An Extended Musing + ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell (read 5/5/14 – 11/5/14)

I have recently returned home from a two week holiday in Mallorca. Staying close to the beautiful Port de Pollenca, the fortnight passed in a blissfully idle blur of the impregnable heat which hit me no sooner had I stepped off the plane, copious amounts of seafood so perfectly fresh as to still retain a taste of the resort’s sparkling salty sea, and, of course, whole days devoted to nothing but reading. For indeed, the beauty of a lack of internet connection (not to mention the fear of racking up extortionate phone bills when abroad), while admittedly something rather discombobulating to a 21st century teenager, is that it enables one to truly be free from distractions for a certain period, not only those caused by one’s social life but also those more stressful ones of work, university research/applications etc. for which a computer or tablet have become almost always mandatory.

While these latter tasks are undoubtedly very important ones, I think it is also true that it is important for one’s well-being (and sanity!) to be able to forget these worries for a little while from time to time and devote one’s attention entirely to the things one really wants to do to relax; in my case this is reading. However, I for one know that whenever I partake in this favourite leisure activity whilst at home there is still a little part of my mind which can’t help but worry about the other things I need to be doing, particularly prior to the holiday as I was getting stuck into my A2 courses in the final weeks of school and making a start on the long-dreaded personal statement. And this is why the holiday was so welcome and necessary to me, as it really was the first time in recent memory where I had no qualms or sense of guilt about ‘wasting’ precious hours by sprawling languidly with a good book. The inevitable consequence of this was that over the course of the two weeks excessive reading was done of the following books:

1) How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran (the first novel from the hilarious columnist, which I couldn’t wait to read after I read and loved her two previous books, How To Be A Woman and Moranthology).
2) One Day by David Nicholls (as I have mentioned in a previous post, this book is one of my ultimate summer holiday pleasures and so I simply couldn’t resist bringing it with me again this year).
3) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (I always find dystopias to be very interesting and thought-provoking reads, this novel particularly intriguing me due to its specific focus on how the role of women could potentially retrograde from the liberation we know in Western societies today to another stretch of the oppression known by females in previous centuries).
4) We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (a novel I had heard so much about and been absolutely longing to read for ages due to its frank and haunting depiction of a mother dealing with the aftermath of her teenage son’s murder rampage).
5) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (just because!).
6) A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride (this book has recently received great critical acclaim and so I was intrigued to see what exactly it was about it which appealed to so many).
7) Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (what with the centenary of the start of the First World War befalling us this year, I was well aware that my reading of this modern classic was long overdue, and so could think of no better time to correct this error than in the month that is exactly 100 years after the war commenced).
8) Evelina by Frances Burney (as my English Literature coursework next year will see me exploring, along with other texts, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, one of my absolute favourite authors, I thought it would be a good idea to read some fiction which pre-dates that of the latter, Frances Burney in fact being the writer who was reportedly the greatest inspiration to Austen herself).

Posts about the majority of these books will no doubt follow sometime in the future, and yet I feel it only fair to admit that at this moment in time I cannot exactly envisage when this will be; an apology is certainly already in order, for I am well aware that it has now been some time since my last post, an interim for which I cannot entirely blame my lack of either computer or Wifi whilst away. In the weeks leading up to the long-awaited day where my school would break up for summer, I imagined that the ensuing two months would consist of endless days where I would be totally at leisure to do exactly as I pleased, thus affording me plenty of time to write my blog posts and catch up on reviewing those books which in reality I now read some time ago. And while these expectations have been true to some extent, the school work I have been set, especially when coupled with my own preparations for applying to read English Literature at university, has rendered my summer much busier than I could ever have imagined. Yet as the ‘warm’ period peters along and I continue to tick the necessary tasks off my mental list, I am finding myself somehow calmer and more relaxed, particularly having now received my AS results last week, with which I am absolutely delighted. I suppose that there really is no excuse now then for me to neglect my blog for any longer, and so without any further ado (if indeed you have managed to get this far through my post without giving it up as a superfluous rambling) here are, as promised in the title, some brief thoughts on George Orwell’s Burmese Days. SPOILERS included.

Burmese Days by George Orwell:

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As is customary with many of his other works, what makes Burmese Days such an enjoyable book, not merely from a plot and writing-style point of view but also in terms of its power to provoke thought in its reader, is the fact that in this novel Orwell succeeds to draw on and criticise the political situation of the recent times (this novel being published in 1934 yet actually being set in the 1920s) so as to offer us a fascinating insight into the mind of a man disillusioned from the all the corruption of what on the outside was meant to represent the greatness of Britain. In this case, the ‘greatness’ comes in the form of our nation’s policies of Imperial dominance over supposedly lesser civilisations that were a continuation of those which formed such an integral part of the Victorian era. Orwell in fact reveals to his readers the harsh realities and follies of such colonialism through his tale of John Flory, an English timber merchant in Burma when it was ruled by British India, and his desperate efforts to win the affections of Elizabeth Lackersteen and so secure a marriage with a suitable European woman, thus giving him a companion amidst the intolerable racism and bigotry of the other members of the area’s European Club.

