George Orwell was mostly known to me thanks to his novels 1984 and Animal farms. As I recently discovered, he also wrote a famous book about his time in Burma in the 1920’s, “Burmese days”. The book has recently been back in the news, thanks to Emma Larkin‘s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” published in 2005. As the most welknown book taking place in Old Burma, “Burmese days” is high on the list of people going to visit today’s Myanmar. Home made copies of the book are on sale in many tourist spots, just like copies of Graham Green’s “The quiet American” are often found in the streets of Saigon.
Set in 1932, the book describes the life of a couple a British colonists in the city of Kyauktada, at the edge of the British Empire. The fictionnal city is copied after the real town of Katha in North Burma, where George Orwell spent 5 years in the imperial police. Lost in the Burmese jungle, they have very little contact with the rest of the world, apart from the “yearly trip to Rangoon”. They also have very little contact with the “natives”, i.e. local Burmese, with the exception of their personal servants (boys and butlers) and private interaction with the local women. The book is pretty much a “huis clos”, it counts only a small number of people and all scenes take place in the same location and in a short period of time. The conditions described in the book are more related to Shanghai in the 19th Century when Shanghai was still considered as an outpost. The city grew fast, but the closed feeling still stayed as foreigners where never that many compared to Chinese and surely always went in the same circles. Smaller outpost in China, just like the one described in “Barney”, were surely even closer to the book description.
The book is really reflecting the period view on humanity and colonialism. Although the world is opening to new and different values, like admitting “a native” in the Club, there were hard defenders of conservatism. Just like some expatriates in today’s Asia, they lived a life of pseudo luxury with servants and living conditions they would never dream of at home while constantly complaining against “the natives”. At the same time, they had no interest in understanding people around them, prefering to recreate a mini copy of their idealised homeworld stucked in past. George Orwell spent 5 years in British Burma and his opinion on the topic was very clearly similar to the one of his central character, Flory. He surely also had to hide is views and could not share them with many people there. Similar opinions were common all over Asia. Although the Shanghai. community was way larger than this small city, similar divisions existed between the ones defending their western colonists position and priviledges (including extraterritoriality in China) and the ones with progressist and equilitarian ideas summarised in the universal human right declaration. In Shanghai, a few examples of the progressive camp included Carl Crow who spoke fluent Chinese and became an expert on the topic, as well as JB Powell, publisher of the China Weekly Review. The book is not only an interesting read during a trip to Myanmar, many parts also echoes Old Shanghai life.