by George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell, was a novelist, essayist, journalist and book critic. He was born in British-ruled India in 1903 and served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. This experience inspired his first novel, Burmese Days, which was published in the USA in 1934.
Orwell later commented:
“…the landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the quality of nightmare, afterward stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them.”
My Penguin Modern Classics edition of this book has A Note on the Text by Peter Davison, a former president of The Bibliographical Society and editor of its journal; and an Introduction by Emma Larkin, the American author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, who describes Burmese Days as “a heady blend of fact and fiction.”
Larkin believes it was during Orwell’s time in Burma (now known as Myanmar) that he was, “transformed from a snobbish public-school boy to a writer of social conscience who sought out the underdogs of society.” Indeed, he was an apparatchik during the dying days of the Raj, and it is well documented that he hated his job with the police – the experience leaving him with an immutable loathing of imperialism and authority in general.
Almost everyone in Orwell’s far-flung town of Kyauktada is corruptible given expedient circumstances (or at the very least, too drunk or self-obsessed to care what is happening around them), though some, such as local magistrate U Po Kyin, are especially skilled in the art of deception. Even Orwell’s protagonist, John Flory, a white timber-merchant who defies convention by befriending a native, is something of an anti-hero. He lacks the courage of his convictions and is loath to stir up trouble at his all-white Club. He is, however, a shade more enlightened than his compatriots.
I found it almost impossible to develop even the slightest feelings of compassion for any of the characters in this novel: they were, with the sole exception of the honourable Dr. Veraswami, a thoroughly contemptible bunch of bullies, sots and unprincipled degenerates. But that, I believe, is exactly what Orwell intended. This isn’t The Trouser People or The Glass Palace (although there are some evocative descriptions of the jungle and its wildlife), rather, it is a crushing indictment of colonial rule.
Burmese Days is a provocative tale of identity, loneliness, ignorance, racism and greed. In Orwell’s own words:
“I dare say it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen.”
It sounds like it might go well with Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter – have you read that?
I’m afraid I haven’t read that one, Elle. It’s set in Sierra Leone, and that’s about all I know. I take it this is a book about colonialism.
Yep, and colonial administration, and how easily it can go awry…
I agree to your opinion that no characters in the story elicit sympathy or compassion. After all, this isn’t a story about heroes standing up against colonialism… And I should think that the John Flory character remotely reminds me of Orwell himself in consideration of the story about shooting an elephant in which Orwell himself engaged in as a policeman. He knew it’s wrong, but he’s powerless to revolt against injustice…
I agree, Stephanie. I know Orwell was ashamed of some of the things he did during his time in Burma, and Flory certainly experiences guilt. Yes, I’m aware of the essay, Shooting an Elephant but have yet to read it. I’ll get to it some time soon, I hope!
Lovely review! I’ve always wanted to read this, I loved Orwell’s other novels and I thoroughly enjoyed his non-fiction Down and Out in Paris, so I hope I’ll like this one too 🙂
Thank you, Ayunda. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.
Great review and it is refreshing to see something that is not a fantasy or thriller. I will be back for more of such recommendations.
Thank you, Gayathri. Your comments are very much appreciated.