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Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days by George Orwell book cover
Burmese Days (1934) is George Orwell’s first novel and draws heavily on his experiences as an Imperial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar) to criticise imperialism and the British Empire. John Flory is a timber merchant who has lived in Kyauktada, Burma for well over a decade. Despite spending his time in the European club with his fellow English ex-pats, he feels an affinity with the Burmese and their country. Far from being part of his jingoistic set, Flory sees the Empire as nothing more than a means to steal resources and maintain Britain’s financial superiority in the global marketplace. Forced by social pressure to remain silent on the matter, Flory is friendly with ‘natives’ but fails to defend them in front of his English peers. Dr Veraswami is one such example, and Flory badly lets his doctor friend down when tested, despite the Burman’s protestations that the English are a civilising force and whatever they say or do must be correct. When local villain and manipulator U Po Kyin decides to make trouble for both Flory and Veraswami in an attempt to gain entrance to the European club, troubles escalate and Kyauktada sees a small riot. Meanwhile, Flory sees the arrival, via Paris, of Elizabeth Lackersteen – an English woman – as his chance for companionship, despite their incompatible views and personalities. His desperate pursuit of Elizabeth is cut short, however, as his Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May brings trouble to his door, with the backing of U Po Kyin. Flory’s situation is dire, and he is left grasping for a way to consolidate the many influences and pressures in his life.

The time Orwell spent in Burma as part of the colonial police obviously gave him first-hand experience of the sort of life his characters here endure. Because of this Burmese Days is an insightful account of life in the colonies of the British Empire where days where long and lonely, the club was everything, and peace was maintained not by force of numbers but by shaky levels of bureaucracy and indoctrination to the idea of the Empire as a civilising force.

Orwell understood tyranny as well as any writer in the twentieth and here he demonstrates well the small-scale social pressures that hold larger regimes together. Flory’s inability to stand up for what is right shows the powerful pressure of a system against the isolated dissident, albeit half-hearted and flawed as Flory’s effort is. Indeed, the weakness of Flory’s own personality is as much a bar to his standing up to the pressures as anything else. But one feels the suffocating atmosphere of Flory’s voiceless situation and, by the novel’s end, it becomes clear that those who refuse the accepted truth of the majority are often discarded in one way or another.

At the centre of the novel is the club, a perfect small-scale example of the social pressures that keep dissenters in line. The stifling atmosphere of the club – where a small circle of ex-pats would meet almost nightly – acts as a refuge from the true Burma and a microcosm of isolation within the overall colonial isolation. It’s unsurprising that, cut off from the world, the club’s regular attendees become divorced from the civil tolerance of outsiders and frequently attack their Burmese neighbours in conversation. The club aims to represent a Britain that its patrons no longer know (and no longer exists), and, divorced from the reality of the Empire, the British in Kyauktada cling to an existence and line, which is already beyond saving. Living in isolation they have no idea that these are the dying days of Empire and most still cling on to the ideals of the British Empire, feeling them still to be within their grasp.

The British characters who inhabit the club are all narrow-minded and unpleasant – their moral ugliness juxtaposed with the beauty of Burma – in one way or another. This is slightly disappointing: To be given only jingoists or Flory as representations of the colonisers is rather limited in scope, for all they may represent attitudes that were rife amongst the British abroad. On the whole, the characters are more caricatures – flat and uninteresting – and one is forced to read them as purely satire if one is not to dismiss them entirely. Admittedly, Burmese Days oscillates between realism and satire, which makes this reading problematic, although not impossible. What one can say is that Flory is the only character with any psychological depth and, in fact, he is a fascinatingly complex and contradictory character – somewhat standing out from the menagerie of stereotypes which surround him.

As much as the colonial British are shown to be drunk, bigoted, and wholly unpleasant in varying degrees, very little is shown of the Burmese, certainly very little in a positive light. Dr. Veraswami is, perhaps, the only sympathetic Burmese character. He represents the Anglicised Indian, and is roundly despised because of it. Even Flory – the doctor’s only ally – fails to stand up for him. Indeed, the friendship between Veraswami and Flory is strangely pitched, with no real signs of affection or common ground. Perhaps they are simply two men isolated from their own communities, but the exposition that makes the friendship believable is entirely the reader’s own.

