Etant actuellement en train de livre Dans la dèche à Paris et à Londres de George Orwell dans l’édition de la Pléiade, je me suis rappelé que j’avais écrit en 2015 un autre article de blog (en anglais cette fois) sur le roman En Birmanie. J’ai décidé de le recopier ici pour le partager avec mes lecteurs français.
“I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound.” This is how George Orwell summarized the literary project of Burmese days, his first novel published in 1934. Although it is not enormous, at least not in length (just 300 pages in the Penguin Modern Classics edition), it is indeed a naturalistic novel full of ornate descriptions and literary devices, and a milestone in his literary career.
Drawing upon Orwell’s memories and personal experience as a police officer in the British Imperial Police force in northern Burma between 1922 and 1927, the novel tells the sad story of Flory, an Englishman who left his country at the age of nineteen to pursue a career as a timber merchant in the British colonial empire. In his twenties, Flory enjoyed the freedom of a bachelor life of hunting, drinking and whoring in Rangoon and the jungles of Mandalay, but when his youth vanished, life in the tropical heat left its mark on him, and he eventually ended up living in alienation, loneliness and boredom in the town of Kyauktada in northern Burma. At the beginning of the novel, Flory is in his mid-thirties, and he spends his days in the jungle for his trade, and his evenings at the local all-white club with a local community of British colonial civil servants and timber merchants who kill time drinking gin and constantly rambling contemptuously about the “natives”.
In this remote town, Flory’s only true friend is Dr Veraswamy, an Indian doctor who strongly admires the British for the civilization and progress which they have brought to Burma. When Dr Veraswamy is threatened by U Po Kyin, a powerful but evil and corrupt local magistrate, he seeks Flory’s help to join the British Club, the only way for him to protect his reputation and preserve his position at the local hospital. Flory further finds himself drawn into local politics with the arrival of beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen, a young English woman who came to Burma after her mother’s death to join her family and find a husband who will provide her with the social status which she aspires to. Despite their differences in personality, Flory falls in love with her, and he soon becomes obsessed with the idea of marrying her to escape the loneliness and oppression of life in the colonies.
Burmese days is most often praised for its harsh and grim depiction of British colonial rule as a system dominated by drunken, racist and degenerate British civil servants exercising brutal dominion over the natives with the support of a corrupt local elite. This is reflected in the first few chapters of the book in the discussion between Dr Veraswamy and Flory, with Veraswamy’s positive and candid views of British influence as a civilizing factor being opposed by Flory’s description of brutal economic exploitation and political oppression which grinds both the natives and the colonialists. Flory’s point of view is further expanded by the narrator in this remarkable section: “It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.”
As a reader, what I found most interesting about this book is not so much its depiction of the British Raj as its semi-fictitious nature and how the writing of this story turned Orwell from a public school boy fresh out of Eton into a talented writer with a social conscience. Indeed, as Emma Larkin quite rightly explains in her introduction, before this experience, George Orwell was pretty much a child of the British Empire, and he enjoyed his status. His father was an opium-tax collector stationed in India, and his mother came from an upper-class family. After he left India at the age of two, Orwell grew up in a rather privileged social background a received a proper education in boarding schools. Although he began writing at an early age, it was really his experience as a policeman in the town of Katha in Burma in his early twenties that shaped his political and social conscience and turned him into one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, the man who would later produce such masterpieces as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.