Sunday, 11 August 2013

George Orwell- Burmese Days

Burmese Days
Penguin Modern Classics
 George Orwell

“It is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life.”

Having spent far too much time reading other people's blogs recently has guilt-tripped me in to writing something for mine; which should never be that difficult since I basically set the premise of this blog to ensure I couldn't fail. Still, I have at least got some pretty darn good reading done recently, with books by George R.R. Martin (I wonder which), Jose-Luis Borges, and Pierre Boulle's excellent, excellent high-concept sci-fi novel a Planète des singes, as the French call it, otherwise known as that cheesy Hollywood film with Charlton Heston and a bunch of monkeys. But before all that came a kind of personal reading landmark, in the form of the last novel left to read by a certain Mr. George Orwell.

I'm not sure which of Orwell's books I read first, but it was either Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I'm not entirely sure when it was either, but I do know that both were polished off in quick succession. That must have been ten years ago now, and since then my typical scatter-shot reading habits ensured that, rather than attacking Orwell's bibliography quickly, it's taken me this long to get to the end- well, if you don't count the volumes of letters, diaries and further essays all out there in some form that I eventually hope to get to. I'm a growing fan of author miscellanea.

One of the true joys of Orwell is that he's very, very easy to analyse and follow through his path towards 1984. I like Animal Farm, but 1984 is a far better read, and it's been a lot of fun to look at every single one of his earlier books so far and see the concepts in a rougher developmental stage. Crucially, I've also enjoyed each one of those books on their own merits to varying extents, from the twisted Dickensian stye of A Clergyman's Daughter to the rather more dry and satirical musings of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (a dumb name for a very intelligent novel). Burmese Days (oh god, three paragraphs in and I've just reached the title), the last of mine to read, was also Orwell's first novel-length fiction, and is the first that I haven't really enjoyed on its own merits.

I'll attempt to refrain from diving into the plot much, because it's not a very interesting plot, telling the leisurely story of local political corruption in the imperial setting of Burma, where lead character privileged important white man John Florry is thrust in the middle of a dispute between Indian associate Dr, Veriswami and the villain, corrupt magistrate U Po Kyin, while meanwhile awkwardly courting an equally privileged, important and white woman, albeit one younger than he. In essence, the combined events left me the impression of two main themes, both quintessentially Orwellian (that phrase has to be annoying for some people) in nature but entwined in an uncomfortable way that prevents the narrative from reaching a satisfying conclusion. The look at imperial Burma, directly portrayed from Orwell's five year tenure in Burma as a an imperial policeman, is the most interesting side of the book since Orwell knew Burma as a real-life Eurasia. Unfortunately his portrayal of the fascist state is narrow, unexplored with any vigor or much analysis; at least to the standard and effect of Orwell's later works. 

What's left, then, is the second focus; Florry as an example of an ineffectual, confident English fop. When he inevitably falls for the young, pretty, unattached Elizabeth, his previous confidence and self-image falls to pieces in the face of real emotion, as though he, representative of English males like him, should never really have left his mother's side. In essence it's a type of characterisation that exists strongly today (or at least in the 90's), through the presence of the entire career of Hugh Grant. Only, Orwell threw me slightly off balance at the end, with my typical expectations of a somewhat wholesome resolution dashed against the wall like the brains of a rabid cat. I'm not exaggerating there either, Burmese Days ends on a far heavier note than seemed necessary.

I should probably try and put a lid on these ramblings before they get totally out of control and incoherent, and try to figure out what I've learned. On the one hand, I'm disappointed that my last foray into Orwell's fiction wasn't great fun, but I'm not particularly surprised since, after all this was his first novel. Historically it is absolutely an essential building block on the road to 1984 and the best novel ever written, but it's only fractionally as interesting. It suffers from dallying on characterisations that aren't entirely comfortable yet, though will eventually morph into the cultivated figure of Winston Smith, and so there's plenty of intrigue to be found from an Orwell fanatic. For everyone else, there's not really much point in recommending this book to you, because if you haven't read 1984 or Animal Farm then you probably shouldn't be wasting your time reading this stupid blog anyway, alright?