In Orwell’s Burmese Days you will get as close as humanly possible to observing the behaviour of the ruling British class in the waning days of the Indian Empire. Here is everything you need to know about colonialism and racism in one cracking story. You can pull up a bamboo chair in the European club and listen in on the casual contempt, and in many cases outright loathing, the English feel for the local population.
There was always a minority among making a living in the empire who respected the culture and people, spoke the language and were appalled by the system. People like Orwell who, under his real name Eric Arthur Blair, spent five years working as an imperial policeman in Burma (then a province of the Indian Empire, now Myanmar).
The book was written based on his experiences in different parts of the country and he had trouble getting it published, partly over fears it could be libellous, a clear indication of its autobiographical context.
Orwell explains the rot at the heart of the ex-pat society, a society whose whole existence was based on a lie – not just the lie of superiority which is well illustrated in the story but the lie of the grand theft of colonialism. Development was promoted purely to facilitate the massive system of stealing from the country, the true and only reason for the British presence.
But Burmese Days is much more than a vehicle for social commentary. It is first and foremost a novel, a beautiful, heart-breaking story of one lost soul, John Flory, and the empty life he is condemned to live as a timber merchant in a small regional outpost of the empire. Flory’s destiny shows that we can bear almost any degree of loneliness, degradation and ennui, until we get a glimpse of something more. If our hopes are raised – and then dashed – by the possibility of something better, in Flory’s case love, the disappointment is more than we can bear.
There is humour here too, in the quirks and catchphrases of the other characters, the viewpoint of the servants and the scenes of social agony known to anyone who has had to endure repetitive conversation with a small group of people locked in other’s company day after day for years.
Myanmar is opening up at last after many decades of repression. The 1934 novel is eagerly sold to tourists in Yangon, according to my father-in-law who was chased around a market in Yangon earlier this year until he bought the copy I ended up reading. I flew through the book, deeply impressed by the evocation of the climate, the wildlife, the countyside, the culture.
The next book based in Myanmar I would like to read is The Lizard Cage by Karen Connolly about a political prisoner. It is one of the books featured in the lovely memoir by Will Schwalbe The End of Your Life Book Club.
Just to finish off, here are George Orwell’s – or Eric Arthur Blair’s – six rules for writers from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, courtesy of Wikipedia:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word when a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a work out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I’m sure I broke some of Orwell’s rules in this blogpost but I will try to be more vigiliant!