Coupled with the disgust which is felt by Flory regarding his fellow countrymen’s terrible prejudice and mistreatment towards the “yellow-bellied” native people (particularly considering the character’s own friendship with the Indian Dr. Veraswami) and which is constantly manifested to the reader so that we cannot help but share in it, Orwell also paints Imperialism in a very negative light via his depiction of the corrupt Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin. As I continued to read about this obese, greedy, self-seeking man’s eventually successful efforts to tarnish the reputation of Veraswami, spreading rumours and abusing his powerful position so as to prevent the latter from gaining a much sought-after membership in the European Club in favour of himself (an entryway into a near social parity with these ‘superior’ white men which it is clear would be something greatly desired by somebody as power-hungry as U Po Kyin) I couldn’t help but be appalled that such blatant disrespect for and abuse of one’s responsibilities could be allowed to take place so unintelligibly among people who were meant to be offering a source of authority and protection. In my eyes the fact that Orwell was able to provoke such a realisation of the inevitable downfalls of British colonial rule in me, even when I in the 21st century can only have a limited understanding of what such Imperialism really meant, only goes to show what a skilled author he is and how much stronger these reactions must have been for those contemporary readers who had lived and experienced exactly what he was writing about.

For indeed, Britain’s Imperial interests were often greatly promoted as a sign of national patriotism and glory both during and after the Victorian period, with such propaganda as A.C Benson’s poem (set to music by Edward Elgar) Land of Hope and Glory being written in 1902 to mark the coronation of King Edward VII and celebrate the achievements of his mother, Queen Victoria, regarding the British Empire. Yet despite this there were many writers who explored and challenged these glorified views of Imperialism in their works, Orwell’s own convictions on the issue being influenced by his time working in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma during the period in which his novel is set. One of my favourite things which I came across whilst reading this novel was a very short section in Chapter 5, in which Orwell can be seen to subtly allude to some of these writers who pre-dated him, the following passage coming from Flory’s despairing contemplation of the repressive situation for both the colonials and the Imperialists themselves:

“In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to the right of you, Pink’un to the left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil.”

While the mention of Rudyard Kipling here is clearly obvious, what really excited me was the lovely reference to Albert, Lord Tennyson and his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the poet presents a very negative response to the British army’s disastrous charge against the Russian canons in 1854 during the Crimean War and poses the question of what price we were prepared to pay to achieve our Imperial aims overseas. Where Orwell’s skill really shines through is how he has managed to emulate this famous poem and all its anti-Imperial associations here by imitating the former in his own prose, the phrase “whisky to the right of you, Pink’un to the left of you” appearing to me to directly parallel Tennyson’s line “Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them” both in its structure and dactylic rhythm.

Another notable aspect about Burmese Days is its typically Orwellian denouement: take Animal Farm, whose ending sees the titular farm’s name reverted to its original ‘Manor Farm’ as the supposed equality of the animals’ take-over is replaced with a harsh totalitarian regime, culminating in the dictatorial pigs in their human clothes being indistinguishable from the pig-like men who had previously been their enemies; take Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one’s heart sinks in horror as Winston Smith finally conforms to the regime and confesses that “He loved Big Brother” after a novel’s worth of heroic opposition; take these novels into consideration, and it will be clear to deduce that the ending of this book is also characteristically bleak. And what with Flory killing himself as all his hopes in life degenerate and leave him feeling he has nothing to live for, any high expectations I had regarding Elizabeth falling into oblivion as she reveals herself to be no more than a superficial and self-seeking girl who ultimately rejects Flory because of a ragged facial birthmark, and Dr. Veraswami being ruined as U Po Kyin is honoured in an unjust twist of fate, I really couldn’t imagine a bleaker way for this novel to end. However, I have to say that I actually liked the fact that Orwell chose to write an ending of this nature rather than something more uplifting, as I found it added a great sense of realism which would have otherwise been lacking; Orwell truly was able to take off any rose-tinted glasses and see life in all its injustices, for which, while I would like to pretend that life is fair and perfect, I feel one cannot help but admire him.

By Rebecca.

Link to BBC History page on George Orwell: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/orwell_george.shtml

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