Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Burmese Days is George Orwell's first novel, published in 1934 when the author was about 31 years old. George Orwell, or Eric Blair, worked as a police officer in Burma during his twenties. Obviously much of the material from Burmese Days is drawn from his own experiences of imperial rule.

I didn't quite know what to expect reading Orwell's first novel, but was very pleasantly surprised. His keen interest in politics, or the very worst of politics, is evident in every page. In fact, I can't think of a more relevant novel to read today, considering all that is going on.

Essentially, Burmese Days is an expose of the racist attitudes the English had to those they ruled during their 'great' days of empire. I've never read anything like it. There are descriptions of Burmese servants getting kicked for simply bring out a drink without ice. The British overlords think nothing of this; indeed, it is their due as the superior culture. What's scary about these scenes is you get the impression that Orwell is describing events he must have witnessed time and time again. It's pretty ugly stuff.

The novel describes Flory, a 35 year old British timber merchant, who must endure all these racist, imperial Englishmen and women. Worse, to demur from these racist opinions, which are aired so freely, is to put yourself immediately under suspicion and even incur the derision of your 'fellows' - if you can put it like that. And these people are racist in the coarsest manner, to the point of being completely stupid.

Orwell describes brilliantly the corrupting influence that the British have on the local population and its polity. The corrupt local chiefs and their lackeys get ahead by gaining favour with their British overlords, who think they are inferior being anyway because of their skin colour. It shows how an occupying power can very much work against the interests of the local population. They can be completely ignorant of the negative seeds they sow, all the time bitching about how 'backward' the natives are, how dirty and filthy. Sadly, sometimes even the natives will see the 'white' man as superior to themselves, and strive to be more European.

I thought it particularly relevant to today, with the US occupation of Iraq. Who can forget the US giving so much money to Mr Chalabi, the Iraqi exile, essentially because he kept telling them so much that they wanted to hear. As soon as he became quite evidently a fraud, they junked him. No one is saying it, but I presume the US soldiers harbor certain degrees of racism towards the Iraqis they occupy.

Burmese Days is light-years ahead of its time. To read how crass and undeserving the privileged can be, this is an excellent novel. To learn lessons for the future about the perils of occupation, I can't think of a better place to start.

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