Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burmese Days

George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ is similar to Jose Rizal’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’; a story set within a backdrop of a colonial outpost in Asia; the interaction between European colonialist and the natives the main subject; the colonials trying to preserve their bastions of imperialism and power while the natives trying to break in; be accepted in pseudo European society in the Far East. Rizal’s novel is written from the point of view of the locals and mestizos (mixed blood); intermingling with Spanish colonials in the early 1870’s in Manila. Orwell’s story is written from the view point of an English liberal colonialist, living in a remote outpost in Burma during the 1930’s, with sympathetic portrayals of the native population though with Rizal’s disdain for locals who wish to aspire to Western acceptance. Rizal scorns the aspiring native society who wish to ape the Spanish circle in Manila; the poorer populace just trying to achieve parity in their native land; struggling against injustice in a pre-cursor to bloody revolution. Orwell story, with flavors from Jane Austen, is also about a poor English girl looking for a proper husband, with rapacious Englishmen (timber merchants, government officials and officers) and their native mistresses; clearly racist in their attitudes with Orwell scorning their imperial arrogance.

Both novels end in tragedy; Rizal’s heroine going mad after being raped by a priest, the hero fleeing the islands – a European educated reformer thwarted by a powerful corrupt priest; Orwell’s protagonist is an Englishman who commits suicide (after being scorned by his love) a victim of Burmese intrigue; his Burmese tormentor eventually accepted in local English society; and the hero’s ‘girlfriend’ marrying a much older man; both novels have evil triumphant. Rizal’s novel was a catalyst to the Philippine revolution against Spain in the 1890s; Orwell’s novel did not achieve any impact in local society though Burmese nationalists eventually achieved independence against the British after the 2nd word war though evolving into a totalitarian dictatorship protected by Communist China; a theme alluded by the mysterious author (spy?) Emma Larkin in his book ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’.  Both colonial powers exercised different attitudes; Spanish colonialists assimilating with the local populace, resulting in the mixing of cultures (mestizos); driven by a severe Catholic tradition that resulted in the unification of Muslim Iberia into Spain; evolving into the first European power in the 1500s. English colonialist, on the other hand, kept their social classes distinct, the first global mercantile power, exploiting colonies and people for goods and markets in the 1800s; the precursor to globalization.

George Orwell eventually wrote his 2 masterpieces ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ thereafter; his experience in Burma and Spain, during the civil war, nourishing his vision of a totalitarian state; not necessarily Communist or Fascist but a possible evolution of a democratic state; an observation pointed out by William Gibson decades later, seeing surveillance cameras in the streets of London, not far from Orwell’s publisher.  This vision was remarked upon by Christopher Hitchens in his book ‘Why Orwell Matters’, echoed by his friend Salman Rushdie in an epitaph after Hitchens death, where Hitchens supported the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; one of the first who saw the link between Islamic fundamentalist, terrorists and the formation of an Islamist state exemplified by Iran. But these visions came much later; instead I wallowed in the romance of English colonial history, watching ‘The Letter’ with Bette Davis, from a story by Somerset Maugham, about infidelity in the Far East, English rubber planters in Malaya and Singapore, the lush gardens of tropical houses and plantations, China town and Malay workers, and the murder victim having a Chinese-Malay wife, known as a ‘nonya’.  

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