Lorenzo Berardi's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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Jan 21, 12

bookshelves: british, 2012, a-my-english-library
Read from January 12 to 18, 2012

At an early stage of his life George Orwell might have had serious problems in relating with women. It was probably a matter of not sharing the same interests. One can easily picture the twenty something Eric Arthur Blair talking about literature, poetry, politics with the wrong sort of women, assuming they were interested in what he said, but getting a half-bored reluctant feedback. I assume it was not easy finding the cultured literary type of woman the young writer aimed to in the deep Burmese jungle or in the gutter of London and Paris.

This intellectual loneliness of young Orwell may be perceived in the very first novels by him. Gordon Comstock, the main character of "Keep the Aspidistra Flying", is a lone wolf, despising the rest of the world and toying himself with being a writer and, in doing so, sort of ignoring the rather plain but pragmatic and affectionate girl who seems to like him.

Mr Flory, the protagonist of "Burmese Days" is another romantic chap. Like Comstock, he is a lonely dreamer whose ideals are misunderstood by most of those around him, but unlike Comstock, Flory would very much like having a sort of permanent relationship, a marriage with a woman who would redeem him from the dissolute life he led in colonial Burma.

All that said, "Burmese Days" has very little in common with all that Orwell wrote. This is a well crafted novel which, unfortunately, aged way too quickly and with a setting so different from the rest of Orwell's production that cannot be compared with much else. Sure, there are some scenes of a local rebellion but they are portrayed in such a naive, almost funny way that they cannot really match the pages of "Homage to Catalonia".

This was a novel sold to the American masses as "a saga of jungle, hate and lust". No surprises that there is very little politics here. Neither an explicit criticism of the British colonialism as one may expect from "Bolshie" young Orwell. It's true how the author shows his sympathies for the more culturally open minded Flory and draws at least five parodies of the typical Englishman dwelling in an Eastern outpost: the racist ill-tempered Ellis, the sport obsessed, self-concerned Verrall, the snobbish, queasy Elizabeth and the status seeker, hypocrite Mr and Mrs Lackersteen, but that's not enough.

Even a decent fellow like Flory pokes fun at the "ugly concots" of traditional Burmese medicine, gladly goes whoring, kicks his native servant and treats like a beast his native mistress without feeling any guilty for his behavior but thinking he can pay her way off.
And for a trivial British like Mr Ellis there is an Indian Dr Veraswami who - despite of his good nature - has smarmy manners, sweaty hands and a blind fascination for the superiority of the Whites.
Not to mention the fatty, disgusting and manipulator magistrate U Po Kyin Po - a Burmese of course - who embodies all the worst vices from bribing to raping but takes back only honors as a metaphor of the ill-corrupted state of British rule over Burma.

How much of this cast of characters is a mere parody and how much Mr Flory reflects how Orwell himself felt in the six long years he spent as a police officer in Burma? A young man with an awful Hitler-like moustache who was desperately longing for a young woman who could match his solitude? We cannot know this for sure. But, once again, the suspect arises. As Orwell/Flory puts straight here:
"There is a humility aboute genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways".

Let's talk a bit more of the humility affecting a non reciprocated crush. It's hard to ignore the careful attention the author dedicated to make Elizabeth, the girl Flory falls in love with, absolutely repellent to the reader's eyes. What struck me the most is how "revolting", for using her own words, this young lady is. Elizabeth is unbearable from her very first apparition in the novel to the very end of it, a bitchy capricious puppet of a young lady who gets the best fun of her life shooting at a leopard, complaining about the "horribly dirty" Burmese people and being irritated by "highbrow" talking about books, local traditions, feelings.
Beware the girl! She's one of the most disagreeable characters Orwell ever created, although in such a obvious way that one never gives her much credit. In short, Elizabeth is the mirror of the British haughty colonialism in the Far East and the impersonification of that bourgeois Englishness Orwell hated the most.

And you know what? "Burmese Days" is well written and somehow engaging. There are cliffhanging moments, much irony, a convincing setting in a half-forgotten provincial Burmese outpost engulfed in jungle and plenty of disillusion. It's not your usual Orwell, but it's a pretty good novel, an entertainment delivered in a capable manner from an author who really knew the places and the feelings he wrote about.

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