Poor Flory. If only he'd had the good sense to be born into an E.M. Forster novel instead of one by George Orwell, he might have had half a chance.Burmese Days
, Orwell’s second book, draws on his own experiences as a police officer in imperial Burma in the 1920s. The novel describes the experiences of John Flory, an English timber merchant living in a Burmese outpost. Flory feels increasingly estranged from the other Europeans. His only real friend is a Burmese doctor, despite the disapproval of his fellow Englishmen. Flory finds their overt racism repulsive, though his rebellion against it is halfhearted.
Flory deals with his sense of alienation as many of his fellow Europeans do, comforting himself with a Burmese mistress and vast quantities of gin. When the lovely but vapid Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives on the scene, Flory thinks he has found a kindred spirit to rescue him from his isolation. He misreads her utterly, however, resulting in some truly cringe-inducing scenes of courtship. And just in case Flory weren’t inept enough in the love department already, he gets some help when the complicated plotting of a corrupt Burmese magistrate turns him into collateral damage.Burmese Days
is a scathing attack on racism and imperialism that seems in many ways ahead of its time. The novel was published in the United States before it was published in the U.K. because it was thought that it would be more palatable in a country without a direct connection to colonial India and Burma (and where the real-life models for the characters wouldn’t be recognized).
It often feels like much of Orwell’s work, both his novels and essays, served as a lifelong preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four
. This is true even in Burmese Days
, with a setting that little resembles Oceania. Still, the theme of isolation and repression of thought is strong:"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England, it is hard to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs' code . . . it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it."
Despite these serious themes, Burmese Days
is still an engaging story. Admittedly, most of the characters border on loathsome, painted with Orwell’s extremely dry wit. Hopefully some of them are exaggerated caricatures, but unfortunately many probably aren’t. Flory, though, despite his numerous failings, still has a certain poignant appeal. Though the odds are stacked greatly against him, it’s hard not to hope he can somehow prevail.