In looking for 1984 for my wife, I found “Burmese Days” the first novel by George Orwell. It is based on his time as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma, now Myanmar from 1920-1927. The British ruled Burma from 1885 – 1947 from their base in India. The book was published in 1934.
Orwell took a lot of heat from the old “Burma Hands” because it portrayed them a petty bigots and it hit a bit too close to home. He said it was fiction, but based on his reporting from seven years in the country. I love books about expatriate communities and glad I found it.
The setting of the novel is a remote “station” in northern Burma. A small community of British expats are working in the timber industry and are often out for weeks at a time in the forests. The social life is centered around the European Club in the center of the village. It reminded me much of my time in eastern Venezuela, working for a school serving the petroleum industry. The main character is Flory, who is a bachelor in his 30s and after 11 years in the country, has learned the language and appreciates Burmese culture, unlike most of the expats there, who are there to make money and keep their British culture and traditions and whose social life revolves around the club. I see this in my various posts throughout my career as an expat, some people get into the local culture while others prefer to keep their own. I am finding it harder to integrate in this age of the internet when you media is from all over the world. It is much different from my first posting in Colombia before the internet when one was truly cut off from America.
Flory is quite critical of the society and is kind of an outsider. When he falls in love with the visiting English niece of one of his colleagues, he is torn apart when she prefers the British culture of European Club and does not appreciate Burma the way he does.
I thought the best quote capturing the spirit of the novel, when describing Flory as he approached middle age.
“For as his brain developed – you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life – he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.”
I learned a new vocabulary word, pince-nez which are those Teddy Roosevelt glasses without ear pieces, but a nose clip.
I highly recommend the book for people interested in the history of the British empire, Myanmar and the life of expatriates.
One thought on “Book Review: Burmese Days – George Orwell”
I had never heard of this book but it sounds interesting. I’ve read 1984 & Animal Farm & Orwell was ahead of his time & sadly wasn’t completely wrong. I will look for this book.