A Book A Week: Burmese Days

Burmese Days (1934) is not my first George Orwell; he would not be for most people either, I imagine. 1984 and Animal Farm are of course the most oft-discussed, and then there is his non-fiction, such as The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, and the loosely autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London, which I read as teenager, a little bit seduced by the thought of a hobo-like existence. Burmese Days is a lot different from that canon, geographically if nothing else. In place of the grey, soul-crushing misery of 1984 and the cold, biting poverty of Down and Out, Orwell presents us with the dual agony of an oppressive climate and colonial mastery in a far off corner of the British Empire. Chronologically it’s one of his earliest works too, based on Orwell’s experiences serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s.

Burmese Days surprised me in some ways. I had naturally expected great writing from Orwell, but not necessarily the degree of emotional turmoil. John Flory, the main character, is one a reader can invest in, suffer his highs and lows, hopes and personal disasters. The events of the book largely take place in a small, claustrophobic Burmese station called Kyauktada, hemmed in on one side by the Irrawaddy River and on the other by thick jungle. Flory lives here amongst a handful of other Europeans during regular leave from his work as a timber merchant. The Europeans’ bastion is their Club, the scene of arguments, earthquakes, riots, and tested loyalties. The possibility of a native joining the all-white Club looms like a portent throughout. Flory wants his friend, Dr. Veraswami elected, but he is alone in this. He is indeed alone it seems in having any sympathy or interest in the Burmese people around him – from the mouths of the other Europeans we hear the kind of language about natives that was once quite acceptable in the Empire’s distant dominions. While Flory fights this personal battle to see his friend join the Club, and thereby escape a campaign of ruination wrought by the corrupt local magistrate, the maniacal U Po Kyin, a young woman arrives in Kyauktada. Elizabeth Lackersteen, orphaned and penniless in Paris, comes to join her aunt and uncle in Burma, hoping to secure herself a husband. Beautiful and young, her presence and fickle attractions torment Flory until the point at which Flory can stand no more.

Burmese Days provides a fascinating, depressing insight into the intrigues, corruption, and misery that saturated colonial rule. Some of the Englishmen are desperate to kill a few natives, but sadly the latter seem incapable of mounting the kind of disturbance that would give them the opportunity to. And anyway, ‘that won’t do nowadays. Got to keep our own bloody silly laws’, a character rues on one occasion, in a breath summing up the contradiction inherent in the liberal-imperial adventure that was the British Empire from the later nineteenth century onwards. Routinely servants and locals are verbally abused, harassed, and beaten. Orwell also shows us snippets of the peculiar, limbo-like existence that Eurasians kept, neither native, nor European, standing at the back of the church. It makes for uncomfortable reading all round.

Aside from, or really in addition to, the racial tension is the question of sex and the position of women in this novel. It is in ways both subtle and all-consuming. Elizabeth Lackersteen is the epitome of the theory that the arrival of white, usually middle-class women in the Empire brought greater racial divisiveness and conflict into that world, both through the imposition of segregation between white men and colonial women and by their insistence on maintaining peculiar European domestic and social habits. Much historical writing has been produced around the idea of white women arriving and ‘domesticating the empire’, that is, reproducing imperial hierarchies in white homes. They seemed to add a moral sustenance to the ‘burden’ of empire when imperial power and moral legitimacy were in actual fact ebbing away. For Orwell, Elizabeth is just such a woman; her epitaph, so to speak, might thus read: ‘Her servants live in terror of her, though she speaks no Burmese’. Her aunt, constantly worried that her drunken husband is having his way with a plethora of native prostitutes (which he is) is a force to be reckoned with also. What is sad about the depiction of Elizabeth, a young girl addicted to feats of male bravado – hunting, shooting, horse-riding – is that Flory completely fails to see her as Orwell would like us to see her. He is mad with loneliness and the years spent in a foreign land. She is his road back to civilisation, he thinks, except what she actually represents is a fiercer brand of colonialism than Flory’s mild ways. The thought of even sitting in the house of a native, drinking his tea, disgusts her.

The other key woman in play is Flory’s erstwhile mistress, Ma Hla May. She is depicted as a mad, greedy millstone around Flory’s neck. He understands he has treated her ill by discarding her at the first sight of Elizabeth, but her reaction – a long, drawn-out affair – is described in the most base and demeaning of ways. At one point she crawls, on her belly, towards him, clutching his ankles. In the final culmination of the novel, she is pivotal in bringing about his ruination. She is akin to the irremovable birth-mark on Flory’s face that he is obsessed with. Similarly, when Flory tries to show Elizabeth something of Burmese culture, oblivious that to her it is a most repulsive concept, he takes her to a performance involving dancing pwe-girls. The star performer is an object of horror, her hands like ‘snakeheads’, and her face and movements ‘monstrous, like a demon’. Even Flory, who is enraptured by the performance and appreciative of the longevity and sophistication of the civilisation it represents, cannot help saying afterwards, ‘There’s a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols’. (It seems almost superfluous to say here that there is a significant degree of Orientalism at work here.) When one reads the history of empire (or indeed any history…), women are hard to come by, but in Burmese Days they are instrumental. They are also manipulative, manipulated, and destructive, representing both the ugliest and most hypocritical aspects of empire; so, where Flory is lonely and heart-broken, capable but afflicted, a decent man in a hopeless situation, little sympathy is wasted on the female characters.

In terms of style, this is a beautifully written book – if nothing else, the descriptions of the climate – interminable heat, rain, mosquitoes – is masterful, which is ironic given how Flory detests banal chatter about the weather. In concert with the emotional agonies, the climate in fact produces a very physical sense of entrapment; it is as despotic towards the Europeans as they are towards the colonised. Despite its particular setting and its historical specificity, Burmese Days is a typically virtuoso Orwellian meditation on the unbearable aspects of human nature (and, yes, the English preoccupation with the weather).

On a final note, the cover to the 2009 Penguin edition to Burmese Days (above) is a work of art in itself, don’t you think? It’s by award-winning illustrator Marion Deuchars and uses historical images to great effect. In my mind, the girl with the parasol and enormous cigar is Ma Hla May… After doing a little bit of research and seeing some of Deuchar’s other work, I think I’m a little bit in love.

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