This was a novel about loneliness. Most people who post on travel blogs or the quotidian social media photograph parades of beachgoers and beer do not do justice to the loneliness of a life lived away from what one knows, understands – the cues and signals that remind us that we are home. Back in the suckling days of American travel we even brought the feeling of desolation and abandonment into our popular psycho-jargon, for we do love our maladies so. We called it “Culture Shock” leading into “Culture Stress”. It had stages and phases and even some lightly suggested remedies.
The reality is that it was just loneliness; and the more foreign the place the greater the sense of desolation, the greater the bizarre turns into something morbid and horrid – especially after time. “Burmese Days” by George Orwell is about this. We all know Orwell from “Animal Farm” and “1984” – showing us the dystopian futures we would face if we did not fix our politics. “Burmese Days” is not a novel about politics or epic struggles of authority and legitimacy; instead about only one man, one lonely man, a British Civil Servant in a lost corner of Burma during the apogee of colonial power, before it all started to fall away. It is a human story, not a pleasant one perhaps but being human is so seldom pleasant.
Now on style; “Burmese Days” is masterfully written. You can feel the heat and the oppression; you sense the sallowness spreading from your own liver to the outermost appendages of your frail body, drink, the last final life-boat of the desperate. The boredom, the frustration, the bitterness – Orwell makes you think all these are your own. There is rarely any sympathy for the protagonist, though with a mite more compassion than the other members of the “British Club” he is still an inexorably awful human. His saving grace I suppose is that he knows it – and seeks salvation in the only place where he thinks it can be found, in a quest for a wife who will free him from the loneliness and give his life meaning. I will not reveal the end, how that search turns out for our uncouth protagonist. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.
I picked up this book in a used bookstore back home, on a brief trip myself from somewhere far to somewhere even farther and finished it in a manner of days. A traveler myself, I did find common cause with the feelings of otherness portrayed; feelings which can only ever be understood if you too have spent 20 years away from what you know. I highly recommend you read the novel; for it is Orwell after all – and it will make you think even as you enjoy a good story. What else is literature for?