I’m on a bit of a George Orwell kick at the moment. Until a few months ago, my experience of Orwell’s writing was limited to the truly brilliant [b:1984|5470|1984|George Orwell|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348990566s/5470.jpg|153313]. I’m not sure why I’d not read anything else he wrote, particularly given that I’ve read 1984 multiple times. In any event, a walking tour in Paris which took in the street where Orwell (then just plain Eric Blair) lived and which is evoked in the first scene in [b:Down and Out in Paris and London|393199|Down and Out in Paris and London|George Orwell|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347697665s/393199.jpg|2374970] led me to read that particular work and now I can’t get enough of his writing.
First published in the United States in 1934 – Orwell’s British publisher Gollanncz having turned it down fearing libel suits - Burmese Days was inspired by Orwell’s time as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s, when Burma was a province of British India. The novel is set in the fictional town of Kyauktada, which is squarely based on Katha, a town located 150 miles north of Mandalay, where Orwell was posted in late 1926*. It's a fierce and articulate indictment of imperialism in general and of the mindset of the British Indian colonisers in particular - equal in passion to EM Forster’s [b:A Passage to India|45195|A Passage to India|E.M. Forster|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1170275049s/45195.jpg|4574850], if rather less so in subtlety.
Orwell’s main character is John Flory, a timber merchant. An outsider in the small British community in Kyauktada, the lonely Flory despises the attitudes and preoccupations of his fellow members of the local “whites only” club, but rarely has the courage to openly speak his mind. His only real friend is Dr Veraswami, the highest ranking “native” official in the town and an ardent supporter of the British Empire, whose downfall is being plotted by the corrupt U Po Kyin. Flory, whose unsightly birthmark symbolises all that isolates him from his fellow colonialists, is torn between loyalty to his friend and the desire to avoid conflict.
In my view, the main weakness of the work is in the omniscient third person narration. At times detached and ironic, it is at other times – particularly in the first part of the novel – indistinguishable from Flory’s (and presumably Orwell’s) voice. While this contributes to the lack of subtlety of the narrative, at least you’re not going to die wondering what the author really thought. And it’s a relatively minor defect in what is otherwise a powerful satire. Orwell’s prose is wonderful and his evocation of time and place is superb. In addition, his characters are memorable. The characterisation of Flory in particular – who is not particularly likeable – is very well-achieved. In his portrayal, there’s a sense of a man who is much better than his surroundings and his lack of personal moral courage allow him to be. Flory’s love interest, Elizabeth, is thoroughly unlikeable. However, even she is still portrayed with sympathy and the reason for her shallowness is understandable.
This is a novel which may particularly appeal to anyone who has had experience of living in a colonial society. As a child, I lived in a place which started out as a French penal colony and which is still effectively under French rule. I remember just how shocking it was to the local whites with whom my parents mixed that they made friends with and socialised with “natives”. This was in the mid-1960s. Things may have changed, but somehow I doubt that they’ve changed very much. The colonial mindset is very hard to shift.
I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by English actor Allan Corduner. He was particularly good with the male voices. However, his voices for the two young female characters left much to be desired. Although they are not sympathetic characters, this doesn’t justify making them sound approximately four times their age.
*According to this article, efforts are currently being made to preserve the house in which Orwell lived in Katha.