Sunday, 12 June 2011

Burmese Days by George Orwell

From The Week of April 10, 2011

George Orwell is justifiably remembered for his penetrating insights into the insidious authoritarianism of communism and fascism. He is celebrated for his peerless understanding of human nature, particularly those who are willing to ruthlessly re-shape society to fit their view of the proper world. Where did his insights come from? Surely, as a member of the British upper-middleclass, he did not just stumble upon these opinions while at the football. No. In fact, Mr. Orwell had first-hand experience with the cruelty of empire when, in the early 1920s, he was stationed in British-controlled Burma as a member of the British Imperial Police. There, he watched an ancient culture ripped apart by Western arrogance and exploitation. Burmese Days is the powerful result.

In a 1920s Burma colonized by the British, John Flory is a gentleman of modest means living in an expatriate community whose social center is the European Club, a bar/restaurant/meeting place for Englishmen of repute. Having spent considerable time in this ancient, Asian country, he feels a kinship with its people and has an appreciation for their traditions. He is not so innocent as to not avail himself of the female charms of his native servants, but Flory's racial tolerance sets him apart from his friends at the club, most of whom loftily dismiss the Burmese as uncultured savages. Until the modestly attractive Elizabeth comes to their community, Flory contents himself with his friendship with an Indian doctor who, over the objections of Flory's countrymen, appears to be the beneficiary of a new British policy to encourage clubs to admit at least one native as a member. But once the eligible Elizabeth turns up, Flory loses interest in the doctor's campaign, falling head over heels for a girl who, while she reciprocates his interest, has not the slightest affection for the Burmese or their culture. As such, the passionate connection that develops between Flory and Elizabeth quickly sours and she switches her affections to a new, handsome military man in town who is surely a better catch than native-loving Flory.

Having distracted himself with awkwardly courting Elizabeth, Flory has given almost no heed to a plot in town to defame his friend, the doctor. Dr. Veraswami tries to communicate the seriousness of the social attack to Flory, but Flory is too late to see the danger. Soon enough, their town will be swamped in riotous sentiment that has the power to change the lives of Flory and everyone he knows.

Burmese Days is a deliciously caustic indictment of colonialism. The British citizens, in spite of their avowed superiority, are entirely ignorant of the scorn and the schemes directed their way by the native burmese. Flory's friends actually hold the Burmese in contempt, believing them to be uncouth, but it's the Burmese who outnumber the British dozens to one, the Burmese who are willing to plot patiently to victory, the Burmese who provide the necessary services for the British to survive. What's more, despite considering themselves to be civilized, The british depicted here are prejudiced and abusive. Only Flory has any empathy for the natives and he is ridiculed for it. The hypocrisy of a conquerer dehumanizing the conquered, only to dehumanize themselves in the dehumanizing, is rich and cleanly executed.

There can be little doubt that Orwell imagined himself as Flory, a man who meant well but was hapless to mend the situation, to take more than a symbolic stand. In this, there's more than a little self-recrimination here, but this is what makes Flory such a potent character. He allows his flaws and his doubts to rule him until he can't take it anymore. Something must give. He is wonderfully and painfully human.

This is lovely, incisive work. (4/5 Stars)

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