Reviewed by John McMahon
"...lifts the veil on an elegant writer whose only curse is that she may be called upon to repeat the performance." -Business Standard
‘Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the middle ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus…The population was about four thousand, including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr. Francis and Mr. Samual, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively.’
This is the introduction to the setting of Burmese Days, not an exciting place, not a destination one would plan on visiting, not a pretty place. And it only gets worse. As yet nothing is personal; we can still imagine that though it may be a no-horse town there is some fun to be had, someone worth knowing, some sights that will be good for the soul, this is only page twelve.
George Orwell was the pseudonym used by the writer Eric Blair ostensibly to protect his family from the harsh criticisms his writing attracted from the very beginning. Born under the British Raj in Bengal in 1903 to an opium agent for the Indian civil service, he was schooled in England, having won a scholarship to Eton after spending a miserable four years in a second-rate private school, experiences not forgotten by the writer. ‘He was a liar and a good footballer, two things absolutely necessary for success at school.’ He then returned to the British Indian colonies, this time to Burma as a nineteen-year-old Indian Imperial Police officer, by then well versed in the rules and conduct expected of a Pukka Sahib (Pukka — top notch, excellent; Sahib — any white in colonial India) living in the far colonies, the core institution that John Flory, the tragically doomed, conflicted, even pathetic hero of Burmese Days, rails against.
Orwell served from 1922 to 1927 in several Burmese towns under a system he came to revile, a system he saw draining away all that was good from a people and their land in return for a false modernity and a social system that began at slavery and topped out at petty clerk. During this time he wrote his first published short stories, ‘A Hanging’ and the perennial ‘Shooting an Elephant’, both narratives fraught with condemnations of British rule in India. Thus began the work of one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century, his first steps down the long and tiring road of bashing duplicity and tyranny.
I’ve read Burmese Days many times over the last four or five years, and it strikes me each time as being as true a tale of the ex-patriot world as anything contemporary, because it deals with an entire life as opposed to an episode. Flory isn’t visiting. He’s not a tourist or a traveler, and neither are the other characters in the story. These people live in Kyauktada and they aren’t going anywhere else soon. The story doesn’t hang on some small character or cultural flaw, but takes in the entire situation, the indigenous culture versus the foreign culture, and holds them both up to an equal flame of scrutiny. No one is innocent, no one is honest, and though some are worse than others only one character escapes the ending with some dignity. This isn’t a white-hat black-hat situation; there is no excusing the poor natives' stealing to get by, as there is no justification for the foreigners' living a life of easy sloth.
As an ex-pat myself, Burmese Days is tangible, familiar. I know these people. I look out my window and see water buffalo grazing in the scrub jungle. I also wait in desperation at the end of each April for the monsoon clouds to descend from the mountains and bring rain.
Living only forty kilometers from modern-day Myanmar, just on the Thai side of the Salaween mountains, I can understand the day-to-day life Orwell and his creation Flory lived. I know the sleeplessness in the hot season when the feral dogs bay and scream through the night. And I know what it is to pine, as Flory pines, for conversation that doesn’t revolve around the weather, the latest Punch (‘dear old Punch’), or the never-ending quips about the locals’ ineptitude. Though Punch has been replaced by the BBC, the weather and constant sniping about ‘them’ remain principal topics to talk about.
Flory foresees a time when ‘all this will be gone — forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas all vanished. Instead, pink villas fifty yards apart, with all the gramophones playing the same tune. And all the forests shaved flat — chewed into wood pulp for the News of the World, or sawn up into gramophone cases.’
Flory thought it could happen in two hundred years, and if it wasn’t for the blood-thirsty junta that has run Burma for the last four decades it would already have happened, less than a hundred years later:
‘THE ROYLE VILLAGE –Luxury Spanish style villa community situated in beautiful rural Kanchanaburi. English standard service, Sunday roasts, no local hassle.’
It’s no benefit to the starving, impoverished citizens of Myanmar that they have been spared the mundane horrors of modern tourism, but Flory would still feel at home there.
