Ben Dutton's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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Feb 07, 2012

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

** spoiler alert ** George Orwell is best remembered for two novels, Animal Farm and 1984, and perhaps his nonfiction works, A Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. A few years ago I read Animal Farm, my first introduction to Orwell, but it has taken me over two years to return to him. I purchased the Penguin Modern Classic collection, The Complete Novels of George Orwell, a wonderfully printed and bound collection. In this collection the novels are presented alphabetically, but in accordance with my original challenge, I selected Orwell’s first printed novel. Burmese Days, first published in America in 1934, appeared in Great Britain in 1935, by which time Orwell had already achieved fame with his non-fiction.

Orwell spent time in Burma – 1922 to 1927 – where, as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police, he became familiar with the country and its people. Under Imperial rule, Burma had become one of the most profligate of Britain’s colonies, and yet the native population were kept impoverished and at times torn apart by tribal rivalries and subjugations. Men like U Po Kyin, the corrupt Burmese magistrate whose machinations bring the downfall of good men and one pukka sahib (European white man), John Flory, whose story this is.

John Flory is a flawed man – physically, because of the large, blue birthmark on the left of his face that he tries to hide, and psychologically because his time in Burma has left him alone and lonely. When the daughter of a local prominent family arrives, Flory sets about wooing her. Elizabeth Lackersteen is not a beautiful woman, but she is unattached, and after Flory rescues her from the menaces of a water buffalo, she is enamoured. An unintentional deceit lies at the heart of their relationship: Flory thinks her cultured because she has lived in Paris, when in fact she loathed the bohemians and their lifestyle, and Elizabeth thinks him brave for he rescued her from a beast, in fact harmless, when he is timid. Whenever they try to reveal their true colours the other is repulsed. Yet Flory still plans to propose but is halted by an interruption from Elizabeth’s aunt and then an earthquake. Elizabeth’s aunt has other ideas – a new, single policeman, Lieutenant Verrall, is due in town, and Elizabeth will marry him, not the flawed Flory.

If the above plot description sounds too much like a romantic melodrama, then it is because it is, and yet Orwell has other plans. He is too clever a writer to stick to formula. U Po Kyin has been manoeuvring behind the scenes, and a riot is about to break out in their village, and it will tear into the very hearts and souls of Burma’s people, and destroy colonial rule. Burmese Days reveals itself not to be about love, but about the cost of colonial rule, and the crimes that can be committed in its name.

Orwell said in Why I Write that: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book.” It is a wonderful summation of what Burmese Days is: it is a gloriously overblown novel, full of seething sentiment, of grand moments and grander spectacles. “The extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand,” noted D. J. Taylor. Burmese Days, then, is a novel unlike much else in Orwell’s canon, and yet, feels distinctly Orwellian – the humanitarian is there, the writer with the concern for the freedom’s of the common man (this time the common man is the put upon Burmese). It may wear many of its influences freely: Somerset Maugham and E. M. Forster particularly – and its ending may not be the one most readers will expect, but it is a good grand novel, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
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