Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

The Dean of travel writing reimagines one of English literature’s most controversial writers in his early, formative years. Theroux leads us on the journey with George Orwell from a British Raj officer in Colonial Burma and his transformation from Eric Blair to Orwell, the anti-colonial writer.

Blair set sail for India shortly after graduating from the same prestigious private school of Eton, whose alums included Boris Johnson and nineteen other British prime ministers. Despite his young age (19), he would oversee local police officers in Burma and deal with his fellow British’s racial and class politics while trying to learn new languages.  His father, a middling official in Britain’s opium trade, had served in India, and his grandmother, an uncle, and a cousin were still in Burma. This part of his family were virtual outcasts since some had married local women, which didn’t sit well with British Sahibs (masters) who were convinced of the inferiority of the “natives.” Throughout the story, Blair tries to avoid his family at all costs.

During his time in Burma, Blair contended with his self-image and identity. Theroux does a commendable job of following the thread of Blair’s parallel secret self and metamorphosis into a writer. “Blair had always tried to maintain a shadow existence, of reading, of letter writing, of making lists—trees, flowers, Hindi and Burmese words—or composing poems he knew to be bad.”  He was also a prolific letter writer, which helped strengthen his literary chops.

Blair’s writing was a form of transformation, “it took the sting out of their slights because John Flory was the whipping boy, not Blair Sahib…”  John Flory would be the key protagonist in Blair’s story about this experience, Burmese Days.

Eventually, clashes with his superiors and a traumatic scene towards the end of the book would end his experience in Burma. His “house girl” interrupted an Easter church service half-crazed and begging for money. “This embarrassment was something physical, a sickening humiliation. A cup of tea was no help.”

 In the Postscript, Theroux reveals that Blair eventually ends up in Paris as a dishwasher, interacting with the poorest of society and developing his writing skills. Orwell “descended into the netherworld. He swapped his decent clothes for shabby ones, as Jack London had done in People of the Abyss, and became a tramp, lodging uncomfortably in squalid doss houses and living among homeless wanderers, beggars, gypsies, and hop-pickers…” This experience led to Confessions of a Dishwasher, which his publisher recommended he call Down and Out in Paris and London. It was here that Blair asked for the pseudonym of George Orwell.

At the end of the book, Orwell reflects that “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude. I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time, failure seemed to be the only virtue.”

His writing career was limited to twenty years. Orwell finished his time in Burma in 1927, and his first book, Burmese Days, was not published until 1934. His epic dystopian novel, 1984, was published 15 years later in 1949.

M. Forster’s Passage to India is mentioned several times in the book. Blair believed that his experiences in the far outreaches of the Empire would allow him to describe scenes Forster could never imagine. And he was right.

Theroux, like Orwell, was an astute observer of the nonsense of the class system and racism of the Raj empire. They both held a resentment, instinctive insubordination, and a nascent antipathy to the nuances of rules and bigotries of British rule. Theroux has spent most of his lifetime recording and detailing the reality of colonial and post-colonial outposts, which he puts into the world of young Eric Blair. Both writers wrote poetry during their formative overseas experiences to cope with the isolation and travails of living in isolated parts of the world.

According to an interview, Theroux felt that the idea to write this book was “a gift.” He revered Orwell and read most of his books. He’s been to Burma five times and had a solid connection to England. He’d spent much of his adult life among the Brits in Africa, Singapore, and England. His first wife and children were British, although he didn’t love England.

Theroux’s Peace Corps coming-of-age experience occurred during the end of the British Empire. Working as a Peace Corps teacher in a school in the former territory of Nyasaland, just before Malawian independence, informed the writing of this book.

Theroux’s keenly researched book impressively recounts details of Eton, Burma, the British Raj, and the different religious and social customs of the Brits, Hindus, and Scots, to mention just a few groups represented. Due to the various dialects and terminology, I kept a dictionary close at hand.

For example, “Maybe you can find one for me; a wee one will do, but I’d be ever so “chuffed” if you found one.” Chuffed is an informal British adjective for delighted, first recorded in 1855-60.  A “kukris” to carve up a dacoit is a Hindi large knife with a heavy curved blade used by the Nepalese Gurkhas. Or “Thrawn,” an Ulster Scots word first recorded in 1400-50, a late Middle English term that means stubborn.  And “chee chees” (half-breeds), a word Blair loathed.

I’ve read and reviewed Theroux’s last seven books, and this ranks as one of the most impressive. I took my time reading it like a fine wine. Speed-reading would lead to missing the underlying meaning and social, cultural, and linguistic nuances.

I was pleased to learn from a recent interview that at 82, Theroux is already planning his next novel. In the spirit of On the Plains of Snakes and Deep South, he intends to hit the road again in his car, crossing our neighbor to the north. He won’t take a laptop and rarely use a cell phone and writes with a pen/pencil on a notepad, and at the end of the journey, after listening to what the locals in some very isolated places tell him, he’ll come back with the materials for his 56th novel.

“It’s a risky proposition for one writer to attempt to channel another, especially one as closely read and influential as George Orwell. But Theroux has the chops and the moxie, drawing on his experiences as a novelist and travel writer to imagine Orwell’s life-shaping sojourn in Burma with dramatic specificity. … Theroux’s engrossing, suspenseful novel incisively maps the start of Blair’s metamorphosis into George Orwell, resounding critic of malevolent power.” — Booklist (starred review)

The Author

Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi from 1963-65. His many books (55) include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was also made into a feature film. The Bad Angel Brothers was his latest novel.

The Reviewer

 Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world.  Walker’s previous two books are Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond and My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, named Best Travel Book. He’s written 80 book reviews, and of his 30 published essays, two were recognized by the Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. He’s a contributing writer for “The Wanderlust Journal” and “Literary Traveler.” His column, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why,” is part of the Arizona Authors Association newsletter.  His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International. He’s a Board member of Advance Guatemala and the Arizona Authors Association.  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com






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