Orwell in Burma

by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 8, 2002 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

Review of Orwell, George. Burmese Days [Harvest Books, 1989]

* * * * *

The late New Yorker critic A. J. Liebling once poked fun at Graham Greene for having robbed The Quiet American's English protagonist of the most typical English traits. These included indifference bordering on contempt toward foreign languages and foreign people, and an inexplicable affinity for bland food. This was in the 1950's, when America had usurped Britain's place as king on the global mountain, so Greene fashioned his Englishman into a worldly and well-spoken American, in order to contrast him favorably with the naive and quiet American Pyle, ardently paving the road to Hanoi with good intentions.

But in 1934, when George Orwell published his first novel Burmese Days, the sun had not yet set on the British Empire, and America was still but an imperial parvenu. The means used to maintain the Empire, however, were coming under increased scrutiny, and, thanks in part to a stubborn and industrious ex-lawyer named Gandhi, the colonial 'lie' was losing cachet. If Kipling's "The Road to Mandalay" was the Empire's reveille, Burmese Days may have been its taps.

The colonial 'lie' was that colonization was an effort by the empire to uplift the colonized state, to make it into what Orwell sarcastically calls "a seat of Progress." This is "interpretable as a block of law-courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong." The colonial truth was that the empire provided the tools of "Progress" only to rob the colony of its wealth. Orwell wisely makes Flory, English protagonist of Burmese Days, skeptical of the lie -- he says that the Empire was merely "a device for giving trade monopolies to the English" - while Dr. Veraswamy, an Indian doctor, swallows the lie whole.

The English in Burmese Days are presented unfavorably - even Flory, who most closely resembles Orwell himself. They breakfast on gin. They are doggedly racist. Only the men mingle with the Burmese - Burmese women, that is, and only for sexual gratification. Of the local languages, they learn only commands, like the Hindustani phrases idher ao -- "come here" - and jaldi -- "quickly". An English soldier speaks Urdu consisting "mainly of swearwords."

Flory is different, but only just. He takes a lively interest in Burmese culture and risks his standing among his compatriots by befriending the "nigger" Veraswamy, whom the most incorrigible of the English bigots, Ellis, calls "Very-slimy." Flory keeps (having purchased) a Burmese "mistress" but he uses her only for dismally mechanical sex, and dumps her when she becomes a nuisance. He remarks caustically that booze is "the cement of Empire"; he breakfasts on gin.

The plot of Burmese Days in brief: a conniving Burman named U Po Kyin, made powerful through his manipulation of the corrupt colonial system, desires one last victory before settling down to a life of religious penitence through philanthropy: he seeks admittance to the European Club. But the Club in the wee town of Kyauktada, where the novel's action takes place, is reputed to be the only one in Burma yet closed to native membership. When the possibility arises of one native being admitted, U Po Kyin sets out to destroy his only competitor for the slot, Dr. Veraswamy, by circulating calumnies in a series of anonymous letters. As Veraswamy sinks, Flory sinks with him.

Flory is alienated from his jingoistic fellow Club-members, and when a niece of one of them appears in Kyauktada, Flory courts her for some respite from his bitter isolation. He deludes himself into believing that she is different - open-minded, egalitarian, highbrow - but she turns out to be just as narrow and bigoted and middlebrow as the other Anglo-Indians. He wins her, loses her, wins her...but in the end she cannot accept that Flory kept a Burman in his bed, a fact made woefully public through the machinations of the ruthless U Po Kyin.

So Orwell subverts not only the colonial lie, but also the myth of the "noble savage": he is not kind to the English, but he resists the temptation to glorify the Burmese. He is, so to speak, an equal opportunity misanthrope. (In the same vein, E.M. Forster of A Passage to India fame once wrote, "most Indians, like most English people, are shits.") Only two of Orwell's characters draw any admiration: Veraswamy, despite his enthusiastic Anglophilia; and the Englishman McGregor, who alone resists dissolute habits, even though to do so he moves perpetually in a kind of bubble of English air.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Burmese Days is that it remains nearly 70 years after its publication a fairly accurate account of Europeans in tropical lands. Which is to say, a life at its worst consisting of boozing, carousing, complaining idly about the locals, pining for home. The solicitation of prostitutes is commonly seen as "uplift" ("If I don't give them money, who will?") by people who, as Orwell writes of Ellis, "should never be allowed to set foot in the East." And the world is dotted with variations on the "Club" - oases of alcohol fitted with ornaments from the mother country.

Burmese Days also teaches a great deal about customs in Southeast Asia. When, in lieu of a proper kiss, Flory's Burmese mistress "smelled at his cheek with her flat nose, in the Burmese fashion", readers familiar with Thailand will note that this also in the Thai fashion - a mouth kiss being an act of deep intimacy. Orwell mentions the Palaung hill tribe, whose females "wear broad brass rings to stretch their necks, and they put more and more of them until in the end they have necks like giraffes." This practice continues, albeit partly for the sake of tourists with an unquenchable thirst for the "exotic." Orwell plainly was an Englishman willing to learn a little about foreign peoples and foreign languages (he spoke Hindi and Burmese). That is, to the extent he could at the same time be an Imperial Policeman, which he was from 1922 to 1927, as partially described in his much-anthologized essay "Shooting an Elephant."

The anti-totalitarian novels 1984 and Animal Farm are considered Orwell's masterpieces, possibly because they can be read as denunciations of the ever-popular foes Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. But Burmese Days one is not likely to encounter outside of Southeast Asia, where it is ubiquitous. It is not that 1984 and Animal Farm are far superior books. No, long before Orwell invented the sinister Big Brother, he described the sinister British Empire, whose ugly legacy of thuggery, thievery, and frivolous cartography yet can be discovered behind today's headlines, be they of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, etc. etc. Before Big Brother, there was Queen Victoria, Empress of India; and before Orwellian newspeak allowed us to assert that war is peace and slavery freedom, the British lifted the Burmese up by keeping them perpetually down. Best forget that bloody awful business, what?

* * * * *