Anna's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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May 21, 2010

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bookshelves: eat-your-veggies-reading
Read in May, 2010

Copying straight from what I wrote for the Fifty Two Fifty Two blog ...



When we read 1984 in high school, I hated it. Not only did the book create a world that I was eager to leave, but that world seemed to have extended beyond the words to the printer where our class copies were bound, seeping out from the pages with a creepy chemical smell. It’s the only book I remember from that freshman English class, or as so repulsive a read.

So it was with surprise and a bit of self-satisfaction at my literary courage that I plucked a couple Orwell books from the library shelves not long ago. Surely 17+ years have given me a different perspective than I had last time I read Orwell, but this also seems a more accessible book, and less dark in the overt way that 1984 was. Orwell seems to share his protagonist’s love of the Burmese jungle, and yet the oppressiveness comes through nearly as strongly.

It’s not exactly a story that one would pick up on a Friday night to relax and escape from the work week with, yet the narrative quickly pulls you in, establishing the conflict early on. In a way it’s clear what Orwell’s doing to establish the frame of the thing, yet the question of whether a coward can muster courage when it most matters is no less engaging.

Orwell does many things well in the book, and there is one line I’d probably heard before I read this — or at least should have — that will surely stay with me a while: his comment about how “we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends.” But ultimately, I was left a bit frustrated with the resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s false or rang wrong or untrue exactly, but there’s an underlying pessimism toward life that I don’t quite buy into — somewhat for the world of the book, and much more strongly disagree with regarding the prospects of life generally. As difficult as Flory’s circumstances may have been, and as hard as the situation generally for Englishmen in those times, I simply don’t believe that life could have only been as miserable as it was depicted as being — that such misery was necessarily and only unrelieved (although I don’t doubt the overall, overwhelming hardness of things). It was frustrating not to see more of a middle ground portrayed, or of any characters who made the best of things. Though Flory is ultimately enobled in a certain sense, and comes to a more realistic perspective on things than he had in his initial state of malaise, I find myself wishing he could have reached a different resolution. Somehow, he reminds me of a woman who was in front of me in a long line for a shopping event yesterday, and made it almost all the way to the door only to find out that she had to wait just a few minutes longer to enter, at which point she gave up completely and walked down the street. This within minutes — even seconds, maybe — of achieving what shed just spent maybe 20 minutes or more waiting for. I just don’t understand making it so far and overcoming so much of the biggest challenges only to give up altogether. Yet, obviously, logical or not, it’s something people do even in very small things, like event admission.

In addition to the handling of Flory’s prospects, however, I also found myself a little disappointed in Orwell’s treatment of women. Not one female “character” I can think of, with the possible exception of Flory’s dog and Doctor Veraswami’s wife, is portrayed in anything approaching a positive light. So that, too, I found a bit frustrating and cast some doubt on Orwell’s overall perspective on life.

Lastly, I have mixed feelings about the birthmark of Flory’s. Obviously it’s something Orwell uses to great effect, but at times I found it a bit heavyhanded. Did Flory really need to have a physical disfigurement like that for his life and motives to make sense? I’m not sure.

The one consolation in these overall disappointments or shortcomings in the worldview of the book (so to speak), and the story’s resolution, was the measure of justice for U Po Kyin. Without that I think I would have been far more frustrated with the story. I was also quite impressed with Orwell’s depiction of the great misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Flory and how far apart their perspectives and values really were. That part did seem quite realistic and I can’t remember the last time I read of a couple so depicted as being attracted to each other yet so badly suited and unaware of the cause for this. And yet … and yet. As the story went on, I found myself wondering about the choice of narrative voice (a largely omniscient third person) and why it was necessary to tell us how Flory and Elizabeth were so different, rather than letting the reader intuit those contrasts and causes. Did we have to be told so much of that? I wonder.

But then, of course, no book is perfect, and I’m sure this isn’t held up as Orwell’s masterpiece. All that being said, I overall found it an interesting, thouht-provoking book — and much better a brainfeeding entertainment than I’ve read in a while.
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