Burmese Days is an examination of a colonial station in a particularly small and isolated lumber town in upper Burma. The interactions among the ex-pats, the ex-pats and the locals, and the unfathomable relations among the natives are explored through the mind of John Flory (known behind his back as Poorly), a man with fifteen years in-country who in his early thirties sees himself as middle-aged and as having ruined himself with the necessary vices of drink and whoring; trapped in a place that he loves as much as he hates it with people he loathes but for Pukka Sahib sakes must spend hours on end with; a man whose life-long shame — a birthmark darkening one side of his face — has made him a social coward.
The first words we get from a mildly hung-over Flory while making his way to the British club in the heat of the early morning are, ‘Bloody, bloody hole!’ over and over to the tune of ‘Holy, holy, holy oh how thou art holy’.
Bloody hole, bloody weather — weather being a constant conversational obsession throughout southeast Asia. The heavy, dangerous sun, the sauna-like humidity, the thundering showers of the monsoon and that strange time in late December or possibly early January known as the cold season when the temperature at night comes down to a point where it can be comfortable to wear long pants and even a light sweater and here in Thailand the locals bundle up in parkas and mittens and the ex-pats briefly stop complaining about the heat.
The story develops around the daily conflict between the handful of English holding on to ideas of empire and the native citizenry of a Burma moving towards home rule. Flory stands between the two sides, a colonial manager, morally responsible to uphold the English side, while his true affinities are for the Burmese, if not in the present, then in some romantic past.
Flory is caught also in the middle of a native conflict — one he little understands and never gives any real credit to but which will eventually ruin him. The conflict is between his friend Dr. Veraswami, governor of the prison, and the sub-divisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, “the Crocodile”: grotesquely obese, thoroughly vain, a completely despicable creation that Orwell imbued with all the evils a native with power bestowed on him could achieve — rape, murder, blackmail, bribery, thievery, sedition — all to be redeemed by the building of pagodas by which he will ensure a pleasurable afterlife. When his wife warns him of the long list of his evil deeds, ‘U Po Kyin laughed and gave a careless wave of his hand that meant "pagodas."’
The character U Po Kyin lives on in Thailand today in many forms, from tour guides to bar girls to the tribe of island boys that have become ubiquitous in the southern tourist destinations. Their power stems entirely from their ability to speak English, but that ability can lead to vast fortunes in Thai terms, using any and all of U Po Kyin’s tricks to achieve its ends, and more modern ones as well.
As in Burmese Days, the manipulator is only in control when matched with the willing and easily duped. [In the novel the inherent racism of the English make them easy prey to conspiracies against wholly innocent natives.] Today the dynamic is nearly the opposite; it’s the blind trust that foreigners give to undeserving Thais that leads to trouble. In any town in Thailand is a long line of heartbroken foreigners willing to share with you their tale of how their special someone lied, cheated and threatened them for the sake of a motorcycle, a house, money. Even after the fact many fail to see their own complicity in the swindle, how lust and unrealistic expectations led them to make decisions bordering on the insane. And lately it isn’t only men who are crying in their beer.
Likewise the Crocodile's reliance on storing up merit towards the future life is as potent among thieves and murderers today as it was seventy-five years ago. It takes the form of buying a cage of finches to set free or paying for a turtle to be released into a river at the temple, or if you're a successfully criminal you can ease your sins by building a white marble temple with stained glass windows and air-conditioned prayer rooms, though the temple may be used only by that criminal's family and the turtle will be returned to the temple because the monks feed them opium.
But what makes Burmese Days real and timeless is Orwell 's canny identification of the key characters that made up (and still make up) an ex-pat community — the blowhard, the ultra-patriot, the cliché-maker, the drunkard — without simplifying them in a Dickens-like way. Flory’s attitude towards them doesn’t affect their merits or their shortcomings. His nemesis, Ellis, one of the timber company managers, is a mean, racist, short-tempered bully, but he's a man without physical faults or glaring intellectual shortcomings and is known to be an effective manager in good standing with everyone. Dr. Veraswami, as sympathetic a character as can be found in this book, though intelligent, honest and willing, is pitifully Anglo-centric and subservient.
