Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Burmese Days - George Orwell

Imagine a book that combines E.M. Forster's colonial musing, with something naturalistic and very humanist and you are getting warm in your search for George Orwell's intensely readable and adeptly plotted, 1934 novel, Burmese Days.

This particular cocktail is one part satirical, two parts socialist red, add to this some Indian vindaloo, and a bucket load of English gin; and you ready to drink to the health of one of the 20th centuries greatest writers.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who has a general interest in good old British imperialism, or to individuals who are looking for a fast paced, rip roaring journey through one of the least auspicious postings in the ailing British Empire.

What ever your motive for picking up this book it will have you tearing through the pages like a man chewing coco leaves.

In 1930, Kyauktada, Upper Burma, a woefully bigoted group of English people live working in the teak industry. They frequent the European club, which provides them with an outlet for heavy drinking and predictable slurs of racial superiority to the natives. Orders come from above that a native member has to be accepted in to the imagined corridors of civility; bringing out the worst in the woefully closed society.

For the majority, the thought of a native in their club was too much. How could they accept a 'nigger' considering the 'insolence of the natives’? Club member preferred to sit around drinking and talking about ‘the supineness of the Government and the dear dead days when the British Raj was the Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes.' The topic was never left alone for long.

The books main 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 fellow Englishmen. The birthmark is mentioned countless times through out, banishing Flory mentally as well as physically, to the periphery of British colonial life.

He is a lonely and depressed individual who takes solace in gin and literature; little else. Flory appreciates the local culture, has native allegiances, and detests the racist machinations of his fellow Club members; but he doesn't always possess the moral courage, or the energy, to stand in defiance of what he sees as wrong.

Flory's Anglophile friend, Dr. Veraswami, the highest-ranking native official, seems a odds on favourite 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 test of Flory's moral fiber, and a test of the strength of his character.

Against this backdrop of politics and ethics, Orwell throws in some romance for good measure. The arrival of a young bobbed blonde, the attractive but resolutely anti-intellectual Elizabeth Lackersteen; provides Flory with his opportunity to escape his boredom and dark thoughts. Their tense and painful relationship shows Orwell’s ability in presenting nuanced social interactions as well as political intrigues; making him a formidable writing force.
The no-frills prose makes for historical fiction that stands triumphantly outside of time, twisting and turning the reader’s attention with beautiful simplicity.

I for one am going to read the book again to study more closely the wonderfully smooth direction and composition of the prose. It seems at time to flow so effortlessly and have the consistency of velvet or silk on the eye. It is in short: truly wonderful.


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