British Empire Books

Burmese Days

EditorGeorge Orwell
First PublisherHarper Brothers
First Published1934
ISBN No.0521432111

"Elizabeth, listen to me. I've tried again and again to tell you what you mean to me - oh, it's so useless talking about it! But do try and understand. Haven't I told you something of the life we live here? the sort of horrible death-in-life! The decay, the loneliness, the self-pity? Try and realise what it means, and that you're the sole person on earth who could save me from it."

This is a remarkable, yet bleak, account of imperial life in a small town in Burma. George Orwell actually was indeed a policeman in Burma in the Inter-war period. So, his indictments and savage caricatures are all the more poignant and believable.

The story revolves around the European Club and its members' attitudes towards Burmese members. At first, they are deeply hostile to the idea. Indeed, ultimately they are forced to admit the one Burmese member. However, the two Burmese who are put forward are very different from each other. One is the loyal doctor who can say nothing bad about the Europeans. The other is the wily and corrupt court official who has risen rapidly due to his cunning ways. Running concurrently but intricately interwoven with this plotline is the story of the terribly, self-conscious companyman who is trying desperately to fill his empty life with the love of an English woman. Even though that English woman is interested in little more than status and security. Social climbing is found to be particularly fraught with dangers in such a small, enclosed society.

There are interesting forays into the worlds of the Europeans and Burmans. Live-in prostitutes, rebellion and hunting are but some of these interesting side-alleys that cast such an interesting light on the British imperial experience in Burma. However, it is the characters that George Orwell creates that makes this book so captivating. They run the gamut from rogues to saints, but with the vast majority showing all too human signs of weaknesses. In fact, the rogues rarely pull their punches in talking about their contempory attitudes to race and culture. It is this aspect of the book that serves as a welcome counter-balance to the volumes of books that are written as pleasant reminiscences which are full of endless blue skies, cross-cultural appreciation and all round niceness. Orwell's book, despite its fictional setting, is almost certainly the more accurate in its depiction of imperial characters. Indeed, the entire book lets you see how imperial hopes and dreams are constantly dashed by petty and brutal reality. Those who are greedy and selfish ultimately win out over any one who is honest and idealistic. Yet, the journey through this decaying empire is fascinating to watch. You keep hoping that right will win out, but it keeps on being strangled by those who employ their cunning and sinister plans. This book is really a very clever anti-imperial diatribe hiding behind a very thin veneer of hope. It probably confused liberals and conservatives alike when it was written in the 1930s by having the villain be a 'native' and the hero a 'white man' and yet, all along, it was the entire institution of 'Empire' that was the real target.

This is probably one of the best anti-imperial works of art you could read. You can see why the literary world sat up and took notice of this up-and-coming writer.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe