This novel can be considered a good companion to The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh – they both deal with the British rule in Burma and this would make for a good reason to read them together even if the style varies. Orwell seems to be more focused on the dramatic lives of the characters (as opposed to Amitav Ghosh, whose book is about the story rather than the people), and there’s just enough of them to keep the action going at a nice pace without creating a confusion as to who’s who.
The action takes place in the 1920’s in a Burmese district where a select group of British officials are doing the Empire’s work. We get a good look at what the life there was like for the expats – their attitude towards the Burmese people, their privileged status and the way they spend their time. There are innumerable passages which describe the land and its people and how they perceived the English (“the holy one’s breakfast is ready”), and I was struck, yet again, by how totally different and sometimes bewildering the Asian culture is.
Usually I tend to pick a favorite character from the start and follow his/her adventures, cheering quietly from behind the pages and this time was no exception. My favorite character was Flory, a 35 year old British man who divides his time between his work, the Club, and occasional visits to Indian Dr Veraswami, his friend, where he can vent and talk about what he really thinks of the British Empire and its minions, and the way he feels about his life has struck a chord in me. Such loneliness and despair, such efforts to try and fit in and be happy or at least content! His trouble is that he doesn’t despise the locals – like most of his colleagues. He seems to be the only one who truly understands his position in the country and that only makes it more unbearable. Then Elizabeth arrives, a 22 year old English girl who has come to stay with her relatives and possibly find a husband. Flory sees her as his savior, the one who will bring meaning to his lonely life, and he wants to marry her and almost succeeds if not for a series of unfortunate events that seem to explode around him at the worst possible times.
“Have I made myself at all clear to you? Have you got some picture of the life we live here? The foreignness, the solitude, the melancholy! Foreign trees, foreign flowers, foreign landscapes, foreign faces. It’s all as alien as a different planet. But do you see – and it’s this that I so want you to understand – do you see, it mightn’t be so bad living on a different planet, it might even be the most interesting thing imaginable, if you had even one person to share it with. One person who could see it with eyes something like your own. This country’s been a kind of solitary hell to me – it’s so to most of us – and yet I tell you it could be a paradise if one weren’t alone. Does all this seem quite meaningless?”
This paragraph alone summarizes the book for me – to be so utterly alone, and hope, and have those hopes shattered; to finally realize there’s no escape and coming to this conclusion to do the one desperate, violent act – I felt a kind of despair and an unimaginable sadness, as if I knew him and I thought, if only she would have understood, if only she would have made the effort…if only she was different, if only…
It was not an easy book to read. After I put so much of me into reading “living” the story, I came out weary and a little depressed. I so wanted a happy ending, at least this time, or even a little hint of one, but in a way I was also relieved to see my favorite character had found his peace, at last.
*read in May 2011