Sunday, 30 January 2011

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

This novel is a portrayal of a claustrophobic backwater of Burma, during the pre-second world war days of the British Empire. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) experienced it first-hand as a police officer for two years, and is able to convey the physical and cultural atmosphere of the place with vividness and conviction.

He gives us a number of set pieces (such as a brilliant description of a tiger hunt), woven together in a clever narrative. The characterisation is good, shot through with a cynical and satirical spirit. One thread of the narrative concerns the main character, Flory, a timber merchant, who yearns to break free from the stifling prejudice and pettiness of colonial society around him. His main hope is to marry Elizabeth, a young Englishwoman who comes to the village. The ups and downs of his (failed) courtship are the main concern of the book.

The subsidiary characters are drawn with depth and irony. The young Indian Army officer, Verrall, is particularly distasteful. The author clearly hates much of the British Empire, but neither does he have a rosy view of the natives or the country of Burma. One of the villains of the book is the scheming, evil magistrate, U Po Kyin. One takes from the book and overall impression of alcohol-sodden white men, corrupt locals, appalling heat and a narrowness of society that drives you to the edge of violence and madness.

I would recommend this book for its skilled (skewed?) descriptions of Burma, and its story. We sympathise with Flory and find his defeat, and that of his Indian doctor friend, tragic. It is hardly an uplifting book, but makes an unflinching interpretation of the mutually corrupting nature of colonial rule.

1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Good review. I think you're absolutely right about Orwell's conflicted view of the situation, of feeling neither positively about the Empire or about the natives. It makes for an interesting, and difficult read.

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