You know the feeling of pleasurable surprise and relief you get when you’re walking through a place you haven’t been in before, populated with people you don’t know, and ahead you suddenly spy a familiar face? I had that feeling a while ago while I was walking along a street in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar. Under the awning of a bookshop I spotted a kindly-looking face, liberally etched with lines and sporting an avuncular moustache, which could have belonged to some British character actor who specialised in playing crusty civil servants and harassed bureaucrats in post-war Ealing comedy films.
Yes, the face was that of the great English author, essayist and journalist George Orwell. It was pictured on a poster advertising a new edition of his 1934 novel Burmese Days, which was set in Myanmar while it was still part of the British Empire, ruled from Delhi and known as Burma. The edition advertised was a Burmese translation done by Maung Myint Kywe in 2013.
By coincidence, I’d read Burmese Days for the first time only months earlier. As the Scottish political commentator and columnist Gerry Hassan has noted, Orwell “challenged three big issues of his day, Stalinism, Nazism and… Empire.” Burmese Days, which draws on Orwell’s experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s, sees him grapple with the third of those topics, the British Empire.
Incidentally, it’s still a topic capable of causing controversy. Take, for example, the publicity given to a recent YouGov poll that suggested 44% of Britons believed their country’s record of imperialism was something to be proud of. This is despite the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, which killed at least a million people and was brought about in part by the British colonial administrators’ belief in laissez-faire economics. Despite the British Empire’s invention, during the Boer War, of concentration camps – in which 26,000 Boer women and children lost their lives. Despite the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, which may have caused as many as 1000 fatalities. And despite the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya during the 1950s that led to 12,000 official deaths but possibly another 8,000 or more unofficial ones. Oh, and let’s not forget Britain’s messy exit from the Asian sub-continent, which sparked the largest mass-migration in human history, the Partition of India, and which killed something between 200,000 and two million people.
Obviously, when I started to read Burmese Days, I didn’t expect Orwell to be singing the praises of British imperialism. No, I expected him to slaughter it. So how did the book measure up to my expectations?
What surprised me was that I didn’t think it was that stridently anti-Empire. At least, Burmese Days doesn’t seem so much to condemn the greed, ruthlessness and hypocrisy behind the imperial system. Rather, it focuses on the effects – most of them bad, admittedly – on the individuals working day to day at the business-end of it. The British characters, living in a district called Kyauktada, are an exhausted, corrupted and brutalised lot. Flory, the novel’s hero in theory if not in deed, is weak, indecisive and, ultimately, tragically stupid – but more on him in a minute. Then there are characters such as Ellis, an out-and-out racist bastard; Lackersteen, a drunken lecher who, when his wife’s back is turned, will happily chase a bit of tail, whether it’s the local Burmese women or his own niece; and Lieutenant Verrall, whose youthful and dashing veneer only briefly disguises the fact that he’s an arrogant, stuck-up and untrustworthy arsehole of the highest, or lowest, order.
The British memsahibs are no better. Mrs Lackersteen is a scandalmongering and scheming shrew who’s managed to spend decades in Burma without ever learning a word of the local language. Meanwhile, her niece Elizabeth, who arrives part-way through the novel and becomes, for a while at least, an item with Flory, initially gives the impression of sophistication but soon proves to be vacuous and fickle. Flory loses his appeal for her in part because he tries to acquaint her with the indigenous culture, which he finds fascinating but she thinks is primitive and disgusting. A little later, she’s relieved to fall into Verrall’s arms instead – though Verrall, needless to say, drops her the moment he decides it’s time to sling his hook.
Yet Burmese Days isn’t just about British colonial types being horrid. The natives are pretty awful too. Local Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin is vile morally and physically. Not only is he wickedly corrupt but he’s grossly obese and Orwell’s descriptions make him sound like a cross between Fu Manchu and Jabba the Hut. Aware of his own evilness, U Po Kyin hopes to neutralise his bad karma (and avoid being reincarnated as a frog or a rat) by spending his later years building Buddhist pagodas. Elsewhere, Ma Hla May, who at the start of the book is Flory’s mistress, is a vain and profligate creature who elicits no sympathy even though, on paper, she’s a victim of a white man’s wantonness. She’s such a diva that we can understand why Flory has no qualms about ejecting her from his household when Elizabeth appears on the scene.
If the British Empire is to be despised, Orwell suggests here, it’s not so much because of its oppression of countries. It’s because it brings out the worst and promotes the least savoury of what’s already in those countries.
(c) Penguin Books
It’s hard finding someone in Burmese Days whom you feel much sympathy for. Flory is understanding towards and knowledgeable about the Burmese and has no illusions regarding the system he’s working for, but his wishy-washiness in front of his racist countrymen and his failure to see Elizabeth for what she is become annoying. Meanwhile, his best friend in Kyauktada is an Indian doctor called Veraswami, who is clearly intelligent and decent but prey to a foolish idealism. For Dr Veraswami is the only person in the novel who passionately believes that – surprise! – the British Empire is a force for the good, bringing civilisation to corners of the globe where it didn’t exist before. This prompts some ironic discussions where Flory, one of the oppressors, argues against the Empire while Veraswami, one of the oppressed, argues for it.
Burmese Days’ main storyline concerns a scheme by U Po Kyin to destroy Veraswami. The doctor, well aware of what U Po Kyin is up to, is desperate to join Kyauktada’s European Club, which he believes will give him sufficient status to protect him against the fat magistrate’s plots. He pins his hopes on Flory nominating him for the club’s membership — though to do this, Flory will have to show courage and square up to the club’s more bigoted members, like Ellis and the Lackersteens, who’ll object to having an Indian in their social ranks. Thus, we spend the book waiting for the feckless Flory to bottle it and abandon his friend Veraswami by failing to nominate him.
But in the end, this doesn’t happen. What happens is that U Po Kyin eliminates Flory before he can (or can’t) get Veraswami into the club. Just as Flory and Elizabeth rekindle their romance, the magistrate encourages the spurned Ma Hla May to create a very public scene that leaves Flory humiliated. Revolted, Elizabeth dumps Flory again and he kills himself – though in depriving him of the shallow and insipid Elizabeth, you can’t help feeling that U Po Kyin and Ma Hla May have done him a favour.
It’s all good dramatic stuff, but I was left with the impression that the novel pulls its punches a little. Because Flory isn’t given a chance to betray Veraswami, Burmese Days is never quite the damning indictment of the British colonial mind-set – which compels even a well-meaning character like Flory to do something utterly shameful – it should be.
By the way, I’ve made Burmese Days sound like a litany of grimness and despair, but in fact I thought it was an entertaining read. A lot goes on in its pages, and not just the twists and turns of the intrigue between U Po Kyin and Veraswami and of Flory’s doomed romance with Elizabeth. There are also episodes involving an attack by a buffalo, a hunting expedition, an earthquake, an assassination with dahs (Burmese swords), a rebellion and a riot. And the narrative is nicely embroidered with Orwell’s descriptions of the landscapes and indigenous culture. However, the fact that Burmese Days is so busy with incident and detail is another reason why I have difficulty in viewing it as primarily a work of anti-imperialist polemic.
On the other hand… Last week, I finished reading Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass is Singing. Now if you want a crushing condemnation of European colonialism, you should read that. It truly is depressing.