B0nnie's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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Jan 06, 2012

really liked it

"The whole body of policemen, military and civil, about a hundred and fifty men in all, had attacked the crowd from the rear, armed only with sticks. They had been utterly engulfed. The crowd was so dense that it was like an enormous swarm of bees seething and rotating. Everywhere one could see policemen wedged helplessly among the hordes of Burmans, struggling furiously but uselessly, and too cramped even to use their sticks. Whole knots of men were tangled Laocoon-like in the folds of unrolled pagris." Burmese Days 1934

"It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages." A Hanging 1931

"With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorm, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts." Shooting an Elephant 1936

It is interesting to note that the main distinction between these two great essays by Orwell, Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, and his novel, Burmese Days, is length. All have plot, characters, vivid descriptions, the protagonist conveying his ideas and thoughts through the telling of a story. Where fiction becomes fact is not clearly defined. If the protest "but Flory is a character" has merit, one could say the same of the speaker in the essays. Did these events really happen? Was there a dog, does Orwell really remember exactly what was said? For that matter, did he ever shoot an elephant or see a hanging? There is some doubt. However there is no doubt of the truth of what is conveyed, even if one can pick apart each and every incident recounted. Fiction and soi-disant nonfiction both have their lies and truths, but which is which is not always apparent.

To belabour the point:

"Art is a lie I use to tell the truth." Picasso
"The truth is more important than the facts." Frank Lloyd Wright
"Is there anything truer than truth? Yes, Legend." Kazantzakis
"These things never were, but always are." Sallust

Burmese Days, as is often noted, is influenced by Of Human Bondage, Lord Jim and Passage to India. But combined with Orwell’s experience in Burma, and his sharp perceptions, it is a satire with beauty, heartbreak, cruelty and madness.

John Flory, the protagonist, had been in Burma fifteen years. Orwell was there for five. The exoticness of Burma had captivated Orwell, and it is rendered quite wonderfully in this his first novel.
"The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles."

"There was no lawn, but instead a shrubbery of native trees and bushes--gold mohur trees like vast umbrellas of blood-red bloom, frangipanis with creamy, stalkless flowers, purple bougainvillea, scarlet hibiscus and the pink Chinese rose, bilious-green crotons, feathery fronds of tamarind. The clash of colours hurt one's eyes in the glare. A nearly naked mali, watering-can in hand, was moving in the jungle of flowers like some large nectar-sucking bird."

"Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. His face was vast, yellow and quite unwrinkled, and his eyes were tawny.

His feet--squat, high-arched feet with the toes all the same length--were bare, and so was his cropped head, and he wore one of those vivid Arakanese longyis with green and magenta checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions. He was chewing betel from a lacquered box on the table, and thinking about his past life."

Orwell's own assessment: "The descriptions of scenery aren't bad, only of course that is what the average reader skips."

Don’t skip them if you want to be in Burma with Orwell. Although it does get a bit out of hand occasionally, I would not call it *purple prose*. And there are so many scenes that are brilliantly handled, and often with a dash of dry wit and subtle irony.

Orwell is Flory, almost as much as he is the shooter in the essay. He was part of the imperialist empire, yet an outsider too. He could not play the role of the pukka sahib. He was too admiring of the natives, the land, the language, the culture – and he hated the role of exploiter, hating how his fellow Englishmen were so intolerant and chauvinistic - these same ideas are found in Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging.

Burmese Days is very visual indeed and I am surprised it has never been filmed.

In 1936, Orwell wrote to his agent, "I don’t think personally the idea of dramatising 'Burmese Days' is much good, but it might be worth while getting an expert opinion."

That expert might be Ralph Fiennes, who is looking at doing Burmese Days, based on an adaptation by John Henry Butterworth. Apparently he wants to be John Flory, and he’s sent the script to Roger Michell director of Notting Hill. Hmm.

Luckily Fiennes has had some practise at playing the ugly guy.

"The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise--for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness."

Fiennes as Flory

"New-tick Flory does look rum, Got a face like a monkey's bum."

"But Flory had lived down 'Monkey-bum' in time. He was a liar, and a good footballer, the two things absolutely necessary for success at school."

Naturally Orwell is as droll as ever here.

It’ll be amusing to see Fiennes made-up as Flory - and saying words like pyinkado, frangipani, longyi, thakin, tuktoo, pwe, sahiblog, dacoity, and thathanabaing. And not smiling.
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Quotes B0nnie Liked

George Orwell
“it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it.”
George Orwell, Burmese Days

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Sarah (Presto agitato) I enjoyed the review! Also, I didn't know Ralph Fiennes was thinking of doing Burmese Days. I think that could be good, though maybe he is starting to be a little old for Flory?

B0nnie thx Sarah, and your review was excellent - yes he is too old but perhaps still doable - who knows how they'll mess around with the characters and story

Sarah (Presto agitato) Thank you! I've always liked him as an actor, so I think he could probably do it, and it's true, you never know how they will alter the story.

A little bit off topic, have you heard about there being a movie based on Homage to Catalonia with Kevin Spacey and Colin Firth? I heard something about it, but then nothing more. I wonder if it got scrapped. I would have liked to see that.

B0nnie I heard about that a couple of years ago & yes then nothing . . . I guess it fell through. Damn.

Jonfaith This novel surprised me. The trajectory met expectations and yet the tale and its characters seethed and lingered: an acid aftertaste of circumstances which refused to be flushed.

I sort of lost my way for a spell after reading this though I don't find such culpable. It was likely an undiagnosed head trauma.

B0nnie Jonfaith wrote: "This novel surprised me. The trajectory met expectations and yet the tale and its characters seethed and lingered: an acid aftertaste of circumstances which refused to be flushed.

I sort of lost ..."

The ending is similar to 1984. There's a head trauma in both - but not the love of big brother!

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