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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell


Book Review
Burmese Days (1934)
by George Orwell

  George Orwell is a staple of English class from Junior High, where Animal Farm is a perennial, to High School, where 1984 is required reading, to college, where Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in London and Paris and his short story Killing An Elephant are like as not to pop up in the general requirements for a B.A. degree.  Orwell is certainly not fashionable in post-graduate circles, quite the opposite, with his reputation suffering in the aftermath of the 1960s led revolution in voices outside the limited perspective of the entitled white male.   Although George Orwell made his reputation on books criticizing mid 20th century totalitarianism in ways that anticipate much of 20th and 21st century radical thought, he himself was a relentlessly bourgeois white male with issues related to women.

  This makes his more autobiographical novels, including Burmese Days, more of a chore and less appealing for the contemporary reader than his immortal hits.  BUT if you are someone who actually likes George Orwell and aren't just reading him because of a school assignment, it is more biographical works that really tell us about the Author.   Andddd man, he seems like he really had issues with women.  Burmese Days pivots on the relationship between John Flory, the Orwell figure, his Malaysian slave-prostitute and Elizabeth Lackersteen, a young English orphan (20 years old) who arrives in his remote Burmese village with the idea that she needs to find a husband and soon.

 Like the love interest in Keep the Aphrisdia Flying, Elizabeth Lackersteen is a confused figure whose inner life only appears as a reflection of the narrative of Flory.  In his more biographical novels, the love story takes second shift to the struggle between man and society.  In Burmese Days, his critique of the British Imperialist project is trenchant and insightful.  The lower level government employees and European representatives of Corporations doing business in the Teak forests of Burma are a surly and servile lot.

 Compared to their Burmese and Indian counterparts (Burma was a part of India under British rule), the English are one dimensional a-holes; all the depth is reserved for the fascinating native characters, Flory himself excepted.  Modern readers are likely to find Burmese Days troubling for repeated use of ethnic slurs and the casual use and disuse of a sex slave in the context of British Imperial rule.  

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