Traveler Reads: Burmese Days by George Orwell

“When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs.”

The expat experience isn’t universal. It’s an individual experience no matter where you are or what group you go around with. And how we experience this lifestyle is ever changing.

However, we find archetypal personalities when we travel and live abroad. After a time of living abroad, it’s easier to identify the types of people you meet. It may be the person’s background or stage in expat career that places him or her into one category or another.

Shwedagon pagodaThe categorization of expats is what makes George Orwell’s Burmese Days relevant today. The scenery and situations may have changed, but there is much more with which to identify as we travel the world.

I hadn’t read Orwell since high school when I was introduced to 1984 (since reading Burmese Days, I have also picked up Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). Before my trip to Myanmar, I decided to download a copy of Burmese Days to put me in the mood for the trip. I had hoped for an insightful work of literature, but found a different view instead.

Of course, I wasn’t expecting much of Burmese Days to remain relevant — the book is based on Orwell’s experience in the country between 1922 and 1927. While Myanmar hasn’t developed as much as some of its neighbors over the decades, the recent opening of the country after decades of military junta rule has brought some infrastructure improvements. And certainly, visiting Yangon and the tourist hub of Bagan wouldn’t be anything like the town of which Orwell wrote.

Orwell’s story is set in the town of Kyauktada, a small village that was used as a home base for a few British expats engaged in the logging industry. Little of the town is described other than the main character’s home and the club at which all the expats regularly meet to drink and talk about meaningless subjects.

The novel follows John Flory, a 35-year-old teak merchant who doesn’t fit in with the other expats. He has lived in Myanmar for a long enough time that he doesn’t feel as though he can return to England, no matter how much he desires to do so. He believes that returning home would be admitting failure in a sense — as a bachelor his age, he’d be looked at as an oddity, particularly with his large facial birthmark or which he is self-conscious.

While the Flory remains the main character, the novel opens with U Po Kyin, the corrupt Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada, devising a plan to obtain greater power by ruining the reputation of Dr. Veraswami. U Po Kyin’s plot is what sets the story in motion and affects every character to some extent. Through his actions, the British in the region begin to suspect the Indian doctor of inappropriate behavior and start to spread their own rumors about him.

bagan myanmar

Dr. Veraswami is set to become the first non-European to be admitted to the European Club, but U Po Kyin’s plot would deny him entry. And as the club seeks to meet a quota of non-Europeans, U Po Kyin would be next in line for admission.

The only one to come to Dr. Veraswami’s defense is Flory. Flory is the only member of the club who willingly associates with non-Europeans, and he perceives all the others in the region as boorish racists. Flory seeks out Veraswami as the only person he can talk to, though the two men have different opinions of the British empire.

Flory sees himself as a sort of noble foreigner in the poor country. He shows locals respect as he attempts to learn their culture and customs. However, he still lives in a detached world among other expats — he has his servants who do everything for him, including putting him to bed when he’s too drunk to do it himself. He also has a Burmese woman, Ma Hla May, who loves him for the lifestyle he provides her. Though Flory feels an attachment to Ma Hla May, he knows that she is nothing more than a temporary companion and sex object that he’ll discard as soon as a European woman comes along. He even hides this relationship from the other expats, though rumors surround his habits.

Of course, Flory dumps Ma Hla May as soon as the niece of two expats comes to stay in the town. He sees a companion in Elizabeth Lackersteen, and he tries to immerse her in local culture to which she is resistant. Flory is blind to the fact that Elizabeth is just as entitled as the rest of the expats. But this is the first European woman to show any interest in Flory, so he continues on with the fantasy that he can live happily with her and return to England.

bagan myanmar
View from Myauk Guni

As Flory continues to fall for Elizabeth and U Po Kyin’s plot against Dr. Veraswami marches on, the town and lifestyle of the foreigners, which consists mostly of drinking and complaining about locals, turns to chaos. Though lives are ruined in the course of the story, the status quo returns to the region but not the people directly involved — British administration in the region will continue after all the characters have died or departed.

The world has changed since Orwell published his first novel, and with it the expat experience. However, the characters he describes in Burmese Days are still recognizable. Most prevalent is the foreigner drinking his life away at a foreigner-friendly establishment. The expat hangout still exists and attracts every foreigner who sets foot in the city — of course, there are more options now for foreigners to escape such places, but the established watering holes still hold sway over those passing through.

Again, there are plenty of idealistic foreigners like Flory around. Some of them see themselves as the one person who can bring change to what they perceive as a backward place. They are less timid than Flory, more willing to lecture about their philosophical ideals at the bar or coffee shop. Some are genuinely charitable people who are mindful of their actions, but others are idealists who don’t necessarily follow through.

Sule Pagoda Yangon
Sule Pagoda and traffic

And there are still others who continue with the stereotype of superiority over the locals. In particular, there’s Ellis who spouts nothing but violent racist remarks to emphasize superiority over the native population. Such expats can be found in almost every country as the talk about how nothing is as good as home and whatever place in which they currently reside will never achieve such greatness.

There are, of course, many other types of expats around. In a small town in Myanmar in the 1920s, there would be far fewer to write about. As more people head abroad, they experience foreign countries in a variety of ways, and many will go through stages that resemble different stereotypes portrayed in Burmese Days. In most expats, stages of fascination, idealism, and jaded behavior are prevalent, though the characteristics are usually more subtle than those of the characters in the novel.

Overall, George Orwell’s Burmese Days is a dry read, though he was never known for his poetic prose. It is, however, an interesting study of expat life in Myanmar at the beginning of the 20th century. As a piece of history, this is an important work. As a piece of literature, it is of less interest, except to those looking at the evolution of Orwell’s prose and worldview.

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