“Burma Sahib”

Burma Sahib, Paul Theroux (Mariner, Hamish Hamilton, February 2024)

Jonathan Chatwin in the Asian Review of Books: Eric Arthur Blair once wrote that he was born into the “lower-upper-middle class”, having cachet but no capital. His father had been a sub-deputy opium agent in India, where Blair was born in 1903; his French mother was the daughter of a Burmese teak merchant. He attended Wellington, briefly, and then Eton—but with fees taken care of as a King’s Scholar. He was, he wrote later, relatively happy at Eton, but he recalls his prep school, St Cyprian’s, with something close to loathing in his essay “Such, Such Were The Joys”—a place where he was constantly reminded of his “lower-upper-middle class” status: one boy, having queried Blair as to his father’s income, told him with “amused contempt” that his father earned over two hundred times as much money.

Once he had finished school, Blair—dubbed by Martin Amis an “auto-contrarian”—decided not to progress to Oxford or Cambridge, but instead to turn towards Empire—where plenty of men with indistinct class backgrounds managed to refashion themselves.

In 1922, aged just 19, he became an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present day Myanmar); he would spend five years there. Paul Theroux chooses as an epigraph for Burma Sahib a line from Burmese Days, the first novel published by George Orwell, as Blair would become: “There is a short period in everyone’s life when his character is fixed forever.” This is the impetus behind Theroux’s novelistic treatment of Blair’s time in Burma—here, he suggests, we find an origin story for a novelist who has some claim to being the most influential of the twentieth century.

Theroux’s own youthful experiences as a Peace Corp volunteer in what is now Malawi, as well as his extensive journeying in the course of researching his travel books means that his sense of the characters, and character, of colonial rule strikes the reader with powerful verisimilitude. The paternalistic, self-righteous authority; the claustrophobia; the tedium of stoic routine; the “utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East”: all are vividly conveyed in the course of the novel.

More here.