Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux review – how Eric Blair became George Orwell | George Orwell

Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux review – how Eric Blair became George Orwell | George Orwell

George Orwell’s years as a colonial policeman in Burma in the 1920s preoccupied him for the rest of his life. Straight out of Eton, he was thrown into a world that mirrored the public school with its rivalries and floggings; except that now it was the Burmese people who were being flogged. He wrote about it repeatedly: in his 1934 novel Burmese Days, several essays, and passages devoted to Burma in The Road to Wigan Pier. Even on his deathbed he was writing notes for a novella about Burma entitled A Smoking Room Story. Now, Paul Theroux has taken on this material, with a novel that explores Burma as the place where Eric Blair became George Orwell.

There has been so much written about Orwell recently, from DJ Taylor’s casually magisterial biography, to Anna Funder’s intricately daring book about his first wife, to Sandra Newman’s high-wire feminist retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In her 2005 travel memoir Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin discovers that Orwell’s great uncle had a Burmese mother.

This is a risky project for Theroux; there is always the danger in novels about writers that the dialogue becomes an embarrassing parody. He avoids this by focusing on Orwell’s blankness of character at this age. The dialogue is convincing because the inner Orwell remains hidden and the things he says are conventional and terse. Theroux uses this to suggest that all the time a secret self was developing: “his other self, the restless inquisitor, the doubter, the contrarian”.

The secret self is Orwell the writer, and, in the end, Theroux is writing for Orwell connoisseurs. We know very little about what Orwell was reading during these years, but Theroux imagines it all for him, moving from Wells to Lawrence to Forster. Theroux shows how these literary influences might combine with everyday experience to create the writer of Burmese Days. Indeed, phrases from the novel are seen to have their genesis in conversations here.

Beyond its interest for Orwell enthusiasts, I couldn’t decide if this book succeeded as a novel. It is rather fascinating in its portrait of Orwell’s ambivalence towards the empire he reviles and serves. If Burmese Days doesn’t have the reach and depth of Orwell’s best work, it’s because he was dishonest at this point in making his autobiographical hero a convinced rebel – “notoriously a bolshie in his opinions”. In fact, at the time Orwell had been more confused. One ex-Etonian visitor reported Orwell revelling in being a servant of the crown, and in his 1936 essay Shooting an Elephant he wrote, repellently, that “in the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves” (the “yellow faces” are bad enough; “sneering” turns the Burmese into Eton schoolboys).

Theroux takes these admissions and shows Orwell veering between ethical disdain and appalling complicity. We see Orwell presented with a series of moral tests – pulling a dead man’s ring off his finger and finding the whole finger comes with it; ordering the hanging of a man he knows to be innocent. When an elephant goes on the rampage and kills a man, he is faced with the appalling prospect of shooting it, largely to pacify the jeering onlookers because “no one in that crowd … would have respected the Burma sahib for doing nothing”.

Orwell fails as a policeman and he fails morally, with each test becoming more disillusioned with empire, yet more implicated in its methods. Assaulted by schoolboys, he longs for “a dah, to swipe at their skinny arms and slash their faces”. Inspired by Larkin’s research, Theroux invents a half-Burmese first cousin for Orwell, which works as a thought experiment by revealing Orwell’s embarrassed, small-minded racism (“the young half blood calling his mother Aunt Ida”).

Theroux brings the empire and its evils alive as a day-by-day experience. This is what writing the book as a novel enables him to do, in a way that more abstract academic discourses around colonialism can’t. But if it becomes most compellingly a book about empire, then that is also where its perspective is most limited. In that line about “yellow faces” Orwell was luxuriating in his own self-inculpation, and this is what Theroux’s Orwell does throughout. The problem is that at this point in history, the stories about Burma we need to read are not stories about the intricate feelings of the white men who colonised it.

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The novel doesn’t seem especially troubled by this. The Burmese are here merely as supporting characters, with the women as exotic stereotypes, whose slippery delicacy contrasts with the no less stereotypical but more richly Lawrentian memsahib who orders Orwell into bed as an alternative to “frigging” herself.

I was left comparing Burma Sahib to Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast – at its heart a story about an anarchic empire builder with overreaching ambitions. The Mosquito Coast is also about the complex feelings of white men in the jungle, but it has aged well because of its madness and extremity. The portrait of white male angst there ballooned into a tragic portrayal of American fatherhood, and of America itself as doomed by the awful power of frontier fathers. The writing in Burma Sahib is in places just as brilliant, but it is precisely the exquisite rightness page by page that reminds us that Theroux now has less compelling things to say.

Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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