Friday, May 23, 2014

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

In his novel Burmese Days (Harper & Bros., 1934) George Orwell’s displays his contempt for British colonialism and the diplomats and businessmen and citizens who seek to keep the British Way alive in the jungles of Burma.  Drawing from his own experiences there (e.g., “On Shooting an Elephant”), he describes the seven British citizens who see their posting in Burma as merely a step to somewhere else.  Most of them hate the local citizens, though they don’t hesitate to exploit and abuse them.  The one character who seems an exception is Mr. Flory.  He appreciates the culture of Burma, enjoys the people there, and has made friends with a local doctor (for which his British colleagues much abuse him).  He enjoys the arts and literature.  He has a large birthmark, of which is much ashamed.  He also has a Burmese mistress.  He has come to Burma as a way of escaping the small-time failures towards which he was destined in England.  He works for an English timber company, contributing in a significant way to Burma’s deforestation (though for Orwell this is not an issue).  He has lived in Burma for fifteen years when the arrival of a young woman awakes his interests and makes him hope, believe, that he might make a life for himself—he sees in this young woman the chance of a companion with whom he can share his interests, whom he can talk to. 

Unfortunately, Flory is so much centered on himself that he can’t judge circumstances very well.  The woman is entirely vacuous.  She wants to talk about riding and hunting while he wants to discuss literature.  She hates his interests and is repulsed by his efforts to discuss them.  The only thing that attracts her to him at all stems from his rescue of her from a water buffalo and, later, his success in killing a leopard.  But when younger, more attractive men come along, she doesn’t hesitate to go after them.

This is a book of miserable people living miserable lives in a miserable environment.  Flory’s misery gradually increases as he grapples with Elizabeth’s rejection of him.  He can’t believe in her rejection.  In the end, suicide is his way out.  No happy ending here.  Flory is dead.  Elizabeth has been abandoned by her most recent romantic interest.  Life and the British effort to impose British life on Burma continue on.

Orwell’s writing style is precise and effective.  His descriptions of the natural environment surrounding the village are especially impressive.  He viciously parodies British middle class life through the small array of residents at the outpost.  The book reminded me, of course, of Heart of Darkness, but also aspects of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint.

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