Monday, 3 October 2011
Orwell October: Burmese Days
Burmese Days is set in the Good Old Days of the British Empire, when Britannia really did rule the waves, and oppression of native people was ok because it was for their own good, and anyway, they're just savages so they won't know if it's not. Our hero, Mr Flory, is a British man who doesn't exactly think like the rest of the white men in Burma- his best friend is an Indian doctor (I don't really know what he's doing in Burma, but then what were the British doing there, you might also ask- in other words, it's not really that important), and while I find him lacking in certain ways, there is no doubt that he is still the character in the book that a person living in these times who opposes oppression of any kind can most identify with- while he fails, at times, to do what his conscience tells him, he is still better than, say, Ellis, another white man who insists on using the N-word to describe the Burmese people, and is pretty much unspeakably awful, and is rightly presented that way. Through these, and a whole host of other characters, Orwell really manages to capture life as it would have been at the time, and, I think, creates a relatively accurate insight into the benefits and disadvantages of colonial living.
Thinking back on the book now, it seems to me that not a lot really happens- there is a rogue native who plots against Flory's doctor friend for the bizarre reason of wanting to be part of their white men's club (although why anyone would want to hang around with those horrible racist bores is beyond me, and I suspect Flory), Flory falls in love, tries to show his lady friend why he loves Burma, unknowing that he has, in fact, set his attentions on basically one of the men from the Club, only with a vagina. This lack of events, though, somehow doesn't seem to matter while you're reading it, because you are so well transported to Burma- you can almost smell the bazaars, and you're almost sitting in the Club with the white folk, sweating your butt off because the guy pulling the fan has fallen asleep in the sun outside. The sleepy lifestyle these men lead is almost transferred to you as you read, and you're lulled into belonging to their world, as easily as in any other book I've read. From what I've seen, Orwell's writing is peculiarly well-suited to inducing such an effect, and it's always a pleasure to enter into the worlds he creates.
The most irritating part of the book was, I felt, the relationship between Elizabeth and Flory. Not irritating in a bad way, because it was not believable or badly written, but just frustrating because she was so not good enough for him, even though he believes she is too good. Flory is basically prime for a romance in the novel, considering that he has become so frustrated with the way they live in Burma "Oh what a place, what people! What a civilisation is this of ours- this Godless civilisation founded on whisky, Blackwoods and the 'Bonzo' pictures! God have mercy on all of us, for all of us are part of it." and when Elizabeth arrives he is instantly smitten. But here's the thing. Elizabeth is a bitch. She's an upper-class, over-entitled hag, who thinks that only one kind of life (the high life) is suitable to live, and everything else is just 'beastly'. I hate her. I hate her more than I've hated a book character for a while, and here's the thing- I don't even think I'm supposed to hate her. Well- I think there is a certain extent to which we are supposed to dislike her, because she is continually rude to all the natives and there's a whole chapter in which Orwell makes it clear that she is a bit of a twat, but other than that, I think we're supposed to see it as normal that Flory wants to marry her because he's a man, and she's an unmarried woman, and it's just the thing that should happen. Here's where a little bit of respect is lost for Flory- there are plenty of eligible Burmese women who he could marry (he even has a mistress who turns into a little bit of a pain once Elizabeth shows up) but this is not even a consideration because it is quite clearly ingrained into him that he must marry a white woman, or no woman at all. I don't know if this is just because it's something that Orwell didn't really consider to be suitable, or because he wanted to develop the relationship between Elizabeth and Flory so that it gets to the climax that it does, but it's still a little bit of a sticking point for me that I can't really see what Flory does in Elizabeth.
Or maybe I can. It is made clear that Flory is extremely lonely in his life, and indeed he even says that "Beauty is meaningless until it is shared" a line that I think is one of the best, and truest in the novel. The implication is, I feel, that while Flory more or less enjoys his life in Burma, he is held back from really appreciating his surroundings by having no one he can really talk to and admire nature with. He more or less hates the man at the club, his servants are sycophantic so he can't really talk to them, and besides they, along with the Doctor, are still natives, and so, it seems, he can't really share all his thoughts and feelings with them. What he really needs is a wife, and, unable to face the indignity of marrying a native woman, he latches onto the first eligible white woman to be seen around the parts for a long while, projecting onto her his own feelings, and believing he can make her see Burma as he does, something which, as the reader can see, is pretty much never going to happen. But still, it seems, he must persist- must try to get at least something he wants, before everything is lost to him. It's kind of tragic in a way, and yet kind of annoying in another- surely he'd rather be alone than be with such an annoyingly judgemental Elizabeth? Although, as it is made clear a few times, Elizabeth is very beautiful- so that's obviously all that matters in the end, I suppose- how women's inner lives seem so much less important than those of men's, at least in fiction...
Sorry, didn't mean to get all feminist on you then! I really did enjoy Burmese Days, and, to be honest, Elizabeth is a much better drawn out woman than many in even today's fiction, and even if she wasn't, this would still be worth reading as a portrait of a man's unconventional views about being part of the establishment of the British Empire. I'd recommend this as, maybe not the first Orwell book you should read, but definitely one that you should check out at some point, especially if you're a fan of his writing. Even in this, his first novel, it is quite clear that he could only have been a writer- oh yes, that's how good.
Next up, I'm going to be reading Down and Out in Paris and London, which I've read before but don't really remember. I'm hoping, however, that it'll teach me how to live like a tramp, something which I may need in the near future if the whole unemployment thing doesn't start looking up...