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Old 04-07-2017, 08:13 PM   #1
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Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days is a novel by British writer George Orwell. It was first published in the USA in 1934. It is a tale from the waning days of British colonialism, when Burma was ruled as part of the Indian empire - "a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj."

At its centre is John Flory, "the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature." Orwell's first novel, it describes "corruption and imperial bigotry in a society where, "after all, natives were natives - interesting, no doubt, but finally...an inferior people."

Because of concerns that the novel might be potentially libellous, that Katha was described too realistically, and that some of the characters might be based on real people, it was first published "further afield", in the United States. A British edition, with altered names, appeared a year later. When it was published in the 1930s Orwell's harsh portrayal of colonial society was felt by "some old Burma hands" to have "rather let the side down." In a letter of 1946, Orwell said "I dare say it's unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen." (From Kobo)

This is the MR Literary Club selection for April 2017. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time, and guests are always welcome! So, what are your thoughts on it?

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Old 04-08-2017, 10:13 AM   #2
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A great selection at MR Literary Club! Thanks for the info, Bookpossum!

Although I'm not a regular contributor to the club, but I couldn't resist my urge to express my opinion this time. I had read the Burmese Day by George Orwell few years back, immediately after reading A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, published in 1924. In my humble opinion, the Burmese Days is strongly influenced by A Passage to India. Both novels describe a Britisher's friendship with an Indian doctor, and a British girl who goes out to the English colonies, gets envolved in relations and later quits. Both novels use the similar club scenes to depict the colonial society and contemporary values of the characters and their racial attitudes.

I also find that George Orwell was serving in Burma at the time of publication of A Passage to India, and there are chances that he might have inspired with it's plot and somewhat similar socio-political conditions in the Burma that time, under the British Raj.

However, despite a little pessimistic tone, it's a great read. I hope the members of the MR Literary Club will find it interesting.
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Old 04-08-2017, 11:47 AM   #3
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Thanks for posting your thoughts, drjd! The club read A Passage to India several years ago, and I was wondering how they compared.
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Old 04-09-2017, 04:04 AM   #4
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Thanks drjd - that's an interesting comment and one to bear in mind. Please do join in the discussion as we go if you would like to do so.
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Old 04-16-2017, 08:24 PM   #5
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With a lot of reading time available I had intended to read this straight through in a few days but by the time I got to the end of Chapter 5 I had the feeling that Blair was trying to sell me something that I did not want. From then on I just picked at it in between other reading and activities in order to eventually finish it a few days ago.

First, I felt for me that it had a strong and interesting story line, well developed characters, etc. But, for me, its style came across quite extravagant, likely as a result Blair's over-egging of the aspect of book I did not like.

I have never read a full biography of Blair's but have read various commentaries of his life; I had read all his novels except Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter. I had read many of his essays including ones, such as All Art is Propaganda and Why I Write, that are of relevance to my reaction to the book. I knew that little was known of his time in Burma and that Burmese Days is relied an as being semi-autobiographical to fill in some gaps, and that he was indeed a loner and misfit to the place just as Flory was.

I felt that much of the narration in the book was pretty much Blair speaking and outed many of his hang-ups. Much of the time the narration is presented as if the thoughts of Flory (such as the polemic in Chapter 5) but at other times one has to wonder whose thoughts he is, in fact, relating because the narrations frequently become statements, not reading as being related directly to what Flory's beliefs or thoughts were. Such as when Verral is described in Chapter 18, the likes of:

It did not even make any difference whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits.


Now such statements are, in my understanding, representative of what Blair likely thought himself. Such as those within much of the character dialogue also represent to me Blair's own beliefs. Perhaps the visibility that I felt, of Blair's own thoughts, was due to this being Blair's first novel and followed personal memoirs, so he did not have the knack of putting his propaganda into the voices of his characters?

