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domingo, 20 de mayo de 2012

Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

I read this novel last year, but before I completely forget about it I want to write a small review.

The story of this book is particularly relevant to me, since it talks about the life of an expatriate in Asia. It warns about the dangers of colonialism in a society, in Burma, where British are the ruling class and feel superior to the natives. Among them we find the protagonist of the book, John Flory. John often rejects the behavior of his fellow countrymen, plus he has blended much better in the life of Burma than most of his colleagues. But poor John has also fallen into many of the vices of the other expatriates, such as alcoholism, and since he has to cooperate with them he never really makes a real stand.

The book was very enlightening to me in some aspects. For example, it showed how difficult it is for European expatriates to blend completely into the culture of an Asian country. John, our protagonist, is fluent in Burmese, his best friend is Burmese, and his lover is also from Burma. But regardless of how long he spends in Burma and how hard he tries to integrate he will always be a British expatriate.

But of course the situation in Burma at that time (1920´s) and that of nowadays can’t be compared. Burma has been colonized by the British, and the novel is set at a time where very few people would deny the moral superiority of European countries over "third world countries". Even many of the natives in Burma don’t deny it. And actually the "bad guy" of the novel is not a British but a Burmese who, in order to be accepted in the exclusive (drinking) club of the British, designs a cruel scheme by which he means to ruin the life of many of his fellow countrymen. But for him that is not a big deal, since the goal is a great one, attain the status of the British.

Besides the main plot there is the relationship between John Flory and Elizabeth, a British girl who has just arrived from Europe in order to live with her uncle an aunt in Burma. John falls in love with her right away, since he sees in her all the qualities absent in his corrupted expatriate friends. However, Elizabeth is described to the reader as a simple minded girl, extremely materialistic and ignorant about the world and with no desires to change her situation. John, very familiar with the country of Burma and its people, tries to teach her everything he has learned, but she has no interest in all that, being her main motivation going hunting and dressing nice clothes, always keeping as far away as possible from the natives. But John, although often disappointed by this behavior, can’t really see her the despicable way she is described to the reader.

Finally, it is interesting to see the role that Chinese characters play in this book. While they are considered as low-class people by most of the British, John considers them at a superior level than the Burmese, and talks about them as a country with a great culture and traditions.

Burmese Days is a great description about the country of Burma under British regime, and it is a must read for expatriates from western countries living in Asia. It is a very realistic account of what life in Burma must have been like (George Orwell spent five years there as a police officer, from 1922 to 1927). As in 1984, the general tone of the book is rather pessimistic, being no heroes in the book, but ordinary people, many of them more evil than good, others trying to make the most of a reality that should not have been created in the first place.