Below the Surface: Reading Burmese Days

George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days (1934) is preceded by a quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘That in this desert inaccessible, Under the shade of melancholy boughs’. This spoken after Jacques encounter with the clown Touchstone. And so, In Burmese Days as John Flory occupies deepest Burma, in the wilderness of British Colonialism, Flory exists in a place of remote despotism – Burma ruled by the British Empire. As Orwell reflects on the empire supposed to be Great, we’re reminded of Touchstone’s later remark in the play ‘And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot’ which sounds even more poignant. The Empire for Orwell, was both a source of enrichment and poison.

Perhaps there is something in that sense of delay, of Orwell not giving that more urgent precedent. The Empire was rotting or a rot as Orwell saw it, and it was not a method of ‘ripening’ or enlivening humanity. But for something to rot it means that there is still action, change and transformation; something is living, even though it may not be the thing itself. As bacteria eats away at the dying, essentially, the thing has ceased to exist yet. Orwell said in 1929, under his real name of Eric Blair, in a French newspaper ‘The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects. But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democrac’. Whilst decay may be obvious, we’ve all heard the case of the ‘rotten apple’, not knowingly unhealthy until we’ve bitten into it, or as Orwell said there – revealed its mask.

Burmese Days is a bite into that apple. It is set within the British Raj, living inside its processes and contradictions, based partly on Orwell’s experiences in the military police whilst in Burma, and in the words of Orwell, ‘much of it is simply reporting what I saw’ (although admitting that most of it was inaccurate). We know now to be careful of how we interpret Orwell’s matter-of-fact statements, a man who has written fictions about ideologies, cannot simply be reporting what he has seen. Before Orwell was stationed in Burma , Emma Larkin in the introduction to the 2009 edition, and author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell In a Burmese Tea Shop, notes how Orwell was a ‘typical child of the empire’ and ‘enjoyed the decadence of the ruling class in Burma’. For Orwell to say it was ‘simply reporting what he saw’ is arguably one of the several tongue in cheek remarks he made about his fiction and in his non-fiction. However you take it, what Orwell saw in Burma was a formalising element for his fiction and perhaps his non-fiction as well.
It focuses on John Flory – not a wholly semi-autobiographical account for Orwell despite sharing particular traits and looks – a 35 year old teak merchant in the fictional district of Kyauktada. Here, the Europeans have higher prestige over the Burmese, which the Burmese submissively recognise. Zadie Smith remarked how Middlemarch despite its size physically and metaphysically, was weirdly and obsessively local. Here, Orwell seems to share that very British trait. Local politics naturally reflect global ones, and Orwell seems to have the very British fascination with locality. U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate plans to destroy the reputation of the Indian Doctor Veraswami, because of the election to the European club, and it is the chalice that they ultimately both desire, and Veraswami, in a non-exploitative way hopes his friendship with Flory will get him there. Flory and Veraswami then is quite an unconventional relationship as Veraswami, the native and the oppressed defends the Raj to Flory, the oppressor’s, disdain.

In Flory, it is not so much a biographical device, but it does feel like an abstracted Orwell, the roaming spectator of a man who could eventually write 1984 and Animal Farm. Certainly, early incarnations of Orwell’s ideas appear to be prevalent; Flory is ‘the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature’ which is something that could have been taken from 1984. With Orwell, his prophecies of totalitarianism were often attributed to the rise of fascist states in Germany and Russia, but it’s evident that the warnings come from much closer to home. There is the irony and contradiction again. Orwell was a series of contradictions and the Empire was an ultimate contradiction for him, to at one time in life to enjoy its decadence that it afforded, but to realise its penury later.
Let’s look at the prevailing and obvious motif in Burmese Days –  Flory’s birthmark, a large physical aspect of Flory’s appearance. It’s given an introduction by Orwell worthy of being its own separate character: ‘the first thing that one noticed in Flory was hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth…And all the times when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he maneouvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight’. And keep it out of sight he does, quite implausibly throughout apart from one important moment, which is the enduring, impossible irony. Whilst Flory shares some aspects of Orwell’s appearance, the birthmark represents that token of appearance that is central to life in Kyauktada – skin colour – but also its obviousness means that it’s something more than that. As Larkin states in the introduction, the birthmark marks represents that personal emblem, that love he had of a child, unwittingly not knowing the implications of it, yet that stays with him. A ‘child of the empire’ she calls him and and whether Larkin chose those words purposefully there is an unsettling of coincidence if she did not.
A birthmark is irremovable, they can fade or become more noticeable through several factors, but where white skin supremacy is prevalent throughout Kyauktada, is it then Flory’s or a projection of Orwell’s blemish? Is it that sense of rotting or of there being something beneath the veneer? In this sense I think Orwell shares something with later Philip Roth, this explicitly male fascination that Burmese Days upholds, the revulsion but also the wonder of the messy contradictions of humanity (admittedly, mostly male). With Flory made to bear it and take part in it, he is the only redeeming white man at the European club, despite him still being part of it. It’s only personal that he seems to be able to rebuke it. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, he wears his stain on the outside (unlike a novel such as The Plot Against America the stain is within: the narrator, a young Philip Roth, bears witness to the many different males in his world wondering what to revile and what to admire and eventually becomes externalised).
Time has not done a great service to Orwell, which is ironic, as he was a man who had an ability to resurrect or sustain disregarded writers through his own criticism. Perhaps this is because Orwell is a writer who can be taken upon any mantle to prove a point; at times he appears to revile against individualism, but then at others, he only sees futility in a collective state, and an inevitable descent into totalitarianism. As such his verbatim quotations are ravaged out of their context to support any argument. But I think this is a fate Orwell would have taken a humorous satisfaction in; he was a writer at home with contradictions and realised that from contradictions, there emanated truths. We all know of his essays on writing and perhaps most famously, Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, some years after Burmese Day, where he wrote of prose being like a ‘windowpane’, and ‘not choosing long words where short ones will do’. These are all quite idealistic, even juvenile mantras, largely dismissed even. But instead, reading them now, after my own, probably juvenile fascination, they represent a way of saying that the truth is not so easily obtainable as reducing writing to simplicity, but there is not necessarily any greater or higher artistic truth to be gained either.

And if you look at Burmese Days, the novel represents a lesson in that. As Orwell said in Why I Write ‘I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…. is rather that kind of book’. It was an experiment in contradiction. Orwell’s biographer D.J Taylor said ‘the most striking thing about the novel is the extravagance of its language: a riot of rococo imagery that gets dangerously out of hand’ and then you start to see the formula behind Why I Write. Like his experience of the Empire, it was as if Orwell did not want to gloss these truths for the sake of an artistic truth, for the sake of imagery, because that was what he was riling against in the first place. Perhaps then Marcellus’s line from Hamlet would have been a more appropriate epitaph: ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’, substituting Denmark for Burma. There was something rotten in the state of the world, and Orwell realised by the end of Burmese Days that there was no point in concealing it. Like Kyauktada, Orwell realised that beneath the skin, of which our imperialised world based itself on, was the messy world of humanity, a world of flaws, contradictions and painful truths: we have to be thankful that writers like Orwell were willing to confront this, because often we cannot do it ourselves and for good, life-affirming intentions. Orwell was willing to bear his own failures of belief and conviction. It wasn’t flaws in his writing (although sometimes it was), but one can feel the flaws felt personal, even if they were detached and removed from himself, problems with the world; a realisation that fiction can only go so for in correcting our internal world, sublimating it into an understanding for ourselvesbut only going as far as illuminating the outer, proper world.

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