In the end the flavour I got was that this was the writing of a disaffected man on the outskirts of rationality heading towards the man he became, at least by his later years, as a Democratic Socialist with its anarchistic objectives of non-revolutionary dismantling of the capitalist system and nationalising all means of production and services (for example, in Why I Write he states: Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism (Burmese Days was published in 1934 but, it is claimed, much was drafted years before that).

So I enjoyed the story, exaggerated as it was, but disliked being drawn into what I thought was a lightly disguised polemic.

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Old 04-20-2017, 06:31 PM   #6
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I have just finished reading the book, and found it hard work. Not because of George Orwell's style, which is plain and elegant, but because of the repellant cast of characters. The only decent person was the unfortunate doctor.

At the same time, I don't believe that Orwell was exaggerating the awfulness of the people. The book filled me with shame and disgust at the attitudes and moral bankruptcy of the supposedly superior white men and women.

Given their attitudes towards the people of Burma, it was hardly surprising that they also saw nothing wrong with going out and killing birds and animals for no good reason. The description of Flory and Elizabeth's shooting expedition will stay with me for a long time. The only good thing about it was that the people of the village acquired some meat to eat.

So for me, it was a powerful but deeply unpleasant read. But then, you don't come to Orwell for something cosy!
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Old 04-20-2017, 10:00 PM   #7
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...So for me, it was a powerful but deeply unpleasant read. But then, you don't come to Orwell for something cosy!
A great summary of so much of Orwell's work, Bookpossum.
Your statement reminded me of the words of Marley's ghost:
‘Jacob,’ he said, imploringly. ‘Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob!’
‘I have none to give,’ the Ghost replied. ‘It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.’

Given that Orwell served in the Indian Police in Burma, one must wonder how much of the character of Flory is autobiographical, or possibly a projection of what he would have become, had he continued on in the colonial apparatus.
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Old 04-21-2017, 12:27 AM   #8
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As best I can make out the book is only autobiographical insofar as sense is concerned rather than any accurate recounting of actual events in his life; it is, after all, a novel and the author has a free rein insofar as not sticking to the truth is concerned, and free rein away from the truth in order to carry his story and his propaganda (I am not trying to be nasty in saying "propaganda", it is a term Blair himself used). It seems generally agreed that it is exaggerated and from what I can find of Burmese history that is so; as part of that exaggeration it is also selective in where his criticisms are directed as I will, from my own point of view, elaborate on below.

Orwell was in Burma from 1922 to 1927 so this was before the time of the British Colonial Service and in fact, even after the Colonial Service came into being, India (and hence Burma, and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh) was never administered by the Colonial Service but by the Indian Civil Service which was responsible for its own recruiting of officers from both locals and expatriates (often Scottish, not just English, in the case of Burma). By the time of Indian independence approximately 1/3 of its officers were locals. But in fact Burma was split off as a separate colony before then late in the 1930's with an elected government and much control in the hands of the Burmese; that all turned to custard leading to riots that the British had to quell.

Orwell seems to me to have been quite mixed up by his experience (he says himself it almost sent him mad), and in my opinion some of his essays are worth a read, especially ones reflecting on his experience in Burma where his own contradictions and the influences of the behavioural expectations of the locals on the officers are apparent. For example, in Shooting an Elephant he talks of feeling like bayoneting monks and of the pressures of the locals on him to kill the animal, and in A Hanging laughing with everyone over the behaviour of a condemned man (both written years after he left Burma). Contradictions of this type, but not the events themselves, can be seen in Flory, for example.

There are things about Burma that Blair does not tell us about and one wonders why; I can only assume because to do so would have watered down his exaggerations. For example, Burma was an imperial totalitarian state before the British took control after the first Anglo-Burmese war; it seems strange to me, given Blair's detestation of imperialism and totalitarianism, that he only mentions all of the ills of totalitarianism with respect to British imperialism. In fact, after the British left, Burma quite quickly reverted to being a totalitarian state again, a socialist one, and became an economic basket case that could not even feed itself. He also does not mention the history of troubles among the various ethnicities native to Burma, but again limits himself to troubles against the British.

