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It is so important (perhaps the most important of all the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib) not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes Englishmen do often love Indians – native officers, forest rangers, hunters, clerks, servants. Sepoys will weep like children when their colonel retires. Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.
The introduction to this novel describes the desperate attempts by publishers to shield themselves from legal action if too close attention was paid to Orwell’s story. Unlike Animal Farm, or 1984, there was no way to pass the book off as a parable with a political subtext. Always a pragmatic man, Orwell cheerfully signed off on amendments to the text, although this led to lithographic errors that enraged him. The story features a newspaper named the Burmese Patriot. For the American edition, the author proposed it be renamed the Burmese Sinn Feiner. This speaks to the bloody-minded humour of Orwell, eagerly employing truth as a bludgeon.
The story begins with the corrupt bureaucrat U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional Magistrate of the Burmese town of Kyauktada. He has climbed up the rungs of power through deceit and a willingness to destroy the reputations of his rivals. His conniving nature is such that he is known to take bribes from both parties in a legal dispute and then resolve the matter on the facts presented. This incongruously has led to him becoming known for a curious kind of impartiality. U Po Kyin has decided the only obstacle to further advancement is his superior, the British Empire loving Dr Veraswami. The doctor is well-known and has almost become an equal to the Europeans who run the businesses in the town. Immediately the rival for the doctor’s social status begins spreading rumours and lies designed to bring the good man low.
Meanwhile the European Club of Anglo-Indian ex-patriates is thrown into dismay when their chair Mr McGregor announces that they are to vote on the matter of inviting a ‘native’, to join their select group. The most vocal opponent to the proposal is Mr. Ellis, a hateful bigot who is thrown into apoplexy at the mere thought of racial equality. Flory, a more impartial member, keeps his council, but is known by the others to be a friend to Dr. Veraswami and is accused by Ellis of being a traitor to the British Empire. Flory is also warned by his ‘native friend’, that U Po Kyin will conspire against him if he becomes too great a threat. Prepared to leave well enough alone, the self-pitying timber merchant takes no direct action, until the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, a niece of one of the club members. Delighted by her apparent education and experience of the Parisian bohemian scene, Flory tries to introduce her to the sights and sounds of Kyauktada, hoping to enchant her enough that she will agree to be his wife. Much as he wishes to be free of the society of ‘pukka sahibs’, though, the broad-minded Englishman is unprepared for the danger waiting for him. Hoping to live equally in two worlds, he finds himself abandoned by both.
Anthony Burgess once proposed that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother and Ingsoc was originally meant to occur closer to the date of publication in 1949. By setting the action in the far off future of nineteen eighty four, the threat posed was lessened. In Burmese Days the threat is very much close to the heart of the British Empire.
This is a condemnation of their behavior towards the indigenous peoples of occupied lands. Flory and the doomed Dr Veraswami engage in a recurring debate as to the nature of the British regime. Flory describes it as theft conducted on a massive scale. The blinkered Veraswami assures his British friend that everything good in Burma has come from their conquerors. Both men criticize their homelands in favour of the other. Both are outsiders, belonging nowhere.
There is a blackly comic tone to the proceedings (Flory rescues Elizabeth from a docile buffalo; Orwell includes a scathing description of her bohemian past in Paris), but also a sense of anger given full force. The muted tragedy of the last sentence of the book leaves the reader feeling hollow and cold. Visceral and brilliant.