As the old cliché goes, better late than never I guess. I apologise to, I estimate, all three of you who were eagerly awaiting the Burmese Days review on Monday and found nothing but the blankness of my writing failures. That and my review of Colorless Tsukuru. I had been busy as of late and, while I could have avoided such tardiness by planning ahead and writing my review in advance, I was a bit too lethargic on that score and am now in the situation of having to write at least three reviews very quickly.
So to make up for this I shall be putting anew timeline out for my reviews which, I hope I will stick too. So here’s a revised timeline for my next three reviews which I hope will be satisfactory to you, my beloved audience, and my own tired finger bones.
The Strange Cade of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – Monday 23rd
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang – Wednesday 25th
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson – Friday 27th
Hopefully this tight schedule will be completed and will leave me time to wallow in self-pity as I do only a four reviews for upcoming Movie March, such is my waning devotion to the themed-ness of this year. But enough of this, it’s time to sally forth to the obligatory overview for George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days.
U Po Kyin, a corrupt, affluent and a man ‘so fat he had not risen out of his chair without help’ , seeks to enter the prestigious European Club which is being pressured into taking a native member, much to the chagrin of several of the members. However he is blocked by Dr. Veraswami as, not only a man who adores the Empire, he is also friends with the white teak trader, John Flory. However, U Po Kyin has plans to make this change.
Unaware, Flory has become disillusioned with his life in Burma, seeing the British Empire’s presence there not ‘to uplift our poor black brother’ but rather ‘to rob them’, something which he admits in participating due to his involvement in the teak industry. Friendless, scarred, cowardly, yet tied to Burma in such a way he can never be to England, Flory meets Elizabeth Lackersteen and is smitten. Seeing her through romantic eyes, Flory deems Elizabeth to be the answer, a non-racist white lady whom he can be with, rather than the reality of what is before her.
Thus these two tales intertwine, the vigorous campaign against Veraswami and Flory’s crusade for an illusionary gem, this is a story that will make you look at Empire and shudder to think that we have such high opinions of it.
So now I must address the people outside my window, which is surprising considering I’m writing this particular bit on the second floor of my house, holding banners, wearing derogatory and cheap looking t-shirts as well as babbling almost incomprehensibly about why I’m not reviewing Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm. You know, the ones that people have heard of and maybe three of them have read.
But the problem is you already know they are masterpieces of literary dystopia and have become embedded in our social conscious, even inspiring everyday phrases like ‘Big Brother’ or ‘All animals are Equal, but some are more equal than others’. In contrast Burmese Days is a relatively unknown work which still has great value as social commentary on attitudes towards colonisers and the colonised. So there, I’ve given my reasons, not push off before I come out there and correct your monstrously misspelled placards.
So one thing Orwell makes abundantly clear in this novel is that racism is a topic that pervades British society almost with impunity. In a time where racism is, while not eradicated as it will unfortunately never be, is seen a repulsive notion, to have it splayed on nearly every page is quite a shock to the system. Ellis, a local company manager, is a most notable example of this as, while he frequently takes drinks from his Burmese butler, he angrily decries;
‘No natives in my Club! It’s by constantly giving way over small things like that we’ve ruined the Empire… The only possible policy of to treat them like the dirt they are…. We’ve got to hang together and say, “We are the masters, you are the beggars -… you beggars keep your place!”’
I hope a few, if not all of you, squirmed a bit after reading that quote. It’s vile and bigoted, yet that was the worldview of many imperialists. While there is an argument that empire can be a “civilising force”, what with improved infrastructure, education, etc., empire stimulates oppression, racism, extracting natural resources for their own profit (something which Florey is part of) as well as a whole assortment of other pros and cons which have filled many history books and the coffins of many wars.
But even when Orwell shows Florey, the seditious, almost friendless man who sees the British presence for what it really is, cannot escape from the racism that pervaded society as, when he speaking on wanting a wife who ‘would love Burma as he loved it and hated it as he hated it’ he cannot envision being married to anyone other than a European stating;
‘A friend. Or a wife. The quite impossible she. Someone like Mrs Lackersteen, for instance? Some damned mem-sahib, yellow and thin, scandalmongering over cocktails, making kit-kit with the servants, living twenty years in the country without learning a word of the language. Not one of those, please God.’
The fact that Florey cannot even contemplate marry one of the native Burmese, valuing the white Mrs Lackersteen over Ma Hla May, his own mistress who has been with Florey for two years, is a sad indicator of how racist ideas seeped people consciousness in ways that, perhaps not in such a vulgar way, such as small opinions and marrying within one’s ethnic group, still remains to be quite prominent for many people.
Yet, perhaps not on racist issues but certainly on imperialism, Orwell shows that these ideas are not solely held by the white colonialists, but also in the colonised in the form of Dr. Veraswami. Veraswami is a true believer in the imperialistic dream that the British created a better life for the Burmans, arguing that;
‘Could the Burmese trade for themselves? Can they make machinery, ships, railways, roads? They are helpless without you. What would happen to the Burmese forests if the English were not here? They would be sold immediately to the Japanese, who would gut them and ruin them. Instead of which, in your hands, they have actually improved. And while your business men develop the resources of our country, your officials are civilising us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit.’
It almost wrong foots you, seeing a Burmese man defend the Empire with such vitriol, but there lies Orwell’s brilliance, allowing you to see the Empire from both sides of the argument while telling his story in his own way, from his own viewpoint, given that Orwell was a policeman in Burma from 1922-1927 and spent years writing his first work and, even then, had to publish in America before Britain due to fears of his work being depictions of actual people and events and the possibility of the ensuing libel action.
There is much more to be said on imperialism, racism, and even how we identify ourselves with all of this, but I must bring this review to a close. Burmese Days is one of those works that, although written by a great author, has had its greatness forgotten in the wake of more memorable, or at least, more hyped works. Burmese Days is one such work. It’s unflinching account of the waning days of British Empire and the attitudes of those who lived within it, being at once compelling and repulsive. Truly it is a work that deserves a bit more coverage, lest we retreat back to our notions of the wonder and splendour of the Empire tales of old.
Thanks for reading this review and I’m so, so, sorry about the delay and I shall try to be on time with my next review! Please follow me here on WordPress, as well as Facebook and Twitter to hear when my next review goes up. My next review, of course, will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Also if you’d like to learn a bit more about Imperialism here’s some links to Crash Course videos:
Imperialism: Crash Course World History
Asian Responses to Imperialism: Crash Course World History
Congo and Africa’s World War: Crash Course World History