In my own view I think it is too easy to be critical of these people, whether the colonisers or the colonised, but has to be seen as within the accepted beliefs and societies of their own times. After all, in future years we will be judged ourselves, and then even the best of us may be seen as being not very nice people when set against that future society's expectations, whatever they turn out to be.

I have worked in a developing country made up of multiple ethnicities and with differences between them; the necessary dynamics of the relationship between expatriates and locals is, in fact, quite different to that which one would like to imagine from our own cosy viewpoints at home in western society. One has to make ones own place in the environment in order to gain respect. I managed because my wife was of one of the local ethnicities (but from another country), and the expatriate manager who I did the assignment for made his place, despite being a normally generous person, by being an abusive brute (and he had the machete scar across his buttocks to prove it); he was both respected and liked very much by his employees (one of whom saved his life).

We can be as critical as we like about the British colonialism and its faults, but in the end India, which had a different and stronger history prior to the appearance of the British (predominantly through domination of the North by a Muslim sultanate which also forayed into the south) than Burma did, has maintained its British administrative and parliamentary systems and English is the official language with Hindi.

That is my take on it, I may be wrong but I think that Blair was inclined to over grind his axe in fields he did not know much about--economics and political science--but was very good at telling us with a narrow parochial perspective what he does not like within the aspects of society those fields play in (a fault that is, it seems, not uncommon among artists). Of course, I may suffer from the same fault too .

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Old 04-24-2017, 02:41 AM   #9
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In my own view I think it is too easy to be critical of these people, whether the colonisers or the colonised, but has to be seen as within the accepted beliefs and societies of their own times. After all, in future years we will be judged ourselves, and then even the best of us may be seen as being not very nice people when set against that future society's expectations, whatever they turn out to be.
I do see your point AnotherCat, but at the same time I don't think I am prepared to accept as okay behaviour and attitudes that are so damaging to others. To take that to an extreme, it means that we shouldn't be critical of putting people on the rack because that's what used to be done back in Renaissance times. Or that slavery was okay because a lot of people thought it was okay at the time. People like William Wilberforce were few and far between, at least to start with, but that didn't mean that slavery was for one moment an acceptable or honourable "trade".

I know that it is easy to sit back and feel critical of others because I am in a very different place. But I am a long-standing member of Amnesty International and the Reconciliation movement in Australia, so at least I do try to take actions to help make a difference.
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Old 04-24-2017, 08:32 PM   #10
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Hi Bookpossum, I think you are taking my points too far. All I am saying is that in my view we should not be critical of our ancestors who were just doing what were normal or unavoidable behaviours in their own societies and times. First, let me give an example from Blair's own real life experience.

In Shooting an Elephant, which essay of Blair's is claiming to report an actual incident he was involved in, there was no necessity for him to shoot the elephant but the large crowd of villagers basically pressured him into it against his better judgement. It was clearly not seen by the villagers as being a bad thing to shoot it and, of course, like the shooting of the tiger in Burmese Days, they got the meat in the end.

I am assuming that most people in a western country today would disagree with the shooting. However, what I am suggesting is that a local in the crowd whose society did not see it that way in those times is really innocent of offence and beyond criticism by us now. Also, Blair's action in shooting the elephant was not damaging to them, he complied with their expectation at the cost of it being damaging to him (his mental state). Personally, I would not criticise him for it.

Of course, Blair could have decided not to shoot the elephant (in which case as a police officer he would have lost face and influence - James Cook made this mistake e.g. in NZ when Maori killed and ate some of his men and he did not retaliate as Maori society's expectations were). Blair could also have tried to modify the behaviour of the locals away from their society's acceptance of their behaviour - but then, would he not be the imperialist that he did not want to be and hence the contradictions that are seen in his works regarding his time in Burma? Similarly for the expatriates, if we look at them as individuals (in the collective sense, there were undoubtedly bad eggs too) they were just products of their time and place, and of society (both their own society and that of the locals), plus their depiction in the novel is exaggerated.