Nearly all of the characters are described with subtle physical abnormalities, positioning them as Grotesque satire in many cases; a reflection on the hidden grotesqueness of Imperialism that Orwell seeks to expose. Certainly he punctures the idea of the British as physically superior to the colonised peoples. Perhaps the most prescient of these abnormalities is the birthmark which Flory sports on his face – a visual sign of his difference. Whenever he attempts to protest or assert his difference, he becomes self-conscious of his mark, embarrassed and silenced before he has uttered a word.

In general, Flory is the antithesis of the colonial hero, weak and uncertain as he is. This lack of certainty or proud thrusting towards ‘justice’ runs throughout the novel and, again, satirises the colonial fiction that came before it. One feels Flory must represent a form of catharsis for Orwell, given the author’s own experiences in the colonies, and the personal experience elevates the novel above much of Orwell’s early fiction, and instils it with a sense of resonance and depth that he would not often capture in his early novels.

Orwell’s characters are often alienated from society and Flory is no different. Trapped amongst his vile compatriots and in a foreign land, his opinion is silenced and he is forced to exist, mute, in this oppressive atmosphere. His views are those held by a minority and the simple loneliness of having to keep one’s thoughts to oneself has clearly had a significant effect on him. That he falls so heavily and desperately for Elizabeth – a woman very different from himself – is indicative of this fact.

To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs.

Flory’s passive complicity in the imperialism that surrounds him (as well as his active profiteering from it) is poignant but troubling too. As much as Flory’s opinions seem reasonable, he never follows them through and in fact his acts are those of a man fuelled by prejudice and self-interest. Certainly, he is a long way from a sympathetic character, and is to blame for far more than failing to speak out. His treatment of Ma Hla May – who he treats as a disposable irritant having used her for his own purposes for years – is appalling, and his complicity in the world he silently detests leaves him in a morally ambiguous position. Indeed, by the novel’s end it is difficult to tell if Flory’s opinions are rooted in sound moral judgements, or spring from the isolation of his position, perhaps stemming, originally, from his birthmark, which set him apart from his peers before long before his opinions could. Irritatingly, the novel’s ending makes a victim of Flory; somewhat of an easy get-out for the author.

Outside of the largely flat characters, the pacing of the novel can prove problematic, with some parts of the plot racing by and others examined in more depth. Indeed, a fair amount of the action happens ‘off-stage’ and this does feel like a book written by a writer finding his way in fiction: some scenes work well while others fall flat, and one suspects that those which are more vivid are those for which Orwell drew most heavily on real-life experience. Overall, Burmese Days is a strange book. The anti-imperial message is clearly there and sounded loudly, but there is so much that clouds the message, either on the plot level, or in terms of the style of the writing. However, painful contradictions are one of the things that makes Orwell, and his fiction, enigmatic, and Burmese Days is as good an example of this as anything else he wrote.

As ever with Orwell, I'm finding some pretty big flaws with his fiction in terms of its artistic merit. Here too, the morality is muddled - possibly reflecting the absolute mess of morals in the colonies. A strange book, not one I really warmed to, but interesting.


Useful Links
Reviews of Burmese Days on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Burmese Days on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

Hi Matthew, calling by as promised to read your review. As you already know I did not read this until I was actually in Myanmar. I was fortunate as this made it easier to relate to Orwell's writing. As his début novel it is less widely read which is a shame. You expressed an interest in exploring the country for yourself one day, so maybe in the meantime you might find my blog posts of interest. :)
http://lindyloumactraveltales.blogspot.co.uk/

Hi LindyLou - thanks for stopping by :)

I'm quite sure I will enjoy reading your posts - books often send my mind wandering off way ahead of me, to places far-flung and exciting. I'm not sure I have the most 'visual' imagination though, so when Orwell writes about Burma I don't picture it as easily as some. Reading it in Myanmar must have been a treat.