Sunday, 23 March 2014

Burmese Days by George Orwell Review

George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, is a damning look at British Imperialism and the effects of colonialism on both the British and the native populace. John Flory is an expatriate timber merchant who has lived in Burma for 15 years and become thoroughly jaded, spending his days drinking and whoring in a miserable haze. Then Dr Veraswami, his Indian friend, desperately implores Flory for membership to the European Club which he knows is the only thing that would save him from corrupt and evil local powermonger, U Po Kyin, who is out to destroy him. 

With the expatriate community up in arms over the thought of a non-white club member, U Po Kyin’s machinations to usurp Veraswami’s intentions and become the club’s token native member, the arrival of the attractive but shallow Elizabeth Lackersteen, and an increasingly discontented native people, the stage is set for dramatic change for everyone. 

The novel looks at the imperial bigotry of the British expatriates and the dirty side of colonialism, showing how the British Empire exploited third world countries under the guise of improving the “uncivilised” natives’ lives by imposing British culture upon them. But it also examines the ways colonialism damages the expatriates psychologically, and sometimes physically, as Flory says to Veraswami: “It corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine.” 

It takes an unflinching look at the racism and bigotry prevalent in the British expatriates’ views toward the natives and is at times hard to read for its unblemished dialogue filled with disgusting epithets uttered by many of the British characters, especially Ellis. Orwell is condemning of all of the British characters, including the anti-hero Flory, whom he writes as lazy, drunken sots sitting around aimlessly with an undeserved sense of superiority. Flory is perhaps more despicable as he is aware of the terrible nature of their behaviour but is too cowardly to stand up to them for fear of losing his comfortable existence. 

But the novel isn’t entirely successful in its execution. It reads like Orwell attempting to do his versions of two classic novels - Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham - and falling short. His criticisms of the expatriate community and its effects on the Burmese population are certainly valid and are rendered in a convincing way, but they lack the memorable excoriation that Conrad gave in his novella - it simply doesn’t possess the same intensity. The same is true of the Flory/Elizabeth Lackersteen romance which feels like a compressed, less powerful rendition of the tragic courtship of Philip Carey and Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. 

In attempting to do two very different novels in one, much shorter novel - a searing critique of British colonialism and its effects, and a sweeping, complex romance - Orwell doesn’t accomplish either with any high degree of success. The romance is rushed and unconvincing, not to mention predictable, leading to a near hysterical and melodramatic finale that sits awkwardly in comparison to the rest of the novel. The damning of colonialism doesn’t really rise above mocking the easy targets of racist old British men - Orwell shies away from looking too deeply into U Po Kyin and Dr Veraswami’s lives, the latter of which is a key character to the story and is criminally unserved and largely ignored. 

Burmese Days is a decent debut novel. Orwell spent a few years in Burma as a police officer and his experiences lend weight to the descriptions of the country - the reader can feel the stifling heat of the country and tense atmosphere between the natives and the British. And Burmese Days’ anti-establishment leanings and subversive, wry tone hint at the direction Orwell’s writing would take in later novels like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But while Burmese Days possesses Orwell’s effortless high quality writing and piercing eye for human behaviour, it’s at times unfocused and underdeveloped in its themes and direction, both aspects that Orwell would go on to become much better at in later books. 

Debut novels are rarely perfect, and Orwell’s certainly isn’t, but some of its critiques at third world exploitation by richer, western countries, remain valid today and as such, Burmese Days is still a relevant novel, thought certainly one of his lesser efforts, by one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.

Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)

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