I think Burmese Days is a brilliant novel – but I can understand why some people might find it uncomfortable reading. Orwell used this novel to paint a true and rather devastating picture of colonial life, in the declining years of the British Empire. The language used by some characters is pretty horrendous and I did flinch – a lot. Yet the uncompromising racism only serves to highlight Orwell’s own disgust in the prevailing attitudes he encountered during his time in Burma.
Burmese Days is set in the small community of Kyauktada along the Irrawaddy River. John Flory a timber merchant who has already been in Burma many years is a jaded figure – depressed by the colonial way of life and the need to behave like a pukkah sahib. When he befriends the local doctor Veraswami he goes against the mood of the local all-white club. Local magistrate U Po Kyin is waging a corrupt war upon the poor doctor, determined to prevent him being the one native to be elected to the club he himself wants membership of. Veraswami is incapable of seeing any of the white club members in a poor light and brushes aside the small and cowardly betrayals of his friend Flory. The arrival of the beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen from Paris changes Flory’s life, she is orphaned and poor – and forced by circumstance to stay with an aunt and predatory uncle – she needs to marry. Flory is a weak and cowardly figure – the reader wants to like him, yet he keeps doing or saying things that make you despair of him. There is likeability about Flory too, in his vulnerability he is very human – but he is a deeply flawed character – created by the life he has lead.
*slight spoiler alert*
There are no happy ever afters here. The ending is stark, sad – and rather depressing – and yet it is the only ending worthy of a really good novel – anything less would have been a cop out. Reading this has made me remember why I liked George Orwell all those years ago – and I think I will be reading more at some point.