Friday, 17 June 2016

Book Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

All my life, I felt bewildered at how disinterested and narrow-minded most people are with regard to other cultures. It always seemed to me as if they put on blinkers out of fear to see that their own way of life, of thinking, of believing wasn’t the most desirable, the most worthwhile, the best after all. I can’t relate to this. I always longed to know what was beyond my own cultural horizon and therefore I like reading books from all corners of the world, be it the original version or a translation. Burmese Days by George Orwell is an English novel through and through, but its protagonist is different from his compatriots who look down on the natives and their ways almost with disgust. Not sharing their views makes him an outsider and terribly lonely until Elizabeth arrives and he feels that she could be the soul mate for whom he has been aching for so long.

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair who was born in Motihari, India, in January 1903. His family returned to England in 1907 where he went to school and wrote regularly for different college magazines. In 1922, he joined the Imperial Police in Burma (today: Myanmar), but resigned after five years to dedicate himself to writing. While he did all kinds of odd jobs to make a living in London and Paris, he wrote important journalistic works like Down and Out in London and Paris (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). His first novel to appear was Burmese Days in 1934 that was followed by The Clergyman’s Daughter in 1935 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1936. Then he joined the Republican Forces in Spain and fought in the Civil War until he was seriously wounded. Along with the account of his experiences in Spain titled Homage to Catalonia (1938) he wrote the novel Coming Up for Air (1939), before he started working with the Home Guard, the BBC and the Tribune during World War II. Only his last two novels brought the author worldwide and lasting fame: Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). George Orwell died in London, U.K., in January 1950.

The Englishman John Flory is in his mid-thirties and has known the monotony of Burmese Days for nearly fifteen years. As a timber merchant he passes most of his time in a jungle camp north of Mandalay, but every month he returns to his house in the small town of Kyauktada at the Irrawaddy river in Upper Burma for a couple of days. There are a handful of Europeans living in Kyauktada whom he uses to meet at the European Club although he feels an outsider and unable to speak his mind in their presence. Fate has stricken him with an ugly dark-blue birthmark on his left cheek that makes him feel despicable. Moreover, he doesn’t share their narrow views, notably not their complete deprecation of and disrespect for the natives and their ancient culture. Also the fact that he has made friends with Indian Dr Veraswami discredits him in the eyes of his compatriots, but even with him he is never fully at ease. His loneliness makes him suffer terribly.
“… There was, he saw clearly, only one way out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma – but really share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood him: a friend, that was what it came down to.” 
In spring 1926 his longing for a true friend is particularly strong and just then orphaned Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives from England to live with her uncle and aunt after the death of her parents. He “rescues” the woman in her early twenties from the “attack” of a – harmless – small water buffalo and almost at once falls in love with her. He is convinced that she will make the perfect wife and companion for him not seeing that in reality she is a snooty young Englishwoman interested in nothing but social rise and wealth. In fact, she despises everything that he appreciates and loves.
“… any excess of intellect – ‘braininess’ was her word for it – tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people – people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes – were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these highbrow ideas – Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. ...” 
Nonetheless, Elizabeth at first doesn’t entirely dismiss the possibility of marrying Flory because she wants to escape poverty and the advances of her always drunk uncle at all cost. However, just when Flory is ready to ask her for her hand, she is angry at him. Then handsome Lieutenant Verrall of the military police, the “honourable” youngest son of a peer and much better match, enters the scene…

Burmese Days is George Orwell’s debut novel and largely drawn from his own experience as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma. This allowed him to show colonial life in a way that is very close to reality, in fact, so close to it that English publishers didn’t dare to bring out the book and it first appeared in the USA. Unlike in his late novels that made him famous, he chose a naturalistic approach to tell his story and to point out along the way injustice, corruption and (informal) restraints on the freedom of thought in imperial society. The latter critique adds a timeless dimension to a piece of fiction that is otherwise firmly anchored in time and space. Although the main plot centres on the unhappy love of John Flory to Elizabeth Lackersteen – not between them! –, it serves mainly as starting point both for the convincing character study of John Flory who has lost himself between cultures and for the sociological study of Europeans in a British colony based on the interaction of authentic and varied characters. The descriptions of Burmese landscape are luxuriant like the jungle itself and full of atmosphere, not least because the author’s English is rich and beautiful.

Certainly, Burmese Days by George Orwell isn’t the most brilliant or most meaningful of the author’s six novels, but it’s an impressive testimonial of a time and a social setting that disappeared with the British Empire. What remains up to this day is a mindset formed by hundreds of years as a sea power and eventually an Empire where the sun never went down. I enjoyed the read and the overt criticism of society very much and therefore gladly recommend this underestimated novel that deserves being more widely read than it seems to be today.

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This review is a contribution to
(image linked to my list):


  1. I share your love of exploring other cultures through reading and actively search books from all over the world. I haven't read this Orwell though so will search it out. Thanks for the interesting review :-)

    Stephanie Jane @ Literary Flits

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stephanie! It's so nice to see that my reviews actually inspire to read the books I present... :-)

      There's another review of a book set in South-East Asia coming up - by a writer from Malaysia this time.

  2. I have only read his famous ones. This one sounds good for the view of colonial life and the critiques of it. Did you make your own list for this challenge?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Judy! I too had only read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four until I dug a little deeper. At first, I planned to review Keep the Aspidistra Flying - excellent, by the way -, but then I thought that I could make a three-book tour of South-East Asia with Burmese Days as a centre piece. And I think that it was a good choice.

      The image of Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks is linked to my list containing the books that I've read so far and that I already reviewed or will review for certain.


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