Thursday, December 22, 2005

Burmese Days and an Ode to George Orwell:

George Orwell (née Eric Blair) was born in India at the beginning of the 20th century. His family returned to England when he was young. When George was in his early 20’s, he spent five years in Burma, working as a military police officer. The novel Burmese Days is one of the fruits of this stay.

The novel tells the story of John Flory, a 35-year-old man who has been in Burma for 15 years. Like many expatriates, Flory finds himself at home neither in Burma nor in England to which he hasn’t returned. Through Flory’s life and those of seven fellow citizens, Orwell exposes the wretchedness of the colonial system, both for the colonizers and the colonized. The petty, awful prejudices the Englishmen hold, the ridiculousness of their sacrosanct Club, which serves gin before breakfast, the inhuman kowtowing the natives perform before the all powerful white man—the servants refer to their masters as holy god—and a myriad of other despicable details combine to make palpable the bleakness of this outpost of the British Empire.

Flory alone of the characters seems to understand the moral dilemma of the English: that they are in Burma to steal from the Burmese. He alone has a Burmese friend, an ingratiating doctor, who argues for the superiority of the Englishman. Flory is so lonely, in his intellectual and moral isolation, that he falls in love with a newcomer, Rebecca, who he imagines will sate his loneliness. But she is clearly wrong for him and more closely resembles in interests and beliefs the other members of the Club.

Burmese Days isn’t a happy book. Like the other works I’ve read of Orwell’s, it’s a highly moral and political book. Orwell gets away with this because he is such a good writer, and the morality that infuses his work I find admirable. He largely conveys his point of view through the details of his story, but is more didactic, in a good sense, then a writer like Graham Greene. Burmese Days reminds me a little of Greene’s The Comedians, which tells the story of an Englishman in Haiti. Both books describe oppressive places through the eyes of privileged participants.

Haiti, which has suffered so much under colonizers—the native Arawak Indians were exterminated and the slaves kidnapped from Africa were treated brutally—is a good place to read a book like the Burmese Days. Orwell is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. I am trying to space the reading of his work, to make it last as long as possible.

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