Review of ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell

Orwell’s first novel is quite a tough read, not for the writing style but for the content. It’s based on his experiences as an imperial policeman in 1920s Burma and is a hard-hitting critique of British colonialism, with a cast of horrible characters whose worst traits are magnified in the sweltering small-town atmosphere.

The setting is Kyauktada, home to a handful of white Europeans who rule over the Burmans, Indians and Chinese. The trouble begins when Flory, a timber merchant, wants to elect his friend Dr Veraswami to the exclusive Club. At the same time, the corrupt and fiendishly clever magistrate, U Po Kyin, is plotting against the doctor to increase his own power, and if Flory isn’t careful he’ll get in the way. Different from the other ‘pukka sahibs’, Flory is very lonely and the arrival of a young woman at the post, Elizabeth, seems to offer him hope. His vices threaten to catch up with him and meanwhile, there are rumours of a rebellion.

For a debut, it’s an astonishing novel, particularly because of its viewpoint. Burma did not become independent until 1948, so at the time of publication I’m sure the book would have scandalised many supporters of the British Empire. I wouldn’t say that I liked the book, although I did enjoy the detailed descriptions of the climate, plants, the native way of life, etc. There’s an awful chapter about a shooting expedition. Flory, himself the closest character to Orwell, may not be as racist as his contemporaries but he’s a terrible coward, cruel and a hypocrite. Everyone is brutally human in this book, making it a disturbing read.

In summary, a powerful, atmospheric, very unpleasant book which in some ways prefigures Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1934. This edition by Penguin Modern Classics, 2009, with an interesting spoiler-free introduction by Emma Larkin and a note on the text by Peter Davison.

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