The first scene where we meet the colonials is for pre-breakfast drinks at the British club. There is the police superintendent who speaks only in military style half-sentences and worn quips: ‘Lead on, McDuff’. Mr. Lackersteen, another timber manager who's henpecked, bloated and beet red is regarded by the rest as the station drunk — and this by a group meeting for pre-breakfast drinks! And, there's Ellis, who is dead set on keeping the club the last whites-only British club in Burma in spite of official decree, ‘when it’s a question of keeping those black stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves…breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’ll go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot bellied little-!' Etc. Orwell comments on Ellis’s outburst, ‘It was curiously impressive, because it was so completely sincere'.
The hen-pecking wife of Lackersteen arrives later with Deputy Commissioner Macgregor. The scene wanders over a well-worn path of anecdotes concerning the cheek of the natives compared with the way it used to be, the golden days of ‘please give the bearer fifteen lashes’, when one’s servants knew how to serve, or else.
Interrupting the patter of the club we get our first insight into Flory's troubled existence. ‘It must not, it could not — no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of this room quickly before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in Blackwood's? Would none of them ever think of anything new to say?’ How would Flory have felt if he could know all this wouldn’t have changed a century into the future?
Flory makes his excuses and exits the club, followed by the usual degrading jokes about his character, and makes his way to Dr. Veraswami’s bungalow where the two will practice a well-scripted argument, over more drinks, comparing the merits of the Empire with those of the natives' own culture, each man damning his own kind and holding up the virtues of the other.
Veraswami answers Flory’s charge of the uselessness of the changes the British have brought with, ‘Gramophones, billycock hats, the news of the world — all iss better than the horrible sloth of the oriental. I see the British, even the least inspired of them, ass-ass…ass torch bearers upon the path of progress.’ Flory counters ‘I see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic self-satisfied louse. Creeping round the world building prisons. They build a prison and call it progress.’ ‘My friend , positively you are harping upon the subject of prisons! Consider that there are also other achievements of your countrymen. They construct roads, they irrigate deserts, they conquer famines, they build schools, they set up hospitals, they combat plague, cholera, leprosy, small pox, venereal disease…’ ‘Having brought it here themselves,’ interjects Flory. But the doctor won’t stand to hear his countrymen left out, ‘No sir it wass the Indians who introduced venereal disease into this country. The Indians introduce disease and the English cure them…’
It continues in this manner, taunting one another, but civilly, in a way that Flory could never have done at the club, as he confesses to the doctor.
‘In fifteen years I’ve never talked honestly to anyone except you. My talks here are like a safety valve; a little black mass on the sly, if you understand me.’
It’s easier to vent with a local, if only because they are uninterested or wholly ignorant in the petty discomforts and annoyances of living in their country. They will nod their understanding and be happy to move on to a simpler topic of conversation.
During this conversation Flory learns of the plot of U Po Kyin to ruin Dr. Veraswami. Though Flory doesn’t take the plot seriously, he knows that by nominating the doctor to the club he could remove himself from criticism by any native. Flory also knows he would have to argue with the other whites to do so and that can not face up to such a fight, even if it's for the only friend — the only man — he has dared talk to in fifteen years.
Here is Flory’s life, his sluttish, dark bachelor’s home. His dirty unorganized servants, his live-in concubine whom he purchased from her parents a couple years earlier and now can only bear when in the act of physical love. When in town, away from the lumber camp he manages in the jungle, his time is spent walking his dog in the forest and reading by himself when not suffering drinks at the club. And it seems none of this will change until he retires to become one of those old colonials (Anglo-Indians Orwell calls them) that fill Agatha Christie novels and Hitchcock’s British films. The mustache, the monocle, the stories of shooting tigers, slipping into foreign tongues over pink gins at noon.
