Sunday, November 23, 2008

A New Feature: Insert Name Here

I don't know what to call this one, but inspiration hit when I saw a copy of George Orwell's Burmese Days on my bookshelf. Most people know Orwell from 1984 or Animal Farm. Before he wrote either of the books that was turn his name into an adjective, he wrote this novel, inspired by the years he spent living and working in colonial Burma. I'd never the hell heard of it before my Colonial and Post-Colonial Literature professor assigned it, but it's very good. So the idea behind the feature is that it profiles lesser-known works by well-known authors. The Blue Castle instead of Anne of Green Gables. The Town and the City instead of On the Road. Sometimes, they're lesser-known for the fact that they aren't very good. Sometimes, they're lesser-known because the other works are so big they overtake the ones that don't fit in.

This is the case with Burmese Days, I think. Unlike Orwell's two better-known works, this one is utterly realistic and set in the time in which it was written. Everything in the story could have happened exactly the way it did. In fact, one gets the impression that elements of the story happened throughout much of the British Empire in Southeast Asia.

The story centers around Flory, a man who's about 35 and has lived in Burma much of his adult life, working for a timber company. He hates it. He hates, most of all, his British co-workers and the stifling society that they've imported there. Forced into an unfamiliar environment, they've clung to their British ways, and that includes a strict social hierarchy that native Burmese do not have a place in. There are so few British people out there that doing whatever you want isn't really an option.

Flory has, against all odds, made a Burmese friend, but it's not a friendship of equals. Dr. Veraswami admires the British a great deal and admires Flory, too. He sees him as more of a powerful ally than a true friend, and early in the story, asks for his help in getting admitted to Flory's social club, as there's a man in the area who is seeking to discredit him. Yet, this would never fly with the racist members of Flory's club, putting Flory in the unenviable position of having to hurt a friend to placate people he can't stand.

In the midst of all this appear Elizabeth. Women were apparently rare enough in colonial Burma, and single women were downright oddities. Elizabeth runs practically straight into Flory on her first day in Burma, and Flory grasps at this straw immediately. From a few comments she makes, he senses that she's an intellectual, one that could be a true partner to him and enjoy the native culture as much as he does. The tragedy of this story is that he has the entirely wrong idea about her. Elizabeth hates books and art, has no interest whatsoever in native culture, and simply wants to find a husband.

All these controversies that suddenly boil over into Flory's previously dull life take a heavy toll on all those invovled, and Burma ultimately winds up chewing up Flory and spitting him out. It's an excellent picture of a culture clash. The British tried to impose morals and customs on a setting that couldn't accomodate them, holding dances when there was no one to dance with, demanding ice for their drinks when it had to be imported, refusing to mix at all. But even truly mixing wasn't an option, because of everything that had happened before. Previous waves of British people had made it perfectly clear that they viewed Burmese as inferior to themselves, so most Burmese either hated them for their arrogance, exploited them for their money (like Flory's Burmese consort), or revered them as something just less than gods, as Dr. Veraswami did.

Flory even came to feel that leaving wasn't an option. At some point, he realized that he wouldn't fit in to true British society any better than he'd fit in to the imported version or to Burmese society itself. He talked of realizing, all at once, that his youth had gone and that Burma was now his home, for better or for worse. Despite the fact that none of his colleagues come off well, and that history shows how the various colonial experiments worked out, one can't help but feel a bit sorry for them in spite of themselves. All of his co-workers were alcoholics of one degree or another, and the scenes in the club are always full of bitter, angry talk about the natives and the weather. He writes of the fate of those that wind up going back, to live in boarding houses and talk incessantly of their lives abroad until cirrhosis claims them.

It's been years since I've read Orwell's better-known works, so it's hard for me to judge this against them. But taken on its own, I thought it was a fascinating depiction of life in the British Colonies, with fully developed characters and an interesting plot. I'd reccommend this one as worth a look.

Now, does anyone have an idea for a name for this feature?

1 comment:

Stella Devine said...

It's a bit like that with some cities. Everyone knows Sydney, but Melbourne's actually nicer. Some of my favourite books fall into this category.

How about Little Sister Syndrome?