The following is an excerpt from Prof. Rosinka Chaudhuri's 'Introduction' to Burmese Days (Oxford World's Classics, 2021). If you would like to read the introduction in full, you can purchase a copy of Burmese Days on Oxford University Press's website.
Only what does not fit in can be true.
-- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
Burmese Days is not so much a novel about Englishmen in British India, or indeed a depiction of colonial Burma, as it is about human character, conflict, and desire as they play out in a landscape irradiated and corrupted with the author’s awareness of complicity in the perpetration of imperialism. It should find its place today alongside the great modern novels of the twentieth century; that it has not done so yet is surprising in the light of postcolonial studies and increased inclusivity in reading and studying habits. The fault might lie to a certain extent within the book, for it is the ambiguity of the text, something about the slippery nature of colonial experience itself, swinging pendulum-like between horror and empathy, recoil and beauty, which has made Burmese Days not fit into programmatic agendas of restitution and renewal. The realism and precise historical detail the narrator gives us in Burmese Days, coupled with the uncomfortable identification in the mind of the reader of its protagonist Flory with Orwell himself, creates a certain discomfort that does not make for easy reading. This is not political satire at one remove from us; instead, it seems a rather too literal recounting of the horrible business of empire from someone who knows. For this reason (although there are other literary reasons), the novel is an important text both for the lay reader and for the Orwell aficionado. For the latter it is necessary to recognize that without a consideration of what the novel says—and what Orwell says—about this first violent exposure to the nature of oppression, one cannot understand his politics. For the general reader too it is time now to reread Burmese Days—not just as a story of colonial experience, but as a description of the human predicament, as a novel that imparts to its readers some quality of the uncanny, some embodiment of an elusiveness that resides at a distance from the plot. In a sense, then, the plot is not the point here (it rarely is). What it’s all about is not what happens within it, but the experience of its happening.
Critics have followed Orwell himself in adopting a dismissive tone towards this book, the first novel he wrote (though not the first he published). As a consequence, Burmese Days is hardly discussed today. The present-day Orwell is, in fact, a custodian of Englishness—he can be found at the entrance to the BBC; newspaper commentators quote him regularly; one anthology of his work is entitled Orwell’s England. Whatever made him foreign and ill at ease in the milieu he lived in has been smoothed away during this gradual metamorphosis. Yet Burma formed Orwell the critic and writer as much as Britain did, and gave him his first powerful sense of imperialism’s nefariousness. In a well-known essay, ‘Why I Write’, Orwell began by explaining his ‘need to describe things’ from an early age, an impulse that led to ‘the making up of a continuous “story” about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind’, which soon ‘ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw’. This sounds remarkably like what he said later of his account of Burma: ‘I dare say it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen.’ (The book’s title itself—Burmese Days—seems to gesture at a recording of lived experience, at the everyday, at simply the experience of days in Burma.) Regarding the type of book it was, and its style, Orwell was deprecatory: ‘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 words were used partly for the sake of their sound.’ Then he says, ‘And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier, is rather that kind of book.’
It is exactly, then, not the sort of book he became famous for writing, such as the political allegories Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). (It was the compulsion of the times he lived in, he said, that ensured that he ‘had been forced into becoming a sort of political pamphleteer’.) Reading Burmese Days, then, especially as it is so contrary to the rest of Orwell’s oeuvre, is an experience enriched by taking cognizance of the fundamental reasons he proposed as imperatives to all writers. Burmese Days, in fact, met almost all the criteria listed by Orwell as among the ‘four great motives’ existing in every writer. The first of these is ‘Sheer egoism’, followed by
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement . . . Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. . .
3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
4. Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
‘Perception of beauty’—both in the external world and in the internal arrangement of words on a page—the novel is replete with, while the ‘Historical impulse’ is present in the manner in which ‘things as they are’ are vividly portrayed for ‘the use of posterity’. As for ‘Political purpose’, no truer account of Orwell’s ‘political bias’ against imperialism and oppression is to be found than here, and if this vivid portrayal of the dishonesty, sleaze, and fraud involved in the running of an empire by brute force has not pushed ‘the world in a certain direction’ or altered ‘people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after’, then the fault for that lies not with Orwell or with Burmese Days. Rather, it lies perhaps with the British public’s genuine discomfort with the unpalatable underbelly of colonial rule as it was wielded at one time over three-quarters of the world. Intriguingly, Orwell returned to his memories of Burma at the end of his life while confined in a sanatorium with his disease at a critical stage, scribbling the idea for a novella titled ‘A Smoking Room Story’ set there. Burmese Days does more than just mark ‘his transformation from the disgruntled policeman who returned from Burma’, before the period of his ambivalent socialism in The Road to Wigan Pier and the radical politics of his participation in the Spanish Civil War—the conventional categorizations of the period before the last two novels. No student of Orwell should ignore it, as it forms, in a substantive way, the foundation of his political thinking.
1. George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003), 2–3.
2. George Orwell, letter to F. Tennyson Jesse in 1946; quoted in Maung Htin Aung, ‘George Orwell and Burma’, Journal of Asian Affairs, 1/1 (1970), 19.
3. Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, 3.
4. Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, 5.
5. Emma Larkin, Prologue to Finding George Orwell in Burma (London: Penguin, 2011), 2.
6. David Dwan, Liberty, Equality & Humbug Orwell’s Political Ideals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 8.
Prof. Rosinka Chaudhuri (D.Phil. Oxon) is Director and Professor of Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). She was inaugural Mellon Professor of the Global South at Oxford University, 2017-18, and has held visiting positions at King’s College, London, Delhi University, Cambridge University and Columbia University.
Her books include Gentlemen Poets in Colonial Bengal: Emergent Nationalism and the Orientalist Project (Seagull: 2002), Freedom and Beef-Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture (Orient Blackswan: 2012) and The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Cultural Sphere (Oxford University Press: 2013, Peter Lang: 2014).
(Image credit: The Police Mess, Burma, ORWELL ARCHIVE - 2B25)