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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