "distorted truths, half stories, and private visions are, by necessity, woven into the popular narrative of events... It is a place where natural disasters don't happen, at least not officially"—Nargis was "unhappened," she writes, with an Orwellian ear toward the government's response—"and where the gaping misery that follows any catastrophe must be covered up and silenced. In such an environment, almost anything becomes believable."
Larkin chased after the truth anyway. In village after village, writing until her hand cramped, Larkin took down the heartbreaking stories of those who lost everything—their entire families and worldly possessions—in the cyclone; and she notes not only the physical toll but the psychic one. The survivors of Nargis will be living with post-traumatic shock syndrome for perhaps the rest of their lives. Many have no will to go on. Many are ashamed, haunted, broken. Their own government presided over their country's ruination—the junta has actually been causing it for decades. It is hard even for the staunchest anti-war ideologue to argue that military measures against Than Shwe's government aren't perhaps a good and humane idea.
But why does this government refuse to help its people? An acquaintance of Larkin's, a Burmese editor, offered this explanation: "I think this is something very ancient. It is like we are returning to the time of the old, old kings. Our senior general [Than Shwe] is the king and the people are his subject or slaves. The king does not consider it his role to look after the condition of his slaves—they are only slaves, and he has so many of them that their death or hardship in not his concern."
Nor will reason go very far. Than Shwe, following the old royal traditions, makes many decisions based on astrology and numerology. His leadership stems from irrational denial, powerful greed, unintelligible hatred—pathological thought and action. And somehow, amazingly, impossibly, it seems to be working. Liberia's Charles Taylor is gone; Saddam Hussein, the Khmer Rouge, Hitler—throughout history, leaders like Burma's don't often last long (although you'll get a good tremor from this piece about China's). Yet, in less than two years, Burma's current government will celebrate its 50th birthday, knowing that it threw a few concessions to the foreign aid community after Nargis to appease them (it also apparently stole some of the Westerners' donated relief supplies for its own use); able to boast that it finally released from 20 years of house arrest, just a few weeks ago, opposition leader and Nobelist Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Burma's first republican leader, gunned down by rivals at age 32); and carrying on in its misprision and cruelty into its second half-century, ravaging and looting its own motherland, the Irawaddy river still swollen with the cyclone's corpses.
To call Everything is Broken sobering isn't exactly right. It is well beyond a mood-correcter; instead, it enlarges one's view of the world. It is possible for hundreds of thousands of people to die in one storm. It is possible for a government to allow that to happen, and to misrule so hideously for so long. It is possible for the world to stand by and allow all of that to happen. Yet it is also possible for someone with a perhaps unhealthy obsession—the only kind, probably, that gets any real work done in the world—to adopt an alias, to somehow escape detection during many years of travel in a police state, and unearth at least some of the buried truth of the place. In the best Orwellian tradition, Emma Larkin's books, first Finding George Orwell in Burma and now Everything Is Broken, are a reminder to writers—and readers—that words are powerful and have to do more than just paint pretty pictures and get us to turn pages. They are political tools, and they have to be used to make the world better.