Burmese Days is the story of an average Englishman who has spent the past fifteen years living as a policeman in Burma. Contrary to his countrymen also living in Burma, Flory is mostly accepting of the native people, even interested in them. He is bored with the ceaseless, banal chatter that goes on in the Club (restricted to white men), and distressed at the rate in which his youth is fading. When a beautiful young English girl arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and uncle, Flory realizes that his days of loneliness and boredom may have come to an end.
This book is essentially about racism, and few authors can make blatant racism so humorous at times. Orwell writes about each side of the equation (Englishmen and natives) wanting to keep the other in their place – Flory’s servant is uncomfortable with his master acting differently from the other white men. One of the white men tells the Club butler not to speak such flawless English.
Though fiction, the book serves as a sort of autobiography chronicling Orwell’s own experience as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma during the 1920s.
One of my favorite scenes in the novel features the protagonist’s love interest, Elizabeth, speaking with her aunt. Elizabeth had only recently come to Burma after living in Paris for two years. Her aunt begins by asking how she could have left Paris unmarried, and Elizabeth replies:
‘I’m afraid I didn’t meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had to live so quietly. And I was working,’ she added, thinking this rather a disgraceful admission.
‘Of course, of course,’ sighed Mrs Lackersteen. ‘One hears the same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their living. It is such a shame! I think it’s so terribly selfish, don’t you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so many poor girls looking for husbands?’ Elizabeth not answering this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, ‘I’m sure if I were a young girl I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!’
These two paragraphs exemplify precisely what I loved about this novel. The characters are mostly awful, racist people, as well as being rather ignorant and simple. But Orwell so ingeniously mocks these characteristics that I can’t help but love the entire book.
As readers of Orwell staples Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four will be familiar with, the ending is not at all a happy one, so that’s something to take into consideration when deciding whether to read it.
TL;DR: Burmese Days is forgotten these days in the overwhelming presence of Orwell’s classics. But I do recommend it for being funny, engaging, and all-too truthful.