George Orwell said that good fiction prose should be like a window pane and what’s not to see through that? Born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India, his parents moved to England in 1907 and ten years later he entered Eton.
Blair returned to Asia in 1922 serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma until 1927. His first book, Burmese Days, chronicles this time.
There is a literary joke in Myanmar, that Orwell actually wrote three books about Burma, Animal Farm and 1984 being the other two, and who disagrees with that?
Burmese Days tells the story of the last days of the British Empire’s control in the region, crumbling around them into the dust as power is lost to indigenous corruption and Imperial bigotry.
In the middle of this are such profound characters: U Po Kyin, the Burmese magistrate, who longed always to work beside British officers but instead rises to power through bribes and extortion, deciding to destroy the life of Dr. Veraswami, whose only chance at survival is to be allowed into the ‘All White’ British Club. The pockmarked and cowardly Flory, who falls in love with Elizabeth, seeing marriage as his only way to socially climb out, but who dies amid the racist hatred of his fellow Englishman.
Burmese Days is a languishing book, one that must be plowed through and deforested like one of Flories trips into the jungle.
But as one reads, Orwells’ brilliance is in such rare form. Such mental exertion to create diverse characters that converse and fight and bicker and eventually establish in the reader’s mind a clear picture of an area long lost.
I read most of Burmese Days deep in the night, sitting in the bedside of cheap hotels, by small overhanging light. While the mosquitoes swarmed and the electricity flickered and the dust on the window blinds stood still.
I see the toll this place takes on people. I see it in the foreigners who flash across the landscape in chartered planes and who barely take a moment but to stand in a famous spot for a sunset before racing to another destination to soak in teak monastery aromas at dawn.
There’s something missing here. Something lost. Something that I will not be able to find. It has been ripped or stolen away so long ago that the Burmese people have forgotten it ever existed. Perhaps it was just burned up in the sun and the remains are the dust and grime that floats in the air and sticks to every possible substance. That lost thing…call it hope or a soul or a fleeting thought, it is irrelevant because it is gone.