All this talk about Southeast Asia got me thinking about literature written during the British Raj. So last week I read Burmese Days (Harcourt, 1934) by George Orwell.
In college I used the reading period before finals not to review my class notes, but to read novels. And they usually had nothing to do with the courses I was taking. (I figured if I didn’t know the material already, three days of cramming probably wouldn’t get me very far.) I devoured Paul Scott, Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene. One writer I didn’t pick up then was George Orwell.
Sure, I’d read Orwell in junior high and high school: Animal Farm and 1984. It was the early to mid-80s, the end of the Cold War. I wished Burmese Days had been in the curriculum instead.
When I picked up the book, I thought it might be about rich British folks drinking at the Strand in Rangoon, and playing polo and tennis all afternoon. Instead, the story centers around a shabby, whites-only club, one modeled after the photo above (right), in a remote Burmese hill station in the mid-1920s.
Orwell weaves murder, deception, blackmail, corruption, and love into a satirical look at the dying British Empire. Some reviews have suggested that Flory, the protagonist, was how Orwell pictured himself had he stayed in Burma beyond the five years he spent there as a policeman. Flory, like Orwell, also had a poor self-image and never thought himself attractive to women (although Orwell did marry twice).
It’s always a guilty pleasure of mine to read about punkah wallahs, burra sahibs, and memsahibs. In Burmese Days, Orwell shows how these concepts were outdated even back in 1926. And while I wish I had read Burmese Days sooner, it’s always nice to discover a hidden gem.