Shane's Reviews > Burmese Days

Burmese Days by George Orwell
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In this debut novel, we are introduced to George Orwell’s distaste for an Empire on which the sun was beginning to set and to his desire for Socialism as a panacea for colonialism. Burmese Days reminds me of novels Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene might have written in the later stages of their careers had they been trapped like timber merchant Flory (a proxy for Orwell) in an obscure Indian station with no way out.

Orwell spent five years in the Imperial Police Force in Burma and drew heavily from his experiences in that period. The fictitious station of Kyauktada is a miserable place for British colonials. Surrounded by jungle, festering in drought that is only alleviated by drenching rain, irritated by prickly heat that breaks out over white bodies at random, isolated from the natives who surround them and who are still dominated by the yoke of a fading Empire, these Brits have only the traditional Club in which to centre their activities and drink copiously to drown out their loneliness, decay and self-pity. When Dr. Veraswamy is touted to be the first native to gain membership in the club, given the relaxing of colonial laws in favour of locals, and his rival U Po Kyin, a corrupt local magistrate, is all out to thwart the appointment, the stage is set for an eruption of violence fuelled by the seeds of discrimination that engulf colonial and local alike, with tragic consequences for both sides.

The Brits at Kyauktada are unapologetically racist. Characters like Ellis, a manager of a colonial company, thinks nothing of bribing witnesses to lie, or torturing locals, and shooting them, all if it means that British hegemony in the area is preserved. And Mrs. Lackersteen is the quintessential burra memsahib, lording it over her domestic servants, trying to keep an eye on her alcoholic husband and his frisky hands with the ladies, and hatching brazen plots to snag a husband for her impoverished and orphaned niece, Elizabeth. Elizabeth too has all the trappings of a budding memsahib; she is materially and socially focussed; she prefers horse riding and hunting to reading and mixing with the locals. Flory is madly in love with her and rescues her from wild buffalos, leopards and crazed mobs, but she spurns him for the wastrel, Verrall, commander of the Military Police detachment sent to Kyauktada to fend off a loomimg local rebellion being secretly organized by U Po Kyin. Why is Elizabeth so stupid? Because Verrall has “Honourable” attached to his name and is considered to be going more places than Flory will ever do with his sympathies for locals such as Dr. Veraswamy. Flory too has his demons; one particular loud and cunning one is Ma Hla May, his former mistress, who embodies the warning: “hell hath no fury like a woman spurned.”

Some of Orwell’s observations are didactic and more like condemnations:
1) The British official holds the Burman down while the British businessman goes through his pockets.
2) The army provides protection to the British fools who work in the colonies.
3) Colonialism is despotism: you are free to be a drunkard, coward, fornicator, idler and back biter, but you are not free to think for yourself.
4) The Oriental hates himself and looks to the Britisher; the Britisher hates himself and look to the Oriental.
5) The key to success is to sell out your partner in crime.
6) Half-educated people (those in the colonies) develop late in life, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life.

Descriptions of village life, the jungle, the empty club life, and the eternal arguments about the filthy natives are well drawn. After some earlier scene setting, especially through racially charged arguments in the British club that provide us with the lay of the land on each person’s sensibilities and sympathies, the action moves at a fast pace towards a thrilling climax. Yet the device of the omniscient narrator—one who not only jumps into everyone’s heads to tell us what each is thinking, but who also attempts to explain certain plot points to us—gives this book an amateurish feel. Perhaps these devices were allowed in the 1920’s when Orwell wrote this novel; perhaps, this being his debut offering, Orwell needed the crutch of the omniscient narrator to get him through the writing of it.

As the omniscient narrator sums up in the end, each character gets his dues, deservedly or not. The opportunists come out ahead of the honest ones, and even Mother Nature intervenes to thwart some of the best laid plans of master Machiavellians such as U Po Kyin. Kyauktada shrugs off its wounded and dead and continues to fly the flag of its colonial master, chewing up those who are not resilient enough to play the survival game; and all its denizens, colonials and natives alike, continue their roles as pawns in the service to this vast business empire on whom the sun eventually was to set a couple of decades later—unfortunately, it was not to be in this book! I came away feeling like a total sucker for having pledged allegiance to the Union Jack as a fellow colonial myself. I wish I had read Burmese Days when I was a teenager living in the colonies.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 19, 2019 – Shelved
May 19, 2019 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Great review, Shane.

Shane Sandy wrote: "Great review, Shane."

Thank you, Sandy. Orwell is an enigmatic personality. I am reading his biography at the moment, and it appears that while he fought for ideals, he despised humanity.

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