Burmese Days
George Orwell, 1934

John Flory is 35 and is one of a handful of Europeans in Kyauktada, Upper Burma. While his compatriots are little more than ambulatory sacks of racist invective, Flory rather enjoys the local culture. Though he is too cowardly to make an issue of it, it is well known that his best friend is an Indian doctor and that he has a Burmese mistress. But then one day he encounters a young white woman and "saves" her from a harmless but scary-looking water buffalo; she turns out to be Elizabeth Lackersteen, the niece of a local timber executive, recently arrived in town, and she is so grateful, and Flory so entranced by the fact that she is blonde and under forty, that at first it looks like love. But their differences, Flory's rivals, and the machinations of an ambitious Burmese magistrate stand between our kooky couple and wedded bliss.

Orwell was clearly not interested in a nuanced character study here. Pretty much everyone except for maybe Flory is a one-note caricature, from U Po Kyin the monstrously obese machiavel, to Ellis the martinet whose every third word is "nigger," to Elizabeth's mother the dippy bohemian. What's more, Orwell's contempt for all of his dramatis personae is impossible to miss. So all in all it's a rather unpleasant little book. But it is an interesting picture of British colonialism on the wane.

One of the SAT practice tests given by the company I work for includes a passage about how the form of a film trumps content in determining the audience's reaction — for example, when we watch The Wizard of Oz, we root for Dorothy to make it back to Kansas even though it pales in comparison to Oz. Burmese Days is a textbook example of this sort of thing. From the time Flory met Elizabeth, I found myself pulling for them to get hitched, even though, on a rational level, this is a completely stupid thing to want: Orwell makes a big deal of the fact that Elizabeth is just a younger version of all the "memsahibs" Flory despises, women who may be living in Asia but who won't learn the local languages, won't leave the confines of the European compound, and spend all day abusing the servants. Flory, by contrast, is a bit of an intellectual — intellectual for Kyauktada, anyway — while Elizabeth despises anything remotely "highbrow" and is looking for a manly man who can hunt leopards and play polo. Flory's chief rival for her affections, the incurious, aristocratic asshole Verrall — a sullen version of the young George W. Bush — is actually a much better match for her, and it would be better for all concerned if the two of them were to pair off... but still, Flory's the main character so Flory was the one I wanted to get the girl. And again, when it looked as though the budding romance was about to be torpedoed by the revelation that Flory had kept a Burmese woman as a concubine, I found myself hoping the secret wouldn't get out — even though in real life of course a woman should know whether the dude pursuing her has been making time with a prostitute. I didn't even like Flory, but I was on his side anyway. Such is the power of narrative form.

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