Thursday, December 10, 2009

Literary Bite: Burmese Days

Continuing on with my Burma theme, I am now reading Burmese Days by George Orwell. He is the author of Animal Farm, which I hated, and 1984, which I never read (because I assumed I would hate it). The good news is that Burmese Days is not allegorical like Animal Farm. The bad news is, well, it’s not that awesome of a story either. (Nowhere near as bad as The Fountainhead though! I’m just saying that you could definitely do better.)
It’s interesting to read because it paints a portrait of the British Raj in India, in the good old glory of the British Empire, gin before breakfast, some tennis at the club, whot whot my lad, jolly good I say my fine chap days. I say that this is interesting because so many of the books I’ve read and things I’ve studied have focused on the end of colonialism and the aftereffects of the British Empire, but I don’t know much about British rule itself.

I’m not done yet, but so far it is the story of the social betrayals of the very small British community in Burma, their extreme racism, and the budding romance of one British officer and the niece of another. (Wikipedia actually has a very good plot summary.)
Orwell himself was a British Officer in Burma for five years, from 1922-1927, so in many ways, the story rings true. I appreciate that truth, but also find it kind of disturbing – because that means the whole gin before breakfast, beat/rape the natives for fun, brutal jungle hunts things are probably not made up for fiction…

The book is really a critique of British rule:
"How can you make out that we are in this country
for any purpose except to steal? It’s so simple.
The official holds the Burman down
while the businessman goes through his pockets...
The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies
to the English..."
"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live.
It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored....
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."
I’m not going to recommend that you read this book. Yet. My main reason for reading it is because the next book on my Burma assignment (thank you LLC), is Finding George Orwell in Burma – so I thought it would be prudent to have actually read George Orwell before starting on that one. I will let you know how it goes…

No need to buy it, you can read the whole book online here!
And here's a book review