Burmese Days by George Orwell

Myanmar has only had 69 years of Independence. The past is closer than you think- and you can immerse yourself in it in Orwell’s first novel.

Imagine the existence of places centuries ago. We are all familiar with the concept of Victorian London, or the America as Columbus saw. But can we ever really believe in that place, petrified by the weight of history? Not simply in terms of overpaid actors, but understand the place that existed only a lengthy string of years ago?

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Yes- if you read Burmese Days. Since Orwell himself was stationed in Burma as a policeman there is an inescapable authenticity to the novel, and the blank way he causally refers to cultural customs illustrates that he wasn’t desperate to impress readers with his knowledge. (Unlike those authors who adopt the manner of *And here is a recipe for a rare national dish, inserted for no purpose whatsoever except to show you that I didn’t intend to spend countless hours trawling the internet for no credit.*) Due to his experiences (Orwell could even speak Hindi and Burmese) the novel felt genuine and gave me a clear idea of life at the time, and should be regarded as a valuable resource to anyone studying Burma in the early 20th century.

The plot itself could be considered mundane. There is a languid pace; it moves at the speed of someone overwhelmed by the summer heat. It’s mundane, almost. All that happens is that a British man abroad struggles (and fails,) not only to secure his Indian friend a membership to the European club, but the marriage of a girl. This is what the story is driven by, and after awhile it does become rather repetitive.

But then again the ending was shocking, and ends the sense of banality that had been previously lurking. It was so depressing (and tragically realistic,) that it made you ponder the entertainment value of reading it after all. (Why do I spend hours of my life, in happy solitude, staring at bits of paper?)

Thankfully this is interspersed with Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the scenery- he indulges much more in the literary side here than in his other works. For this reason, it would be useful for any fan of Orwell to read this first novel, so that not only can they enjoy the contrast to his later more refined tone, but see how from the start he was interested in discussing political and social ideologies. In fact, Burmese Days foreshadows the themes that would be seen so boldly in his books later on; the individual flailing against the tidal wave of an inhumane society.

A bold and unashamed novel, Burmese Days challenges British colonialism in Burma, offers a rich insight into the life of officers and has an unnerving finish despite the light hearted manner veiling the rest of the novel. If you are interested in political affairs (for Burma/ Myanmar, is rising globally currently), then this is an essential read. After all, if you seek to know something, you must first understand it’s history.

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