In case you didn’t know, I am trying to write a good book about a Westerner’s experiences abroad; the story is very long, but the sentences are even longer (thoroughly un-slick, thoroughly un-Gladwellian), and there are far too many words; but then, in case you weren’t aware, a far greater writer already wrote a far better book about the subject, one I am re-reading right now: Burmese Days, by George Orwell.
I came upon this slim and unassuming volume when I was taking a pleasant and informative course on Indian History at Hampshire College taught by Vivek Bhandari, who was such an attractive human being that there was a secret facebook group established by several women to track his movements, as though he were a celebrity. Burmese Days is Orwell’s first published book, it was published long before Orwell was Orwell—in that fascinating period before geniuses are widely recognized as such—and there is very little in it that bears any resemblance to 1984, beyond a bit of romance, some Victorian calisthenics, and, of course, style.
When I first read it, I thought Burmese Days was weak, and flawed: only two of the characters really stood out (and even on this reading the secondary British people have a way of blending together), but now I have found only one line that should have been deleted, written by an Orwell who was perhaps not so confident or aware of his own immense powers: “…he realised that he had only been talking like a character in a novel, and not a very good novel.” The book did not make Orwell rich or famous, and I don’t think it was appreciated until after he had published Animal Farm and 1984. Perhaps if he had been killed in Spain it never would have been noticed at all: how many other good books are lurking in the morass, completely unknown because their authors never quite made it?
But there are many far better lines, and one that is very pertinent to the Westerners-abroad experience: “…most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.” Inhabitants can be substituted for culture to describe the way I felt in Korea for many months, and the way I still feel, on occasion, when things go wrong: rather than blaming the people for being people, I blame them for being Koreans. In response, my Korean wife has been pointing out rather gleefully everything in America that smacks of Korea’s foibles, among them the time yesterday when I passed two very slow cars and twenty even slower bicyclists on a curving two-lane road, with double yellow lines between the lanes. “What you did was just so Korean,” she said to me, and she was right.
Orwell is not a pure cultural relativist, and neither am I: there are numerous universal things that are fucked up with regard to American, British, Burmese, and Korean, culture—Republicans, Colonialism, dictators, and KPOP, respectively. In Orwell’s Burma the Chinese merchants still bind their women’s feet (or the women bind them voluntarily), and the native Burmans seem not to know or not to care what their Imperialist overlords are up to, as they are so bound up in Oriental Despotism that the idea of independence does not occur to any of them. The Jabba-like Burmese villain whom the book starts with wants to work the corrupt levers of the Indian Empire for his own benefit, and a slavish Indian doctor (who is framed for being a revolutionary by Jabba) cannot say too many good things about his British masters, most of whom refer to him with only racial epithets.
In one amusing scene, a servant (all the British have numerous Burmese servants, and the hero owns a sex slave (who believes that she owns him)) watches an old fat British man doing the same annoyingly useless calisthenics that Winston Smith would attempt much later in 1984:
Mr Macgregor, in shorts and singlet on the bamboo mat laid for the purpose in his bedroom, was struggling with Numbers 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 of Nordenflycht’s ‘Physical Jerks for the Sedentary’. Mr Macgregor never, or hardly ever, missed his morning exercises. Number 8 (flat on the back, raise legs to the perpendicular without bending knees) was downright painful for a man of forty-three; Number 9 (flat on the back, rise to a sitting posture and touch toes with tips of fingers) was even worse. No matter, one must keep fit! As Mr Macgregor lunged painfully in the direction of his toes, a brick-red shade flowed upwards from his neck and congested his face with a threat of apoplexy. The sweat gleamed on his large, tallowy breasts. Stick it out, stick it out! At all costs one must keep fit. Mohammed Ali, the bearer, with Mr Macgregor’s clean clothes across his arm, watched through the half-open door. His narrow, yellow, Arabian face expressed neither comprehension nor curiosity. He had watched these contortions—a sacrifice, he dimly imagined, to some mysterious and exacting god—every morning for five years.
The natives would seem to be as equally in the dark as most of their British masters, who are only interested in the n*****s (as they are called) so far as they can steal their money or take out their frustrations. The hero, Flory, a sort of demi-Orwell, is one of the few exceptions to this rule, as he has lived in Burma for fifteen years, and though he mistreats his servants and won’t stick up for his native friends when their lives may depend on it, he still feels a deep appreciation for Burma’s land, its people, and its culture. He speaks the language fluently (as did Orwell, who “was fast to learn the language and that before he left Burma, ‘was able to speak fluently with Burmese priests in ‘very high-flown Burmese.'”), and like many of the foreigners who have lived in Korea for a long time, he is afraid of what might happen if he were to return to his homeland, he is afraid of repatriation, losing himself in delusional fantasies as he dwells on the possibilities.
