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Burmese Days: A Novel Paperback – March 20, 1974
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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
''A well integrated, fast-moving story of what life was like in a remote backcountry Asiatic station.'' --Chicago Tribune
''An absorbing story . . . The character of Lieutenant Verrall (who despised the club members from his own superior heaven of army and blue blood) is a masterpiece of acid delineation.'' --New York Herald Tribune
''Orwell is a master at telling stories with bitter, satiric tone, and these adapt well to audio. Frederick Davidson reads with competence and just the right amount of affectation. '' --Library Journal
''Can take an honorable place beside A Passage to India.'' --Saturday Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
Burma, is his best.
Yes, 1984 is startling and ANIMAL FARM is a prescient yarn, but neither of them has the appeal of characters, plot, and sense of place that you in BURMESE, fledgling effort notwithstanding.
ASPIDISTRA and AIR are neither very striking, especially the latter, but both are superior to A CLERGYMAN'S DAUGHTER, clearly Orwell's worst novel.
Orwell found his true voice when he wrote HOMAGE TO CATALONIA. Unless you want to read every word he wrote, concentrate on his non-fiction and read the novels sparingly.
Flory, the novels protagonist, is a man who has lived in Burma far too long. He suffers from feelings of isolation, loneliness sand despair.
None of this is directly stated. It is revealed subtly through his courtship of a woman who is much younger than he. Allegorically, she seems to represent all that is late Victorian culture. His inability to court her shows the dichotomy between the nature of real life at the far reaches of the empire and the superficial existence of those back in England.
Orwells sense of dramatic irony that holds a prominent place in his other works can be found here too. It's subtle, but offers a considerable amount of suspense for the close reader.
The times, in the case of Burmese Days, are the late-1920's, near the end of the British Raj in Upper Burma, then a backwater of the Empire inhabited by teak exploiters, Christian missionaries, and other expats imposing themselves uneasily -- economically, militarily, sexually -- on the local underclass. When they are not working, the Brits in Burmese Days, like their contemporaries in East Africa, pass their days drinking, gossiping, whoring, shooting, and encapsulating themselves in a club for foreigners. Into this mix comes Elizabeth Lackersteen, a fresh-faced young English girl of 20, recently orphaned, whose only real chance in life is to find a husband. Now. Pursuing her are James Flory, a lumber mill manager more than twice her age who has spent 15 desolate years in the provinces; a certain Verrall, a smooth dancing officer in the Military Police, in town on special assignment, who despises people but loves polo ponies; and Elizabeth's own libidinous drunk uncle, each for his respective end. Meanwhile a good-hearted Indian physician is opposed by a conniving Burmese politician and judge for the sole ceremonial local membership in the club for foreigners.
These two slender plots cross against a backdrop of lush descriptions of Burmese society, customs, architecture, and the greater outdoors. The plots lead eventually to an ending and forward-flashing epigraph, the thrust of which is that people get what they deserve. There is not much new there. It is the backdrop -- the travel writing, if you will -- that sticks with the reader. Orwell writes with a naturalist's disposition.
Here he is describing a hunt: "They set out. The side of the village away from the creek was protected by a hedge of cactus six feet high and twelve thick. One went up a narrow lane of cactus, then along a rutted, dusty bullock-cart track, with bamboos as tall as flagstaffs growing densely on either side. The beaters marched rapidly ahead in single file, each with his broad dah laid along his forearm. The old hunter was marching just in front of Elizabeth. His longyi was hitched up like a loincloth, and his meagre thighs were tattooed with dark blue patterns, so intricate that he might have been wearing drawers of blue lace. A bamboo the thickness of a man's wrist had fallen and hung across the path. The leading beater severed it with an upward flick of his dah; the prisoned water gushed out of it with a diamond-flash. After half a mile they reached the open fields, and everyone was sweating, for they had walked fast and the sun was savage."
In 2002 a Time writer went back to Upper Burma to look for the remains of Orwell's world and found it. That is an interesting enough travelogue in itself. But read the original first. It is a good read.