An Assembly Such as This …
Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy’s timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice can’t fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell’s first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy’s famous epithet, indeed so “insupportable” that the reader can’t help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.
There is a truism to the effect that an author’s first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn’t mean that a first novel can’t be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author’s true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel’s bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.
And yet … and yet. Even in this first novel, Orwell’s enormous talent as a writer already registers clearly and distinctly. What in upwards of 90% or even 98% of all other writers would have resulted in an unpublishable diatribe (or in the age of e-publishing, a self-published diatribe previously rejected by all respectable and established publishers), in the hands of then-barely-31-years-old Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell) became both a scathing criticism of the Raj and a mesmerizing portrait of Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. Burma clearly got under Orwell’s skin in more ways than one, and it will get under his readers’ skin precisely because this is George Orwell writing: The same powerful immediacy of language that makes readers of 1984 experience a sense of chill even at the mere thought of Big Brother also makes readers of this first novel suffer the sweltering, stifling heat, the lush, encroaching rainforest and the terminal boredom of colonial life in a remote outpost of the Raj as if we, the readers, were actually experiencing these same things alongside the characters. Indeed, this book’s masterful use of language and skillful construction alone probably make thousands of other first-time authors go green with envy – at the same time as they are going green with nausea at the novel’s characters.
Ultimately, however, Orwell’s overriding hatred of the system that he himself had helped to uphold in Burma is also precisely the thing that prevents this novel from reaching its full potential. As a piece of criticism of the Raj it certainly stands out; indeed, alongside E.M. Forster‘s Passage to India it is one of the few pre-WWII books written by an Englishman this harshly critical of the very concepts underlying the maxim of “Rule Britannia.” Small wonder, then, that Orwell’s British publisher feared a lawsuit for libel and insisted on numerous changes in order to soften the message (which in turn lead to a rather “ckeckered” publication history; it took decades for the text to be restored and republished as originally written). And of course, part of the roots of 1984 are to be found here as well: The oppressive society that Orwell experienced in Burma was quite obviously, in his view at least, not so very different from the totalitarian system that he later saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union – take class arrogance, the racist oppression that is at the very heart of colonialism, as well as totalitarian dictatorship, a boundlessly powerful and inventive secret police, and the self-enforcing mind control exercised by a society (and a government) operating on strict notions of what is “right” and what is “wrong” thought, blend and shake liberally, and you’ll have come up with the cocktail now known as the dystopian society controlled by Big Brother and Newspeak in Orwell’s final masterpiece. However, the analytical transition (“this sort of thing can happen anytime, anywhere”) only occurs in the later book. Burmese Days itself is too closely and precisely tied to Orwell’s personal experience and to Burma and the Raj to invite, in and of itself, the comparison with other forms of oppressive societies in general. (Indeed, even to the extent that other régimes are mentioned at all, they’re the same type of late 19th century / early 20th century colonial societies as that prevalent in the Raj, such as the German colonies in Africa.) Orwell’s first novel still has a place in literary history, of course, but these days, that place chiefly rests on the light which this book sheds on Orwell’s genesis as a writer and an intellectual, and on its nature as a (fictionalized) documentation of a blessedly now-defunct historical society and way of life.
Katha(r) (the novel’s actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and a street near the river.