Review of “Burma Sahib” by Paul Theroux – A vibrant depiction of George Orwell’s experiences in Burma during his time there.
George Orwell’s debut novel, Burmese Days, was released in 1934 and heavily influenced by his five years of service in the Indian imperial police force at various posts along the Irrawaddy River a decade prior. However, it is suspected that the protagonist of the novel, John Flory, was much more experienced than the author himself, who was still known as Eric Blair when he first arrived in Mandalay in 1922 at the age of 19, having recently graduated from Eton. Additionally, Orwell’s two renowned essays from that time period – Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging – were not written in the midst of the intense environment of Rangoon or Mandalay, but rather after some time had passed and the author had returned to his family’s home in Suffolk. These first-hand accounts from the chaotic frontlines of empire were shaped by hindsight and a deeper understanding of the desire for independence.
This book exposes the underlying experiences of Orwell’s life, revealing the unpolished version of him – a young man who chose to venture into the jungle instead of attending Oxford, influenced by his father who was a mediocre official in Britain’s opium trade. Theroux’s argument, which is the central focus of his emotionally charged and extensively researched book, is that there comes a brief moment in everyone’s life when their character is permanently shaped – and for Orwell, these years were the defining ones for him as a writer.
Blair’s hidden persona, the doubter and chronicler, is obscured by layers of immature introspection and pretense. As a novice police officer, he is studious and physically imposing, yet he struggles with the relentless mosquitoes of the river delta and a deep-seated social awkwardness. His main goal in these early experiences – performing haphazard investigations and clumsy surveillance – is to avoid being ridiculed by his colleagues or the indigenous people whom he lacks the ability to manage.
Theroux adds a personal touch to this story as he himself grew up during the end of the British empire. He worked as a peace corps teacher in Nyasaland, shortly before it gained independence and became Malawi. As a writer, he has dedicated much of his career to documenting and describing the appearance and atmosphere of these colonial and post-colonial territories. In his writing, he immerses you in the perspective of a young Eric Blair, whose rebellious beliefs of anarchy and atheism clash with the oppressive nature of empire.
In environments filled with humidity, resentment, and violence, we see Theroux’s inherited attitudes becoming more complex. The young Orwell’s natural defiance and growing dislike for the rules and prejudices of British rule in Burma are contrasted with the need to maintain order as dacoit gangs cause terror among the community and rumors of insurrection spread in the temple grounds.
Theroux is known for being a sharp observer of the absurdities of the class system, much like Orwell. In his work, he explores how his subject was both trapped and disgusted by it. The writing style of Kipling, who was known as a “good-bad poet,” can be heard in the background of this retelling, just as it likely lingered in the minds of the many young men who were sent from elite schools to maintain the British Empire. Orwell eventually became ashamed of his part in supporting this authoritarian system, but as Theroux’s novel emphasizes, he was also likely drawn in by the freedoms that came with being a “Kipling rascal,” a type of character often portrayed in the literature that Orwell read while attending preparatory school. (Orwell’s early attempts at poetry also showcased these conflicting feelings: in his poem Romance, he used Kipling’s mythology of falling in love in far-off lands, only to reveal that the romance was actually a sordid transaction as the “maiden” he desires demands five pieces of silver before sleeping with him.)
Some biographers of Orwell have struggled to understand the significance of his poem and whether or not he visited brothels while in Rangoon. Theroux, on the other hand, does not have any doubts. He depicts Orwell as a passionate lover who frequented brothels by the river and actively pursued both housemaids and the wives of timber merchants. This secret erotic life served as a way for Orwell to escape from the harsh realities of his day job, which included dealing with a stifling and narrow-minded social scene at colonial clubs and facing difficult moral dilemmas in his work as a police officer. This includes the infamous incident of killing a rogue elephant and overseeing executions at Insein jail.
Theroux’s retelling of these well-known events allows for a greater comprehension of the complex world beyond their surface. The persona of Eric Blair is transformed into the writer Orwell, who is revealed not only through his disdain for the structures of authority, but also in the straightforward language and significant details of his accounts of wrongdoing.