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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / politics / travel

Everything is Broken

Emma Larkin

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To purchase Everything is Broken

Title: Everything is Broken
Author: Emma Larkin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 269 pages
Availability: Everything is Broken - US
Everything is Broken - UK
Everything is Broken - Canada
Everything is Broken - India
  • US hardcover subtitle: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
  • UK hardcover subtitle: The Untold Story of Life Under Burma's Military Regime
  • UK paperback subtitle: Life Inside Burma
  • US paperback title: No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma

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Our Assessment:

B : gives a good impression of the situation in contemporary Burma (Myanmar)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 29/4/2010 .
Literary Review . 8/2010 Jonathan Mirsky
Publishers Weekly . 1/3/2010 .
The Telegraph . 2/9/2010 Simon Scott Plummer
TLS . 16/12/2011 Grant Evans
Wall Street Journal . 14/5/2010 P. Delves Broughton

  From the Reviews:
  • "This moving account of the regime’s response to a devastating cyclone two years ago is a timely warning against optimism." - The Economist

  • "Larkin is scrupulously fair. She pulls no punches about the junta, whose history she ably sketches, especially its paramount figure, the secretive, wooden and greedy General Than Shwe, who appears to think he is both a god and a previous king." - Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review

  • "With indefatigable shoe-leather journalism -- she visits decimated villages one by one, even while hampered by her tenuous visa status and the government's suppression of free speech and the free press -- Larkin reconstructs what happened in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis and indicts the insulated regime for creating a desperately untenable situation for its people." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Her account of the 2008 disaster is both graphic and painstaking. She also reminds us of the megalomaniac nature of the regime, seen in the building of the new capital, Naypyidaw, and of its bizarre fascination with the occult." - Simon Scott Plummer, The Telegraph

  • "Emma Larkin's world is simpler -- we feel sorry for the downtrodden and loathe those in power. But instead of outrage her book somehow induces complacency." - Grant Evans, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Given how difficult it was for foreign governments and aid groups to penetrate Burma at the time, Ms. Larkin pulls off a formidable piece of reporting. She also does a good job of decoding the generals who run Burma, who seem driven by paranoia, mysticism and a firm belief in the jackboot as a cure-all." - Philip Delves Broughton, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Everything is Broken Emma Larkin revisits Burma (Myanmar), providing a sequel of sorts to her earlier Burma-account, Secret Histories (published in the US as Finding George Orwell in Burma). Here the focus is almost entirely on current conditions, however, with the bulk of the book devoted to the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis that hit Burma in May, 2008; as it turns out, Nargis makes for an ideal case study of Burma and the secretive regime that runs (in a manner of speaking) the country.
       One of the difficulties Larkin -- and the many who offered assistance in the wake of the cyclone -- faced was the regime's incredible secretiveness, as well as its need (and ability) to assert almost total control over all movement and information. The immediate consequences were grave, as aid and assistance could not be provided in a timely manner (and by those best-suited for the job). More generally, it makes it very difficult to obtain and ascertain any information, news, or data.
       Larkin repeatedly notes that facts are hard to come by: the only one offering precise data is the government -- and the precise data they spew out (exactly 136,804 buffalo and 1,250,194 chickens perished in Nargis they claim in one PowerPoint presentation) can hardly be taken seriously.
       Larkin tries to put the best spin on this situation:

In the hothouse environment of Rangoon, where the truth was malleable and facts and figures could be plucked out of thin air, anything seemed possible. As there are so few reliable sources of news in Burma, rumors take on an added significance and act as a barometer of people's hopes and fears.
       Larkin does have to rely a great deal on hearsay, and she notes the difficulty of separating fact from fiction. Nevertheless, she is able to spend a great deal of time in parts of Burma, and thus sees and hears things first- and close hand; eventually, she is able to reach the hard-hit coast, too. The picture she is able to piece together gives a good impression of current conditions, the regime's ineptness, and the toll it has taken on the country, especially in the most recent years.
       Surprisingly, Larkin was able to get a four-week tourist visa to visit Burma shortly after the cyclone hit; unsurprisingly, once she got there she was not able to travel very far -- as was also the case for many of the aid workers, both domestic and foreign, who wanted to help. Larkin's account of the regime's clueless response to the disaster is shocking: while it's well-known that the government was slow to react -- and obstructed much of the help that was quickly offered -- the first-hand account of how aid was thwarted and how those who could provide assistance were left to try to do what little they could in distant Rangoon (Yangon), far away from where they could be of actual help, is upsetting. It's particularly disturbing in light of the suffering of the victims in the coastal regions, and the devastation the cyclone wrought, evidence of which could be seen -- among many other places -- also on the "dead-body pornography" DVDs that were (briefly) available in Rangoon (one, Larkin notes, "poetically titled Gone with the Wind").
       Larkin relies a great deal on the official state mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar -- or rather: she mentions how events are presented in that outlet, which helps show how the regime sees -- and wants to present -- events. One explanation she offers for the regime's truly clueless and slow reaction to the disaster is that the leaders are so tremendously isolated. As Larkin notes, the Burmese capital was moved from Rangoon to the newly-built city-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, Naypyidaw, in 2005 -- with practically no notice to the Burmese people (or foreign diplomats -- or even most of the civil servants expected to run the place) until it was a fait accompli; typically:
During the first few days after the move, bewildered foreign diplomats expressed their concern about maintaining contact with members of the Burmese government. The regime's response was to provide them with a single fax number. Sequestered in their newly constructed fortress, Than Shwe and his government were obviously not the slightest bit concerned about staying in touch.
       Larkin describes her visits to Naypyidaw, which even after the cyclone remained an isolated spot that few had taken to (even the embassies refused to move there -- save the North Korean one); on the drive up she notes there's essentially no traffic, and: "the purpose-built eight-lane highway to the capital was supporting the traffic of a tiny country lane". Her observations there and in Rangoon give some sense of what a peculiar world the regime has built up -- and some of the almost anonymous figures behind it, especially the mysterious character of Than Shwe, about whom extremely little is known (even his birth-date is kept secret).
       Larkin also offers some accounts of other recent significant events in Burma, including the opposition of the monks to the regime -- and the crackdown against them -- as well as the case of the American who swam across to Aung San Suu Kyi's house in May, 2009, leading to yet another trial against the Nobel Prize-winning symbol of hope. From the catastrophic reconstruction of glorious Pagan to the (nicely symbolic) collapse of the Danok Pagoda and various encounters and observations -- of cyclone survivors, soldiers, monks -- , Larkin also offers many more personal glimpses of contemporary Burma and the sorry and peculiar state it is in.
       Everything is Broken gives a fairly good sense of how Burma is (mis)ruled, and the costs and consequences for its citizens, with considerable detail about how badly the cyclone relief-effort was mishandled. (Interestingly, however, she notes that the regime shouldn't be blamed for not issuing proper warnings about the storm; yes, the locals were in no way prepared for such an emergency, but they had been warned that a strong storm was coming and the true force of the cyclone was not foreseeable practically until it actually hit.)
       Everything is Broken is a sad story, but Larkin presents a good amount of material quite well (especially given the difficulty of obtaining reliable information). The more widespread availability of digital cameras and the Internet suggests that information-control is getting more difficult, but for now this terrible regime seems still in remarkable control; any bit of additional information, such as this book, about what they've wrought is welcome.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 April 2010

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Everything is Broken: Reviews: Other books by Emma Larkin review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Emma Larkin' is the pseudonym of an American journalist.

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© 2010-2024 the complete review

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