Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Book Learning #23

Burmese Days by George Orwell.

If it's fall I must be reading Orwell. There is just something so reassuring about my favourite author, something so, fall. I think it may have been September 1988 when my high school english teacher made us read '1984'. From that point on I was hooked, never more than 12 months away from another considered reading of his work. He is also one of the very few (count 1, maybe 2?) authors that I actually reread.

I should confess to having had some conflicts with the great man. Back in the 1990's when I was at the height of my fanatical Norfolk nationalism I was distrustful. I knew that under laws being thought up at that time, George Orwell would be listed as 'politically unreliable' for the crime of having lived in Suffolk* (a 'crime' we could today charge many of the great and good including our own dear Weasel and Delia Smith).

Such days and thoughts are now past us and in some way this could be said of Orwell.
Surely, the themes he writes about are dated and historically , politically irrelevant. The British Empire, International Communism, Come on, that stuff is all done and dusted.

The beauty of Orwell is that his themes remain relevant to the present as well as providing a look at the past. Colonialism, imperialism, call it what you will, it's still here. Even, to some extent the clash of ideologies. If we had managed to get beyond such concepts I suppose Orwell's words would sound dated, but he is shrewd with his words and fortunate with his timing.

In 'Burmese Days' Orwell paints a stinking, pitiful portrait of British Colonial rule. There cannot be one sympathetic character amongst the cast. Everyone, for some reason or another is simply struggling to survive, to make good in a sweltering situation, most through drinking at the club, some by questioning the purpose of Empire, some by hunting and riding horses. The book fares pretty well with small anecdotes and descriptions of characters for the first 200 pages and then things spice up, things happen.

I read the last 75 pages in a swirl of page turning frenzy. The action was tense and the ending tragic. No sympathetic characters, no sympathy for the characters.

* Orwell lived in Southwold during the 1920s and 30s, an area claimed by Norfolk because it's pretty.


weasel said...

Ah, Southwold, or rather the Southwoldtenland. One day...

It is suggested that Burmese Days is his most autobiographical novel, and that he is half in Flory, half in Verrall. I'm sure you have read them but the essays "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant" a good companions to this one.

Mondale said...

I got the sense that he was more Flory than Verral, in a mixed up, 'contemptuous of the Raj for different reasons, from differing ends of the political spectrum' kind of way.
I have indeed read his excellent essays.

weasel said...

I think the pointy heads suggest that Verrall was his public persona as a Imperial Burmese Policeman fresh from Eton, and Flory is what he became internally by the end of his time in the east. But all that aside, I think despite its rough edges and anachronistic racism its my favorite novel of his (even more than 1984) and I'm with you that it bears repeated, if not annual, reading.