Flory had never been home to England. Why, he could not have explained, though he knew well enough. In the beginning accidents had prevented him. First there was the War, and after the War his firm were so short of trained assistants that they would not let him go for two years more. Then at last he had set out. He was pining for England, though he dreaded facing it, as one dreads facing a pretty girl when one is collarless and unshaven. When he left home he had been a boy, a promising boy and handsome in spite of his birthmark; now, only ten years later, he was yellow, thin, drunken, almost middle-aged in habits and appearance. Still, he was pining for England. The ship rolled westward over wastes of sea like rough-beaten silver, with the winter trade wind behind her. Flory’s thin blood quickened with the good food and the smell of the sea. And it occurred to him–a thing he had actually forgotten in the stagnant air of Burma–that he was still young enough to begin over again. He would live a year in a civilized society, he would find some girl who did not mind his birthmark—a civilized girl, not a pukka memsahib–and he would marry her and endure ten, fifteen more years of Burma. Then they would retire— he would be worth twelve or fifteen thousand pounds on retirement, perhaps. They would buy a cottage in the country, surround themselves with friends, books, their children, animals. They would be free for ever of the smell of pukka sahibdom. He would forget Burma, the horrible country that had come near ruining him.
But in Colombo his firm begs him to come back to Burma because they’re short of workers, and so he does.
Something turned over in Flory’s heart. It was one of those moments when one becomes conscious of a vast change and deterioration in one’s life. For he had realized, suddenly, that in his heart he was glad to be coming back. This country which he hated was now his native country, his home. He had lived here ten years, and every particle of his body was compounded of Burmese soil. Scenes like these—the sallow evening light, the old Indian cropping grass, the creak of the cartwheels, the streaming egrets—were more native to him than England. He had sent deep roots, perhaps his deepest, into a foreign country.
Since then he had not even applied for home leave. His father had died, then his mother, and his sisters, disagreeable horse-faced women whom he had never liked, had married and he had almost lost touch with them. He had no tie with Europe now, except the tie of books. For he had realized that merely to go back to England was no remedy for loneliness; he had grasped the special nature of the hell that is reserved for Anglo-Indians. Ah, those poor prosing old wrecks in Bath and Cheltenham! Those tomb-like boarding-houses with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition, all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in ’88! Poor devils, they know what it means to have left one’s heart in an alien and hated country. There was, he saw clearly, only one way out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma—but really share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood him: a friend, that was what it came down to.
Like Lawrence of Arabia, he has gone native. Only his language and his white skin link him with the British now: otherwise he has nothing in common with them. I don’t think the same will happen to me in Korea, because although I have developed a deep appreciation for the place, I’m still pretty happy in America, and if it hadn’t been for an awful dog living in my family’s house (barking almost nonstop all day, all week) this long vacation we’ve taken here would have been perfect.
Orwell’s style is another thing that is perfect, though it is different from Flaubert’s style, which is also perfect, and similarly different from Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Nabokov, all of whom are perfectly perfect in different ways. I don’t know how Orwell got to this point, of being able to keep things moving along in such a nice, stream-like flow; of mixing quick momentum with a slow appreciation of beauty in his writerly alembic, transmuting gorgeous sights into gorgeous words:
Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it.
My own style does not reach these heights. I live in the wrong time period, and I spent too much of my youth playing video games, when I should have been living and reading books! Flaubert spent his whole life (from youth to old age) working on a single novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, that few people care about today, despite its unbelievable brilliance; he would shout his own lines to himself all day long, at the top of his lungs, crossing out entire pages and leaving them for posterity to find: going on the advice of my ancestors, who found some success in writing, I have whispered my book to myself over and over again, listening for deficiencies, though my ability to find them depends as much on my mood as it does on my strength and my ability to focus. I recently did this for five straight hours, but I wish I could have done it all day; let me tell you, I was correcting a lot less at the end of that time than at the coffee-fueled beginning, and it wasn’t because the quality of the book had improved. I would record myself doing this and then play the recordings back if I did not become violently ill upon hearing the sound of my own voice: I need to do all I can to read the book not as its author but as a reader who knows nothing about it. But I am still deficient, and always will be.
Orwell critiqued the deficient style of others, as did Mark Twain and a rather relentless Vladimir Nabokov (who frequently hates or pretends to hate Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann), but I don’t think I could pull off this feat because, like Spielberg, I enjoy almost all the art I see, and can find the best in even the worst supermarket penny dreadfuls. A recent New York Times blog post on style mentions Orwell as well as a computer program which is supposed to tell you if your style is any good: I didn’t bother to test my own, but plugged in a few lines of Orwell and then a few lines from the blog itself, and the website informed me that both authors were terribly deficient.