I am not saying that people who are misfits by committing crimes or behaviours unacceptable in the time and society that they live in should not be criticised, but I am saying that we are all products of the societies and times that we live in and as individuals we should not be criticised for that, especially by those looking back from the comfort of the future. I am also not absolving leaders from such behaviours or from promoting such behaviours in their own times; the likes of Stalin, for example, who Blair abhorred (for both Stalin's competitive political views and abuse of human rights reasons).

If I allude to your mentioning the rack to explain my comment about how we might be judged from the future. Today, most people in western societies, probably a huge majority, believe that most criminals should be incarcerated in gaol for serious crimes. There are, however, some who believe that doing so is inhumane, but among those they either do not have an alternative to suggest or else do not have one that is acceptable to society's majority. In two hundred years it may be that gaols are regarded as being incredibly inhumane (i.e. they have found a better solution for correction unknown to us now) in which case do we as their ancestors wish to be criticised for our behaviour in this which is the expectation of our present society?

Conversely, should it be that if in two hundred years time it is proven, or even just accepted as being so by society, that gaol sentences, perhaps even more toughly applied than now, are the only way to protect innocent civilians from serious crime, then is it fair for those of us now who oppose gaol terms to be criticised for those views by those looking back from the future (perhaps the criticism could be "They did not care enough about the innocent people who suffered violence and murder"?). In the first case people are just acting with the views held commonly by their society, which for the sake of good order is generally a good thing. And in the second the people are challenging the views commonly held by society, which is also a good thing but only, in my view, if they have a rational alternative to promote (they unfortunately often don't, in which case are they not just taking a lazy, feel good stance?).

Often, I myself think, our judgements of the behaviours of people back in the past are coloured. For example, while we may be critical of the man turning the wheels on the rack that stretched the victim to a painful crippling or death, are we as critical of the Maori who as part of a war party killed and ate his opponent and then shrunk his head to keep as a "memento" (for much of Maoridom intertribal battles were an accepted part of their society until relatively recent times)? Do we criticise the New Guinean head hunter for his practices that were quite ordinary within his society? Do we criticise the Maori chief who sent his tribe into a tribal battle more than the man who condemns the victim to the rack more? I think we often do not.

As I think Blair found, in the end perhaps one has to make the best of the conflicting demands of where one is and ones own views, and kill the elephant. Then, maybe, later write a novel and some essays about it all .

John

PS. I should note that my own thoughts have not just arisen out of reading Blair's work. I had a great-grandfather who was in the Indian Civil Service and my Grandmother spent all her childhood and teenage years in India (although I know virtually nothing about their time there-my aged Grandmother's recollections were rather unreliable when I was old enough to ask questions, but I tried to get a flavour by other research), I have an interest in James Cook who tried to balance the demands of his own society (which, most closely, were represented by his crews that he had to live with) with those of the natives he came in contact with, and have worked with expatriates and locals in a developing country whose society's past (and some present) human rights values are, compared to what we in the West might think, in much conflict to our own (as were those of the society of the Polynesian immigrants to my own country).

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Old 04-25-2017, 09:51 AM   #11
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I have just finished reading the book, and found it hard work. Not because of George Orwell's style, which is plain and elegant, but because of the repellant cast of characters. The only decent person was the unfortunate doctor.

At the same time, I don't believe that Orwell was exaggerating the awfulness of the people. The book filled me with shame and disgust at the attitudes and moral bankruptcy of the supposedly superior white men and women.

Given their attitudes towards the people of Burma, it was hardly surprising that they also saw nothing wrong with going out and killing birds and animals for no good reason. The description of Flory and Elizabeth's shooting expedition will stay with me for a long time. The only good thing about it was that the people of the village acquired some meat to eat.