Then, unexpectedly, he finds himself coming to the rescue of a young white woman being threatened by a water buffalo early one morning. A pretty young girl, the niece of the Lackersteens, she has just arrived in Kyauktada. Sitting on his veranda with her, his life takes on meaning again. His mind fills with images of their life together, a life of mutual mental, emotional and physical fulfillment. No more drinking himself dumb from boredom and frustration, no more cheap-market prostitutes, no more long weeks in camp with only Tamil coolies for company. Then, in another ten years, retirement, back to England, dear England, all but forgotten in the heat and filth of Burma. Some country cottage tucked amongst the dales and shires with clean crisp air and a piano and all the other rosy, sweet, impossible images.
The girl coolly accepts his courting — she has come to the east to marry herself out of penury — but the more Flory speaks the more she finds him disgusting. It’s not his birthmark that bothers her initially but his longing to show her the perverse life of the natives, bringing her into the filth of the market, to an obscene Pwee festival and even into the home of a Chinese merchant, the whole time defending the people and their lifestyles, and talking, always talking, like some damned poet prattling on about highbrow notions and even using the dreaded word art. ‘Art’, as she thinks of it, is a useless, degenerate, hateful word.
Flory sees none of this. Convinced that she will be his salvation, he remains dumb to her prejudices, to the smallness of her mind and to the end game of marriage for marriage’s sake.
He doesn’t understand even when, after weeks of spending every evening together, sharing embraces, being wholly convinced they are to be married, she drops him for a newly arrived military policemen, a young, pompous lieutenant concerned only with horses and clothes and, temporarily, with the conquest of the young woman. The day he arrives Elizabeth all but stops speaking to Flory, spurred on by her scheming aunt who suddenly remembers that Flory keeps a Burmese woman. ‘Keeps her for what?’ Elizabeth wonders aloud. ‘What do men keep women for?’ the aunt answers.
Flory goes on to make an ass of himself trying desperately to win back Elizabeth’s attention. But his fantasy of a future life worth living is crushed. He returns to heavy drinking and whoring. He works himself to gristle in the jungle and ignores even his friend Dr. Veraswami.
Elizabeth finds in the lieutenant her equal and more in attitude towards writing, books, art, natives — all things outside of polo and Puhka Sahibism:
‘It was a bond between them that Verrall detested anything ‘highbrow’ even more then she did. He told her once that he had not read a book since he was eighteen and that indeed he “loathed” books;…’
The lieutenant ignores all the other members of the club and makes no attempt to uphold tradition or civility, the ‘Honorable’ prefacing his name putting him beyond civil discourse. When confronted by Ellis for beating the club butler he responds in an even tone, ‘My good chap, if anyone gives me lip I kick his bottom. Do you want me to kick yours?’ Even the rage of Ellis is snuffed out by the young man’s cool eye.
When the lieutenant, after having thoroughly monopolized Elizabeth’s attention, gets his orders to move on, he leaves without a word during a terrific rain storm, owing money to various merchants and wallas, having offended all the English in Kyauktada, without even a note to Elizabeth who is almost as devastated as her aunt.
But Mrs. Lackersteen recovers quickly and with barely a good riddance returns to earlier prey. ‘Saturday, then dear padre will be arriving this evening…How very nice! Mr. Flory will be here too, I think he said he was coming back from the jungle tomorrow.’ She added almost lovingly, 'Dear Mr. Flory.’
During this time the fights continue in the British club, a native uprising is swelling and U Po Kyin's machinations take greater and greater hold of the colonials' imagination's, until Dr. Veraswami is believed to be involved with all the evil doings in Satan’s bag of fun. ‘The doctor was accused of everything from pedastry to stealing government postage stamps.’
