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Burmese Days: A Novel Paperback – March 20, 1974

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Imagine crossing E.M. Forster with Jane Austen. Stir in a bit of socialist doctrine, a sprig of satire, strong Indian curry, and a couple quarts of good English gin and you get something close to the flavor of George Orwell's intensely readable and deftly plotted Burmese Days. In 1930, Kyauktada, Upper Burma, is one of the least auspicious postings in the ailing British Empire--and then the order comes that the European Club, previously for whites only, must elect one token native member. This edict brings out the worst in this woefully enclosed society, not to mention among the natives who would become the One. Orwell mines his own Anglo-Indian background to evoke both the suffocating heat and the stifling pettiness that are the central facts of colonial life: "Mr. MacGregor told his anecdote about Prome, which could be produced in almost any context. And then the conversation veered back to the old, never-palling subject--the insolence of the natives, the supineness of the Government, the dear dead days when the British Raj was the Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes. The topic was never let alone for long, partly because of Ellis's obsession. Besides, you could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the temper of a saint."

Protagonist James Flory is a timber merchant, whose facial birthmark serves as an outward expression of the ironic and left-leaning habits of mind that make him inwardly different from his coevals. Flory appreciates the local culture, has native allegiances, and detests the racist machinations of his fellow Club members. Alas, he doesn't always possess the moral courage, or the energy, to stand against them. His almost embarrassingly Anglophile friend, Dr. Veraswami, the highest-ranking native official, seems a shoo-in for Club membership, until Machiavellian magistrate U Po Kyin launches a campaign to discredit him that results, ultimately, in the loss not just of reputations but of lives. Whether to endorse Veraswami or to betray him becomes a kind of litmus test of Flory's character.

Against this backdrop of politics and ethics, Orwell throws the shadow of romance. The arrival of the bobbed blonde, marriageable, and resolutely anti-intellectual Elizabeth Lackersteen not only casts Flory as hapless suitor but gives Orwell the chance to show that he's as astute a reporter of nuanced social interactions as he is of political intrigues. In fact, his combination of an astringently populist sensibility, dead-on observations of human behavior, formidable conjuring skills, and no-frills prose make for historical fiction that stands triumphantly outside of time. --Joyce Thompson

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U Po Kyin's campaign against Dr. Veraswami turns out to be intended simply to further his aim of becoming a member of the European Club in Kyauktada. The club has been put under pressure to elect a native member and Dr. Veraswami is the most likely candidate. U Po Kyin arranges the escape of a prisoner and plans a rebellion for which he intends that Dr. Veraswami should get the blame. The rebellion begins and is quickly put down, but a native rebel is killed by acting Divisional Forest Officer, Maxwell. A few days later, the body of Maxwell is brought back to the town. This creates a tension between the Burmese and the Europeans, exacerbated by a vicious attack on native children by the spiteful Ellis. A large riot begins and Flory becomes the hero for bringing it under control with some support by Dr. Veraswami. U Po Kyin tries to claim credit but is disbelieved and Dr. Veraswami's prestige is restored.
Verrall leaves Kyauktada without even saying goodbye to Elizabeth and she falls for Flory again. Flory is happy and plans to marry Elizabeth. However, U Po Kyin has not given up; he hires Flory's former Burmese mistress to create a scene in front of Elizabeth during the sermon at Sunday church. Flory is disgraced and Elizabeth refuses to have anything more to do with him. Overcome by the loss and seeing no future for himself, Flory commits suicide.

Dr. Veraswami is demoted and sent to a different district and U Po Kyin is elected to the Club. U Po Kyin's plans have succeeded and he plans to redeem his life and cleanse his sins by financing pagodas. He dies of apoplexy before he can even start on building and his servant envisages him returning to life as a frog. Elizabeth eventually marries Macgregor, the Deputy Commissioner. --Wikipedia --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Mass Paperback Edition edition (March 20, 1974)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156148501
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156148504
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (226 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

GEORGE ORWELL (1903-1950) was born in India and served with the Imperial Police in Burma before joining the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was the author of six novels as well as numerous essays and nonfiction works.

