Book Review: Burmese Days

George_Orwell2

I was fifteen or so when my book-lust started in earnest. That is the stage when one makes the discovery that these little rectangular paper miracles will be the among the most important things in your life, because they are so much more than mere things.

I recall starting the never-ending process of compiling a list of all the important books I’d have to read. This generally consisted of perusing the bookstore shelves, noting the total number of volumes of a given title, and absorbing the back-cover copy–and always, in my case, scanning for the keyword “classic.” Ah, the important books, the ones that were not mere ephemera; those that had endured.

High on the list, then, were the two famous books of George Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm. I read them, I loved them, I recommended them, and in the case of the latter, re-read it several more times over the years (and have now had my own fifteen year-old son read it). But to my mind, that was all that Orwell ever really wrote. I vaguely knew of other titles, but given that they were never mentioned in the same breath as his two great books, I assumed they were second-rate.

I have just learned that there is absolutely nothing second-rate about his novel Burmese Days. Quite the contrary, I found that it towers over the other works I reflexively associate with Orwell. Set in a small British colonial village in what is now Myanmar, the story traces the repercussions of the political and social scheming and machinations that both the English and the natives constantly engage in. The main character, John Flory, suffers from the same boredom and dipsomania as the handful of xenophobic Europeans that gather nightly at the whites-only “Club” – but his innate fairness and desire for a more meaningful life set him at odds with the others. The arrival of a single young woman, the attractive but shallow, soulless Elizabeth Lackersteen, is the catalyst that sets off what feels like an inexorable march toward disaster.

The writing is lean, rich and honest – Orwell is a master of that parsimonious use of language that is the first prerequisite of a great novel. His similes are abundant and spot-on. (I particularly liked like his description of Flory awaking with a hangover such that his “head felt as though some large, sharp-cornered metal object were bumping about inside it.”)

Often brutal, occasionally very funny, it relentlessly exposes human ugliness and weakness, and the consequences that seem inevitable when an occupying imperial class stagnates and festers in the midst of people they consider subhuman. The story never flags and the pacing is perfect. Every major character is so well-drawn that each rapidly becomes something like an archetype.

One aspect that might pose difficulty for some readers is Orwell’s continuous use of the common vernacular of the time and place of the novel. There are many terms and names that few readers will recognize. I just let the words flow over me and avoided the urge to stop and find somewhere to look up their definitions; I found that this did not diminish my appreciation at all. Eventually the foreign terms began to make themselves clear. Perhaps some other edition exists that has a glossary – it would be an attractive addition to the book. In any case, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and I cannot wait to read all of Orwell’s other lesser-known books.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Burmese Days”

  1. Burmese Days, together with Coming Up for Air, have always been my two favorite “non famous” Orwell novels. His only novel, in fact, that I have only read once is “The Clergyman’s Daughter.” If I recall correctly, Orwell himself said he hated that book.

  2. I think the truly brilliant opening scene and sentences of Burmese Days deserve an essay; I am in another country once occupied by the British, Iraq. Wished you had been there, George. All those “natives” exploiting the situation – not the victims that come to mind while reading the usual anticolonialist literature about victims.
    Practically of course it meant the corrupted continued their opportunistic and everything but patriotic behaviour once their country was independent. So much for the long-term effects of colonialism on which someone still has to write a brilliant study (except for the economic ones that are obvious until today).

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