There was no frontier or fringe to the British Empire. Anywhere the empire went, there was either a military or financial reason to be there. In Burma, it was both. During the Second World War, Burma would became a key battleground between British India and the expansionist ambitions of Japan.
Back in the 1920s, at the time of Orwell’s Burmese Days, the jungles of Burma were a prime source of precious timber, notably teak. Working to exploit these resources, a ragtag band of Europeans pass their time in a dull club where they moan and drink and whine.
One of their greatest desires is to see an uprising from the local population, which they can then use as an excuse to suppress the people with ruthless reprisals. Characters dream of getting the chance to kill a man or flog them till they cannot walk again. Deprived of these pleasures by a pliant populace, they spend their free time in other ways, mostly slaughtering the local wildlife.
Burmese Days is a relentless critique of empire and the people who profited from it. Herein lies its flaw. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people. It’s impossible to relate to anyone, or to enjoy the novel. Whereas in later works by Orwell, we have characters that we can root for, like Snowball and Boxer in Animal Farm, or Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, here everyone is vile. It’s something that appears in other early works by Orwell, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where his bitterness and anger overrides his ability to tell a good story.
At times, the authorial voice in this novel is glib, and other times it borders on racism in how the Burmese are portrayed, despite the fact that Orwell’s sympathies clearly lie with the local population. Thankfully, there is still some terrific writing here:
‘Here, you— what’s your name — Verall!’
‘Have you been kicking our butler?’
Verall’s sulky blue eye appeared around the corner of the Field, like the eye of a crustacean peering round a rock.
‘I said, have you been kicking our bloody butler?’
‘Then what the hell do you mean by it?’
‘Beggar gave me his lip. I sent him for a whisky and soda and he brought it warm.’
Ultimately, Burmese Days is a curious book. Born of Orwell’s frustrations at working as a colonial police officer in Burma from 1924-1927, it is fuelled by indignation. As a portrait of miserable Europeans falling to pieces against tropical backdrops, it feels like a novel by Graham Greene, especially The Heart of the Matter, written some fourteen years later.
Funnily enough, Orwell reviewed The Heart of the Matter when it first came out and he didn’t like it. You can read parts of the review here, although be warned: like many newspaper reviewers today, Orwell gives the whole plot away if you haven’t read the book.
As a critique of British Empire, Burmese Days ought to have lost its relavance long ago. However, the corrupting influence of greed to exploit the world’s natural resources has simply shifted from Western governments to mega corporations and their local placemen. Take for example the struggles of the Awá people against illegal logging in Brazil, which is happening right now. The names and nationalities may have changed, but the misery continues both for oppressor and oppressed.