Flory returns to town for the yearly club meeting determined to nominate Dr. Veraswami as a member. He feels rejuvenated. The lieutenant is gone and he sees marriage with Elizabeth as inevitable, wholly forgetting the way she dropped him. Even thinking about her in the arms of the lieutenant no longer bothers him. And then Orwell drops the most disturbing line of the book: ‘There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some way.’ A line that wouldn’t be so troubling if this were genuine and not unrequited love, if Flory had humiliated himself for someone worth having. But Elizabeth is a cold, dull, scheming girl with no ambition outside of becoming a Mem Sahib (female counter part to the Pukka Sahib), the very type that Flory despises more than any other.
The ugly fight that ensues when Flory nominates Veraswami for membership is interrupted by the arrival of the body of a young forest ranger who has been cut to pieces by natives in revenge for the shooting of one of their relatives at a small riot surreptitiously orchestrated by U Po Kyin. The general outrage leads Ellis to beat a school boy with his stick, blinding him. The incident ends with the natives of the town surrounding the club and trapping the members inside, lobbing stones, breaking windows. Here the characters are drawn to their full strength. Ellis wants nothing more then a couple of rifles to kill as many as possible before being hacked to death. Mrs. Lackersteen collapses in fear of being raped by a coolie. Mr. Lackersteen cowers beneath the billiards table with a bottle of brandy.
Flory proves himself a hero, finding an escape from the club grounds, rallying the police and leading the guards to break the siege. Suddenly the much decried Flory is a damned good chap all around. Nothing can stop him. Dr. Veraswami will certainly be nominated to the club, Elizabeth will happily marry him, and no doubt he will be officially acknowledged and maybe even given a higher position in a more desirable post.
But Orwell didn’t write this book to be a story of redemption. In the final pages U Po Kyin’s master stroke comes together, a stroke so brutal it destroys everything Flory had accomplished with his heroics and any future he might have. Orwell creates an ending so ugly it makes me sneer and grimace every time. There is no reward for any of the more sympathetic characters, and those we want to suffer go on to comfort and success. We leave Kyauktada unchanged, and by the last page Flory’s name is already becoming a dim memory in the hot, still air. The rigorous code of Puhka Sahibism, ‘Keeping up our prestige, the firm hand (without the velvet glove), White men must hang together, Give them an inch and they’ll take an ell, and Espirit de Corps’ will carry on.
Orwell wrote Burmese Days as a condemnation of the British system of rule in colonial India. A very personal contempt is evident when he describes the Mem Sahibs and the pettiness of the native clerks alike. But the book heaps criticism on so many facets of civilization, from the English school system to Western ideas of beauty to the core of Christianity itself: ‘No. This book…this book with a black cover and gold letters — this one I cannot take. I know not how it is, but all sahibs are offering me this book, and none are taking it. What can it be that is in this book? Some evil, undoubtedly’, protests a book wallah when showing Flory his library. Burmese Days, Orwell’s first published novel, shows the depth of his malcontent, and all of the ideals he will attack in his career are touched on already.
In the seventy-five years since the publication of Burmese Days the reasons for young men, and not-so-young men, to venture to the East seem very much the same: adventure, exoticism, eroticism, escape, ease, fortune and, maybe as much now as then, the freedom to drink. The passage there is easier now, and there isn’t the disconnection from the larger world after you arrive — we can order pizza on-line here and download the latest films. Tourism in South East Asia is such that foreign faces are common in almost every town with proximity to a beach, river or mountain. Still, the day-to-day life for most ex-pats remains one of boredom and alienation, meeting each day in small groups of familiars to watch sports and drink. The never-ending loop of familiar quips — ‘Thailand is great, except for the Thais’ — relieves the stupor of tepid minds, and constant drink stays off the realization of how desperately pointless the life is.
(J. McMahon Esq. is an ex-pat living along the Salween mountain range in Thailand. Former lover of the legal art, he fled America under the harsh laws preventing his kind from walking free.
He currently resides on the banks of the river Kwai, writing, brewing bath-tub toddy and dealing with his retired racing buffalo. He is he author of The Black Gentlemen of Trong Suan and Tastes Like Chicken.)