So for me, it was a powerful but deeply unpleasant read. But then, you don't come to Orwell for something cosy!
I agree with your assessment of the novel. I found the characters generally unpleasant and the story extraordinarily depressing. At the same time Orwell pulled no punches in the lacerating portralts of the "civilised" white bureaucracy.
Orwell gives the lie to the patriarchal colonial attitude we find in Kipling's dreadful poem: "Take Up the white man's burden". However noble the poet's personal beliefs were in that piece, and I don't doubt but that they were genuine, the reality was far more corrupt.
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Old 04-25-2017, 08:21 PM   #12
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Yes, I do enjoy Kipling's prose (not his poetry) and there is no doubt he genuinely loved India. But as they say, when you are within a culture, you can't see it, and when you are outside it, you can't understand it.

George Orwell was one of the unusual people who was a part of the culture but could see it very clearly and painfully. It's no wonder he found it such a grim experience.
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Old 04-27-2017, 09:45 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Yes, I do enjoy Kipling's prose (not his poetry) and there is no doubt he genuinely loved India. But as they say, when you are within a culture, you can't see it, and when you are outside it, you can't understand it.


The assessment of Kipling has undergone a quite a change since his death. The Victorians did think he was a great poet because he celebrated the British Empire though he quite emphatically turned down the post of poet laureate. His popularity has waned and his fame was that ephemeral type which depended on a specific mind-set, now gone.

But his prose--particularly the short stories--have not only survived, they are still very much admired both for their artistry and Kipling's ability to transcend the time and to deal with the human condition in a more profound way than generally happens in his poetry.

Personally, I think that at his best he is as good a short story writer as anyone in the language.
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Old 04-27-2017, 07:20 PM   #14
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Yes I agree - his short stories range from very good to superb.
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Old 05-14-2017, 09:22 PM   #15
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It took me awhile to read through all of the comments. A great and insightful dialogue this month. Thank you, everyone! I was excited to read this early work by Orwell. I'm glad we selected it. However, like everyone else, it was slower-going than I expected since the characters were so unlikeable! I was curious how Orwell's book was received when it was published. I couldn't find any contemporaneous reviews. The best I could find was this information on Wikipedia under Burmese Days.
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Because of concerns that the novel might be potentially libellous, that Katha was described too realistically, and that some of the characters might be based on real people, it was first published "further afield", in the United States. A British edition, with altered names, appeared a year later. When it was published in the 1930s, Orwell's harsh portrayal of colonial society was felt by "some old Burma hands" to have "rather let the side down". In a letter from 1946, Orwell said "I dare say it's unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen".
I wanted to share that I am half-way through the audiobook version of Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma, a political travelogue from an expat-American journalist that traces George Orwell's life in Southeast Asia. It has been an interesting companion to last month's selection. Here is the description from Goodreads.
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Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she's come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as "Orwellian." The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma's connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell's mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell's work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country - his first novel, Burmese Days - but in fact he wrote three, the "trilogy" that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, "Ah, you mean the prophet!"

In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma's far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell's moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author's compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book - the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.


The following article on "Orwell, Kipling and Empire" is also quite interesting.
https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the...ng-and-empire/
It has links to essays that Orwell wrote about Kipling. Orwell referred to him as the "good bad poet" and said:
Quote:
For my own part I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five and now again rather admire him. The one thing that was never possible, if one had read him at all, was to forget him.
Emma Larkin in her book discusses Orwell and Kipling and makes a point of comparing this impression to the dates & ages of Orwell's time in Burma (1922-1927, 19-24 years)

I was curious to find photos of what Burma is like. Here are a few travel articles that follow Orwell's steps in Burma that I enjoyed:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/t-...e-orwell.html#
https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2...-burma-myanmar

And, lastly, The Orwell Society is a registered charity in the UK with the objective "to promote an understanding and appreciation of the life and work of George Orwell (1903-1950)," and I had fun exploring their website. Here is a link.
http://www.orwellsociety.com/home/
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