In No Bad News for the King, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym for an American journalist in Asia) untangles the convoluted story of contemporary Burma and the 2008 cyclone that killed over 100,000 people.
The political history of Burma is captivating, tragic, and convoluted. I’ve always found it difficult to make sense of this closed country, whose military regime is the ironically named State Peace and Development Council. Government-run media in Burma asserts an alternate version of events and serves as the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Occasionally Burma appears in mainstream news sources, such as when thousands of monks protested in 2007, when Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, when American John Yettaw swam to visit house-arrested pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or when Burma VJ was nominated for an Oscar. Denunciative words appear in print, directed at the government: brutal regime, sanctions, human rights abuses. Yet things always resettle, like tea leaves drifting to the bottom of a mug.
I don’t mean some hypothetical mug of tea either—I mean the one I drank from while working for a Burmese newsgroup. We operated from a border region inside Thailand and reported on abuses by Burma’s government. Undereducated at the time of my arrival, I felt like I was writing from inside a dark cave. Attempting to smooth out the English in stories written by Burmese reporters, I wondered if my confusion was a problem of translation or of lingering ignorance.
How could I explain to readers a country that relocates its capital city due to a numerologist’s recommendation? How could I explain a government that rejects foreign aid for its people after a natural disaster? I returned to the United States feeling like I never quite got it, never made sense of a country I visited in person only briefly.
Enter the fastidious reporting of Emma Larkin’s No Bad News for the King. Her book is an exceptional Burma primer, an approachable mix of history, politics, and travel writing. The pseudonymous author is uniquely positioned to break down Burmese life for uninitiated readers, as well as those who’ve spent years struggling with the topic.
Larkin is an American fluent in Burmese, who has clandestinely traveled to the country as a reporter and researcher beginning in the mid-nineties. It takes major-league chutzpah to do what Larkin does; I still recall the fear and paranoia after one of our reporters was snagged by the Burmese government.
In her second book, Larkin focuses mainly on political history while using her own experiences as powerful entry points. First-person encounters remind readers where her empathetic curiosities have taken her, while never rivaling the true subject matter. Larkin has the patience and precision of a writer inured to the fact that Burma is a confusing place, cognizant that a shade of first-person narration goes a long way.
Larkin’s visits to Rangoon, Bagan, the Irawaddy Delta, and the new capital city of Naypyidaw open up narrative and expository space. Inside Burma, Larkin speaks in confidence with writers, businessmen, and monks—grounding her interlocutors’ perspectives in the government’s hypocritical, nonsensical, and repressive behavior. Thus Larkin avoids both memoir and the detachment of human rights reports (e.g. the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, commissioned by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
The trigger for No Bad News for the King was the previously mentioned Cyclone Nargis, a storm that killed over 138,000 people and displaced countless more. After the cyclone, Larkin writes, “having gone to the trouble of getting myself to Rangoon, I felt disoriented and useless once I was there…being a foreigner I was conspicuous, so I wasn’t able to go down to the delta easily and report on events.” Subsequently, Larkin sought out reliable information about the cyclone and honest accounts of relief work, entombing her findings in a haunting yet concisely written work.
Throughout the book, Larkin takes on complex questions of how the Burmese regime can pervasively oppress its people, receive international condemnation, and yet manage to exist and thrive. The author implicitly assures the reader that Cyclone Nargis and the governmental response, or lack thereof, will never be forgotten or misunderstood again.
Penguin Books previously released Larkin’s book in hardcover under the name Everything is Broken, an interesting renaming that calls to mind the governmental rebranding of Burma to Myanmar in 1989. Nevertheless, paperback is the ideal form for this book. One might read it while traveling—whether on the train to work or aboard an international flight.
I finished the book myself on a rafting trip down Oregon’s Rogue River, pulling it from a converted ammo can to peruse beneath my headlamp. Though the moving water provided a pleasant soundtrack, I still felt haunted—the river subduedly echoing floodwaters which inundated the Irrawaddy Delta and washed away the lives of so many Burmese.