Burmese Days: the ugly face of colonialism
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Since this is a collection of novels, I’ll comment on each one separately as I read it, here on my blog, and when I’ve done with all of them may add some comments on the collected works on the Good Reads site. I begin with Burmese Days, because that was the first one in the collection that I hadn’t read, and it was one I had not even heard of.
I’d read Animal Farm and 1984 when I was young. They were well known. but Burmese Days I had never heard of. I suppose it was because I read the first two in the time of the Cold War, and Animal Farm with its expression of Orwell’s disillusionment with Bolshevism seemed very relevant at the time. 1984 was more chilling, and even more relevant in South Africa, with its theme of creeping totalitarianism. I read it at the time when the National Party was using increasingly totalitarian methods to tighten its grip on every aspect of South African sociaty, so many of us were amazed that the book was not banned since far more innocuous books had been banned, but this one remained freely available.
But Burmese Days is set in the halcyon days of British colonialism, between the two world wars, when the entirce colonial structure depended on the prestige of the white man, and it was above all necessary to keep the natives in their place. In 1926, the time in which the story is set, Burma was administereed as part of the Indian Empire. White men were gods, and it was this semi-divine status that enabled them to rule. One might say that never in the field of human government have so many been ruled by so few.
The gods, of course, had feet of clay, and what Orwell did for Bolshevism in Animal Farm he did for British colonialism in Burmese Days. No wonder one never heard of the book in the 1960s, when the empire was crumbling, and the white man’s prestige had gone. Today there is much talk of post-colonialism, and I think that if post-colonialism is to mean anything, then this book is an essentiual introduction, to get something of the flavour of colonialism itself.
I think in many ways it is quite a brilliant novel. In the first few chapters Orwell sets the scene, both physical– the sights and sounds and smells of Burma — and spiritual, the values of the colonial rulers, and their interactions with the natives. It is also a love story, not in the romantic Barbara Cartland sense, but in a much more real-life way.
Something of the atmosphere of the story was something I had caught glimpses of in my youth. When I was twelve years old I went to stay with a friend at the sugar experiment station in Mount Edgecombe in Natal, and there was a club there that we went to occasionally, for film shows, and occasional dinners. It was redolent with the atmosphere of colonialism, buffalo heads on the walls, ceiling fans lazily turning, chairs with the corners that stuck out between your legs, white table cloths, heavy silver cultery, starched table napkins, and obsequious Indian waiters. The club in the book, in the small village of Kyauktada in Upper Burma, isn’t nearly as posh as that, but it is similar in that it is the centre of the social life of the Europeans in the village.
If you want to be post-colonial, read this book. It gives the essential flavour of what post-colonialism is post. And it’s a good read.