Burmese Days

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Burmese Days is an extraordinary work. I don’t know why I had never read it before.  Did I think perhaps that it would be merely an autobiographical account of Orwell’s days in colonial Burma?  I don’t know. In fact it is an utterly engaging novel that balances satire and poignancy to create a fierce picture of human folly.
Flory, the main character, is a cut above the rest of the “pukka sahibs” at the club. Marked (it’s too easy to say, “like Cain”) by a huge birthmark over half of his face, he is already set apart from the other colonials in terms of “color,” and unlike those others, he is able to identify to some degree with the Burmese people, and evinces in parts a love of the landscape and culture there. But he is not perfect. He keeps a Burmese mistress whom he throws off when it is convenient for him. He does not rally to the defense of his friend, a virtuous Indian doctor, when the doctor is sabotaged by a power-hungry, unctuous, rotund vermin of a local bureaucrat.  He is torn, truly, between his nostalgic love for his homeland, whose atmosphere he despairs of ever experiencing again, and his affection for the land that gave him a place when his own country displaced him. More than anything, he craves books, deep conversation, and close companionship, since he cannot relate at all to the racist, ignorant expat idiots with whom he is obliged to socialize.  I understand all too well that deep loneliness of the expatriate, and this understanding helped me all the more to identify with Flory’s character, with whom any sensible/sensitive reader must identify, even as he makes terrible mistakes in judgment and even as his ethics seem not as well-developed as they ought to be. He is in part a portrait of displacement and dissolution.  Orwell describes him as sunworn and liquor-pickled, with a beard that is too heavy, and the shame around his facial marking dominates his consciousness.
When he meets a young Englishwoman who arrives in Kyauktang orphaned, lost, and husband-seeking, he projects upon her all of his dreams for connection and conversation.  He, in his desperation, fails to notice it, but she is a silly and conventional woman, with no interest in books, art, social justice, or, most notably of all, the culture and people of Burma.  It is fascinating to me to read Orwell’s account of Flory’s projection.  He thinks they are having conversations, but in fact, he is doing most of the talking.  When Orwell lets us inside Elizabeth’s head, we see how horrified she is to be there and how “beastly” she finds Flory’s involvement with the “natives” to be. One wants to shout to Flory, no! Don’t do this! But he becomes too deeply invested in his own projection, and feels that to marry Elizabeth is the only thing that can save him from total decadence and isolation.
I won’t spoil anymore of the novel for you by recounting any more of its action, in case you are thinking to read it. Orwell’s descriptive powers generate memorable moment after memorable moment (the silk of a longyi shining stretched over the bureacrat’s fat buttocks,  Flory’s cocker spaniel foraging about a crowded marketplace, Elizabeth’s cropped hair and round glasses) and by the end my heart hurt with the idiocy of human mistakes.

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