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Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Revisiting a favourite book can sometimes backfire. For instance, I used to rank Wodehouse’s Laughing Gas amongst my very favourites, until that is, I re-read it. Second time round I struggled to finish it and yet once I had thoroughly enjoyed Plum’s trans-atlantic romp, his variation of the prince and pauper theme. Times change. So too does taste it seems.

Such is not the case with Burmese Days, Orwell’s novel of intrigue, adventure and romance set amid the dying embers of the British Raj. If anything, this is a book that improves with every reading. Such is the depth of Orwell’s tapestry, it is highly likely the reader will notice all sorts of nuances which might have escaped him/her upon first exposure. Burmese Days really is that good.

The most enduring impression of this novel is surely Burma itself. Indeed, sense of place is almost overpowering, for Orwell is able to draw on five years’ service as a military police officer spent in various parts of Burma and which taught him to both love and loathe his adopted country. An exotic cocktail of spices, fauna and fragrances, the essence of Burma is so powerfully invoked it assails the senses, jumping out on almost every page.

You can almost see too, the red, purple and green of the birds’ plumes; elephants, tigers and gazelles abound. The artist’s palette is therefore stocked with the most vivid, vibrant colours - deep blue skies, pink and orange flowers – Burmese Days if nothing else is a technicolour orgy. With its jungle and spice markets, River Irrawaddy and blazing hot sunsets, Orwell serves up a sensory delight. I’m rather fond of this novel. Does it show?

Powerful too is the sense of decay. For Orwell’s portrait of colonialism is remarkable not only for its critical stance, but its recognition that the British Raj, even in the 1920s, was 50 years past the ‘glory days.’ This is a system ripe for dismantling, but one which still clings to a distant past. Orwell’s stinging assessment would have won him few friends, not least from his Eton contemporaries brought up on the certainties of empire and their assured role within it. But the times, they are-a-changing.

Burmese Days is a novel, above all else, about ennui. The sense of aimlessness pervades everywhere: from clubhouse to tennis courts. Life revolves around the card table, tennis court, the gramophone and whiskey. This death-in-life stasis is embodied in the novel’s characters who frequent the club, a wonderfully composed cast of colonial drunks, philanderers and shirkers who spend the long, arid days in various states of stupor. Orwell portrays a ghastly set of people who despite themselves provide some wonderfully comic moments so ingrained are their attitudes, so listless their lives.

The novel’s anti-hero John Flory aka Orwell is a man marooned in an environment from which salvation seems impossible until the arrival of Elizabeth, a girl in search of a husband. It is typical of Orwell to stamp Flory’s face with a ‘hideous’ blue birthmark. He is, after all, a man apart – one of those curious artefacts amongst the British who associates with the natives. The reader feels all the humiliation, hope and despair of Flory-Orwell, acutely so.

It is even more typical of Orwell that salvation within reach, it should be so cruelly snatched away from this desperately lonely man. With rebellion in the air the sand is shifting under the colonialist’s feet. The plot which ensnares Flory allows Orwell to portray a ghastly Burmese villain, the pot-bellied, smiling U Po Kyin who dreams, like the rest of the natives, of one day being invited to join the British club, the actual and symbolic centre of colonial power. U Po Kyin is a ghastly character, a wobbling mound of flesh whose immorality reaches quite comic proportions. Burmese Days is also a quite exquisite comedy of obsessive, degrading manners.

A tantalising aspect of the book lies in its autobiographical element. Did the young Orwell, fresh from Eton, also lurch into a life of drunken debauchery in this far flung corner of the Empire as per Flory? Did he meet such a girl as Elizabeth, a cold-hearted young woman who nevertheless offered the far off prospect of redemption? Did such a character as Mr Lackersteen exist – a lecherous, comical drunk and an uncle whose advances Elizabeth is forced to fight off?

And what about the surly young cavalry officer Verrall, rival for Elizabeth’s affections? Pure comedy is the way he snubs the British and their precious club; even funnier is the lengths Mrs Lackersteen goes to in order to match her niece up with this arrogant snob. What a cast of characters. And I’ve not even mentioned Ellis, surely the most bigoted character ever to emerge from the pages of English Literature. Crikey, what a life Orwell must have led out there . . .

It all builds to a thrilling conclusion. Having blown his chance with Elizabeth, Flory is presented with an unexpected chance to turn things around. Part of the joy of this book is observing the ups and downs of Flory and Elizabeth’s relationship as the hero manages to alienate and even horrify this unappealing woman with his enthusiasm for the natives and their customs.

Oh heck, there’s too much to say about this book. Everything is so beautifully realised – character, plot, structure, setting, comedy, satire. With its focus on yearning, isolation and the profound disappointment of the book’s main character, readers will readily identify with so many of the book’s themes: ‘I can imagine how that would feel.’ Indeed, the internal conflict of John Flory drives this book forward all the way to its shocking conclusion. But oh what a journey.

Orwell used to read his favourite book Gulliver’s Travels every few years; Me, I read Burmese Days every so often. If there is such a thing as the perfect novel where all parts coalesce into a work of art, then trust me it’s this book. Unique, enthralling, funny and tragic, this might just be the greatest work of fiction in the English language, better even than 1984.