Burma was the land of mystery in my youth.  Daring men who fought in secret wars in dark green and sweltering jungles.  Japan I could imagine: as a twelve year old I had lived there.  Shanghai, Macao, Singapore all seemed graspable to my book fertilized imagination: ships I longed to crew on had made port calls there, great crimes and beautiful women played out on their exotic stages.  But Burma?  Jungles, mountains and downed fliers was about what I knew, fed by such WW II black and white hero action movies as The Purple Plain, Gregory Peck, or Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma,

With a late life trip planned to Burma to satisfy my childhood fascination and my late adult adulation of Aung San Suu Kyi,  I thought I’d read what I could about the mysterious green country. And Lo! The first thing that came into my hands, right off the Read-Next! shelf in my library was George Orwell’s Burmese Days, 1934!  A two-fer!

Actually, a three-fer.  Not only is it Orwell, worth reading whatever, whenever, and about Burma of the 1920s, it will remind you, or inform you if you never knew, exactly how bad British colonialism was. In retrospect it is a case study of how stunningly obvious it might have been that colonialist behavior was savage and virulent.

Orwell caught his understanding of it during a five year tour with the India Police Service, from 1922 to 1927, in Burma having cited ‘relatives’ there in his application. In fact his mother had been born in Burma, his grandmother died in Moulmein, Burma, one year before he arrived, his great-grandfather (maternal) had been quite a teak merchant and ship builder.  The setting of Burmese Days is in the hill town of Katha, renamed Kyauktada, after British publishers turned it down out of fear of a libel action. In fact, Orwell sketched a map of the town which can be followed today, as Emma Larkin did for her wonderful book, Finding George Orwell in Burma, 2003.  Burmese Days was was first published in the United States in 1934 and a year later in Great Britain after names had been changed and Katha altered enough to suit the publisher.

Even in a work of fiction there is something unmistakable about Orwell’s unadorned prose.  This, from the novel, could have come out of any of his ‘As I Please‘ columns at the Tribune a decade later.

“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 sahib’s code.”

or again, here

 “Mr McGregor has spent a very troubled evening in trying to make up his mind whether Dr. Veraswami was or was not guilty of disloyalty to the Government.  Of course it was not a question of any overt act of disloyalty– the point was, was the doctor the kind of man who would hold suspicious opinions?  In India you are not judged for for what you do, but for what you are.”

[Burma is often referred to as India in the book and by the British of the time, being an extension of British presence in India.]

Not only is the book thick with information about Burma in the 1920s and Orwell’s lefting political thought in the ’30s but it’s a damn good read, simply as a story told. The leading man, Flory, a timber merchant in Upper Burma, who has resigned himself to gin before breakfast and a Burmese mistress, is smitten when a young Englishwoman.  Elizabeth, appears at the Club, making an extended stay with her Aunt and lecherous Uncle.  Flory inadvertently displays himself as a heroic man by rescuing the naive Miss Lackersteen from a cud chewing water buffalo.  He seems to win her heart during a hunting expedition, and without ever discerning the inborn, and growing, colonialist racism in the young lady –which he himself, is mostly bereft of– commits his future happiness to marriage with her.  An earthquake interrupts his proposal of marriage.

A dashing young horse officer intervenes. Romance is kindled.   A riot by villagers in response to the blinding of one of their youth by a Club member gives Flory a second chance to be a hero.  The dashing officer dashes off leaving Elizabeth and her aunt to fall back on Plan B — Flory–  until, his former mistress, put up to it by a conniving Burmese wheeler and dealer, comes screaming into a church service, demanding Flory pay what he owes.  Possibilities shattered, Flory does what the hopeless do  — cuts short the years to to come.

True, it’s not Great Literature, but it moves along, keeping us wanting to know: what happens next?  Will Flory marry Elizabeth?  Will the Burmese rise up against the masters?  Will the tiger take a hunter?  Will the racist Ellis get his due? And the meta questions:  did the British really think that way?  Was their view of the native people so disgustingly racist?