Customer Reviews

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48 of 48 people found the following review helpful By John Pierce on November 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have to admit to being a huge Orwell fan and having lived in Burma for several years (and having visited the location of the story in "Burmese Days" (Katha), I believe this book presents one of the most accurate representations of the Burmese character and of the relationship (that was) between the Burmese (as opposed to the Karen, the Chin and other minorities). Anyone who desires to understand Burma, its people and its government (Aung San, Ne Win to the present SPDC) should read this book. It is a masterful work that remains important for several reasons.
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96 of 104 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on June 30, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
With his very first novel, Orwell earned an honorable position on the crowded shelves of Raj Lit. It was a kind of self-liberation, so he could drop the subject henceforth.
He had spent 5 years in Burma as a police officer. Why had he done that? His family was of the shabby genteel class, and his father's pension from the imperial service in India was barely enough to carry him through school. So he skipped university and did what the people in his novel do: sign up for the colonies in the hope of reasonable wealth and career.
When he quit after 5 years, he had some explaining to do. He did it with this novel.
Most first novels are autobiographic to some extent, but Orwell did something different: he figured out what he himself would have become had he stayed. His 'hero' Flory is an alter ego under the hypothical assumption of having stayed for 15 years instead of quitting after 5.
Flory has a different job, but that doesn't matter much. He is a deeply lonely and frustrated man without prospects. He is disgusted with himself and with his social crowd, the sahiblog, who enforce conformism in the most primitive way. They are generally a disgusting group of people.
Flory meets a young woman who seems the answer to his loneliness problem. For her, he might be the solution to her problem, which is the expectation of spinsterhood in poverty. They misunderstand each other thouroughly and make a huge mess of it.
The personal tragedy of Flory is framed by stories of imperial intrigues, by local officials playing Machiavelli and by the sahibs sinking into delirium tremens.
I read it first when I was working and living in other parts of the by then former Raj. I think everything would have been different if the poorpeople, the sahiblog, had had airconditioning. They might have been able to use their brains more.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Douglas S. Wood on August 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
'Burmese Days', George Orwell's first novel, was based on his five years' experience as a member of the British Indian Imperial military police in Burma, which was part of British India at the time (1922-27) and remained so until 1937. Orwell was born in Bengal British India where his father worked for the Opium Department of the Civil Service.

Orwell sets his rather sordid tale in a remote station of Kyauktada in Upper Burma.

Through Orwell's considerable literary skills the reader feels the heat and rains: "...from February through May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one's clothes, one's bed, nor even one's food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy vaporous heat. The jungle paths turned to morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale mousy smell...Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain."

Fictional Kyauktada station consists of eight whites in the midst of thousands of Burmese. Eight whites holding on to their cribbed vision of civilization with a social life centered around a cheap whites-only club and the once-every-six-weeks visit of the Anglican priest. Although he changed the names, Orwell's characters were based on real people he encountered. The corrosive affect of colonial rule takes a toll on everyone involved, British and Burmese alike. The Anglo Indians generally display racist attitudes that ranged from an accepted sense of one's own 'natural' superiority to raging hate. The Burmese are nearly as repugnant as they scrape and bow to curry favor with grater and lesser degrees of sincerity.
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on December 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
I came to this through Emma Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma". She cites it as part of a perpetually banned in Burma Orwell trilogy (along with "Animal Farm" and "1984") that Burmese with the courage to squirel away copies, think, and discuss, cherish. They see these three books as the history of their country.

It's a remarkable first novel. It still holds up and probably will for more generations because it has so much meaning.

Last year I read Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" about the pressure on a young British police officer to be what both the Empire and its subjects demand. In "Burmese Days" he casts a wider net on how colonialism harms and can ultimately destroy, not only those colonized, but also those enlisted to carry out the goals of the empire.

This novel is set the remotest of outposts, so undesireable that it attracts the most undesireable cast of expats. There is no fully redeeming named character here, neither British nor Burmese.

The story centers on Flory who has humane qualities (such as respect for the Burmese as a people which is highly ununual among the expats), but his lack of confidence and his alcohol problem prevent his action most times. In his loneliness he falls in love with someone with whom he will never be able to converse... and he is desperate for a friend. The story is not about his romance, which provides heavy emotional drama, but about the situation in which a culture with superior furniture, (the Burmese are awed by imported chairs), clothes, medicine, weapons, etc. imposes itself on a poor population without any means to hold itself together in the face of an outside force with seemingly unlimited resourses.
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