Jake's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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Nov 13, 10

bookshelves: novel, travel
Read from November 08 to 13, 2010

Orwell was only thirty-one when he published "Burmese Days" in 1934- so it's hard to believe that it had already been twelve years since he began his stint in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police, and more than seven years since he had returned to Europe to begin his writing career. So like his main character, John Flory, Orwell had already packed a lot of living into a short time- and so, even though this a novel of his youth, it has the jaundiced cynicism and nostalgia of a much older man. And the themes of the novel- the moral bankruptcy of imperialism, the racism and stupidity of the British Raj, and the despair of growing old and abandoning youthful ideals- those struct me as unusual preoccupations for someone so young.

That's not to say this is a depressing novel. Quite the contrary- at time it reads as something of a farce- a jaunty look at the weirdness that surrounded the British occupation of Southeast Asia. Take Flory, for instance- though he's the protagonist, and his moral qualms about the treatment of natives animates the book, he's also an inveterate alcoholic, womanizer of Burmese women, and coward when it comes to standing up for his beliefs. He's surrounded by a circus of boorish British businessmen and low-ranking colonial administrators, and although they are painted with a truly poisonous brush, the natives don't come off looking much better. Their chief preoccupation seems to be manipulating the British in order to skim off some of their money and privileges. But if it's a farce, it's a very dark farce- and one that ends in quite an unfunny way. Perhaps the way it veers between sarcasm and tragedy is a sign of Orwell's youthful inexperience as a writer- or perhaps that's just the way he felt about his time in Burma.

With an Orwell book, you can't help but think about politics. Burmese Days can certainly be read as a stinging criticism of colonialism, but it is also a nuanced one. You don't get the sense that his time in Burma convinced him that the natives could govern themselves- just that rule by an imported and racist white regime was a terrible way to run a country. I think I detected the beginnings of his leaning toward socialism here- certainly Flory expressed some opinions that tilt in that direction. But at this stage, Orwell's politics seem still a bit blurred: he certainly despises the rich, but he hasn't yet seized on an alternative philosophy.
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