Burmese Days, 1934, was Orwell’s second novel, following Down and Out in Paris and London, which reads more like a hard-bitten memoir than a novel.  Of all his fiction  it is the most filled with a time and a place, exotic to be sure, rich with description, adjectives, a woven together story of people in the setting of others, in a strange climate and strange social conditions, actions that pose questions that keep us reading.

Orwell’s Burma changed him.  He went in as a Police Officer and came out the young man who, throwing off everything, was down and out in Paris for several years. Like Orwell, his creator, Flory is somewhat his own person, estranged from the larger group of ex-pats, but still participating, necessarily, and to some degree willingly, in the Colonial enterprise.  We don’t know much about Orwell’s actual experiences in his five year posting, and what we do know is not always flattering — he says of himself in The Road to Wigan Pier, that he had hit servants and coolies with his fists– but however he participated in policing the Burmese, he came away with sharp observations.

“No European cares anything about proofs.  When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof.”

His characters club together against their fears:

“Really I think the laziness of these servants is getting too shocking, she sighed…We seem to have no authority over these natives nowadays, with all these dreadful Reforms and the insolence they learn from the newspapers. In some ways they are almost as bad as the lower classes at home.”

Or this, from the young horseman, an attitude which is alive and well in some quarters of the United States, today.

“Of course like all sons of rich families he though poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits.”

His notice of human behavior is acute:

“They were so angry that Flory had the greatest difficulty in pretending to be angry enough to satisfy them.”

or

“She bent her head towards him, and he smoothed the short, cool locks with his hand. The way she bent her head to him gave him a curious feeling of intimacy, far more intimate than the kiss…”

His notice of birds and vegetation is accurate and descriptive

“In the borders beside the path swathes of English flowers, phlox and larkspur, hollyhock and petunia, not yet slain by the sun, rioted in vast size and richness. The petunias were huge, like trees almost. There was no lawn, but instead a shurbbery of native trees and bushes — gold mohur trees like vast umbrellas of blood-red bloom, frangipanis with creamy, stalkless flowers, purple bouganvillea, scarlet hibiscus and the pink, Chinese rose, bilious green crotons, feathery fronds of tamarind.”

And the heat:

“The heat rolled from the earth like a breath of an oven. The flowers, oppressive to the eyes, blazed with not a petal stirring, in a debauch of sun. The glare sent a weariness through one’s bones. There was something horrible in it — horrible to think of that blue, blinding sky, stretching on and on over Burma and India, over Siam, Cambodia, China, cloudless and interminable.”

An occasional very impressive image:

“The ship rolled every westward over wastes of sea like rough-beaten silver.”

or

“…the full moon, flaring like a white-hot coin…”

and

“The light lay thick, as though palpable, on everything, crusting the earth and the rough bark of trees like some dazzling salt, and every leaf seemed to bear a freight of solid light, like snow…”

Although his portraits of the British are damning, he does not draw the Burmese or Indian with a more flattering pen. Of Dr. Veraswami, a friend of Flory’s, and reason for his ostracism at the club,

“Dr Veraswami had a passionate admiration for the English, which a thousand snubs from Englishman had not shaken. He would maintain with positive eagerness that he, as an Indian, belonged to an inferior and degenerate race.”

O Po Kyin, the subdivisional magistrate, and scoundrel on the native side of things, [he is over-matched on the British side] is physically, as well as morally, repugnant:

“Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol.. he was so fat that for years he had not risen from his seat without help… His brain, though cunning, was quite barbaric, and it never worked except for some definite end; mere meditation was beyond him.”

In fact, Orwell’s often remarked-on pessimism about the human race, shows itself in Burmese Days, fresh, and unadorned.

For any with a new, or rekindled interest in Burma, Burmese Days, along with Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin, and Letters from Burma, or many others by and about Aung San Suu Kyi, would be fine introductions to the country and people and the history they are still overcoming.

For two other, short pieces by Orwell, on Burma, try Shooting an Elephant [1936], and A Hanging[1931], both powerful. set in the Burma of Orwell’s early adulthood with themes far outreaching age and place. And too bad for all of us that the novel Orwell was contemplating upon his death in January, 1950, ‘A Smoking Room Story,’ was to return once again to Burma.