George Orwell was an outstanding man of letters who is also quite likely the most influential political novelist of the 20th century. Best known for his satiric animal fable Animal Farm, and the dystopian novel 1984, he began his career as an unlikely candidate for literary stardom. His first novel, Burmese Days (1934), reveals his complicated feelings about both being part of the machinery of British imperialism and secretly hating it in ever-escalating feelings of disgust during his six years in the Indian Imperial Police (Burma was a region within the Indian division of the British Empire). As a police officer, Orwell had an unparalleled opportunity to see the workings of imperial rule close up, as part of the machinery devised to impose law and order.
Nonetheless, Orwell’s cynical outlook on the abuse of power by both British and Burmese characters provoke me to make a connection to the brutal military rulers who now govern Myanmar (formerly Burma) with an iron fist and utter contempt for human rights and the lives of their citizens. At the time Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, arrived in Burma in 1922, nationalist agitation was just beginning to become a serious problem for the imperial masters. Whereas the important Montagu –Chelmford reforms took effect in India, perhaps out of either carelessness or indifference, they were not extended to the province of Burma, leading to riots and cries for greater autonomy. The British attempted to respond, but the local governor’s reforms were too little, too late. Historians inform us that economic pressures created by British manufacturing and the opening of the Suez Canal were transforming traditional Burmese life in sometimes startling ways. A further point of serious tension was the decision by the British to establish secular schools, thereby depriving Buddhist monks of a fair amount of their secular power. As a consequence, a number of monks advanced nationalist positions and became serious trouble makers to British officialdom. They would obviously have a considerable amount of scorn for police officers like Blair/Orwell. This friction is described in one of Orwell’s well known essays, “Shooting An Elephant”, when he admits: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, something clamped down. . . upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” Fortunately, he did not give in to the impulse but resigned from the service, instead, and sailed home with little money and a completely uncertain future but with his dignity and self-respect intact.
In Burmese Days, the protagonist, John Floy, was a fairly typical Orwellian “hero” mostly lacking heroic qualities. He is not a policeman but rather a hugely unhappy timber agent. He strongly detests the ugly racist attitudes of his fellow Brits in the colony in a nondescript town in Burma but, being fully aware of his uniquely dissenting views, is able to voice his true feelings only in the comfort of his own room. However, at various points in the plot he is compelled to come to the rescue of certain of his fellow colonists, such that by the end of Burmese Days we might think of Flory as an honorary policeman, or at least guardian of the civilian population. So, for example, early in the novel he leaps into action after hearing a fearful cry and a commotion created by a water buffalo. He competently frightens the animal away, winning over the lovely Elizabeth girl who recently came from the cultured city of Paris. Before long Flory is madly in love but various obstacles to a match are placed in his way.
The narrator lets us look behind the successful outward poses of officers and merchants to see their narrow-mindedness and frequent recourse to alcohol to get them through difficult and unrewarding careers. The scenes describing the British colony and the ill-mannered members of the Club that Flory has little choice but to attend are advanced with a bracing cynicism. The narrator lets us look behind the successful outward poses of officers and merchants to see their narrow-mindedness and frequent recourse to alcohol to get them through difficult and unrewarding careers. There is of course a strong colour bar and arrogant club members think little of assaulting and demeaning servants who fail to please their masters.
Both laws that discriminate against the local population and oppressive treatment at the hands of the colonial masters who at times act with impunity lead at one point in the novel to a full-scale riot. Ellis, a bigoted racist, has lost his cool and lashed out with his walking stick at a schoolboy who has acted mischievously and greatly annoyed him. Due to incompetent medical treatment the boy is blinded. As the law will clearly not operate to hold Ellis accountable for his actions, a mob of incensed Burmese begin an all-out assault on the Club. Flory performs a truly heroic deed in breaking out to courageously cross the river to the point where the police force is stationed and alerting them to the danger.
One might think that after such a remarkable deed, Flory would be treated like a genuine hero by members of the colony and finally win over the beautiful but conventional and shallow Elizabeth. However, by this point in the novel, we have been educated by Orwell to recognize that mere virtue will not overcome conventional prejudices and assertions of white superiority. As if Flory’s struggles weren’t great enough already, we learn that he has a truly serious enemy in the corrupt magistrate, U Po Kyin. In the course of the novel, we come to learn that there is nothing in the dark arts of political advancement and unethical legal maneuvering that the fat and greedy magistrate needs to learn. U Po Kyin wishes to achieve the coveted goal of becoming the first non-white member of the British Club. His only competition is the Indian doctor, Veraswamy, who is a good friend of Flory’s. The shrewd magistrate sets in place a series of false reports and anonymous letters making false accusations against the two men and creates a truly embarrassing scene involving Flory’s old mistress. Kyin has accumulated great wealth and power as a magistrate by taking bribes from both sides of a case. Then, rather than favouring the side that might have offered the larger bribe, he simply decided the matter on correct legal grounds, pocketing tidy sums in the process. He also levied a ceaseless toll, a kind of private taxation system, from all the villages under his jurisdiction.
At the time Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, arrived in Burma in 1922, nationalist agitation was just beginning to become a serious problem for the imperial masters. U Po Kyin is a corrupt, dangerous and indeed evil man who will ruthlessly destroy any individual who he perceives will be an obstacle to his path to success. Orwell of course did not anticipate the various changes that would occur in Burmese society after it acquired independence in 1948. Nonetheless, Orwell’s cynical outlook on the abuse of power by both British and Burmese characters provoke me to make a connection to the brutal military rulers who now govern Myanmar (formerly Burma) with an iron fist and utter contempt for human rights and the lives of their citizens. The long-time military ruler of Myanmar, Ne Win, seized power after a military coup in 1962, thus ending all hope for a successful democratic form of governance. Ne Win’s bloodthirsty and ruthless reign came to an end in 1988. A serious uprising aiming to establish democratic rule was crushed and military rulers continue to suppress all forms of dissent. The “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, one of the many minority religious groups in the country, is the latest in an ongoing series of atrocities perpetrated by the military.
While the novel is certainly limited in scope and must ultimately be viewed as a minor work, it does contain some of Orwell’s best writing in the novel form.