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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Burma Sahib

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Burma Sahib

Title: Burma Sahib
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2024
Length: 390 pages
Availability: Burma Sahib - US
Burma Sahib - UK
Burma Sahib - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit limited -- as historical fiction -- but an engaging look at the place and time, and young George Orwell struggling in it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/2/2024 Rana Mitter
The Guardian . 12/2/2024 Tim Adams
The Guardian . 21/2/2024 Lara Feigel
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/2/2024 William Boyd
Publishers Weekly A+ 1/12/2023 .
The Spectator . 17/2/2024 D.J.Taylor
The Telegraph . 6/2/2024 Nikhil Krishnan
TLS . 22/3/2024 Alice Jolly
Wall St. Journal . 2/2/2024 Toby Lichtig

  From the Reviews:
  • "Rather in the manner of the man who found a button and made a suit to fit, Theroux has woven a much bigger narrative around what we do know and improvised imaginatively around the things we don’t. (...) (H)e can’t have Orwell do anything historically improbable. (...) This limitation means Theroux can’t fully exercise one of his greatest skills as a novelist: powerful and unpredictable plotting, which makes up for his sometimes sketchy characterisation. (...) Theroux does give us something that Orwell couldn’t: a sense of how current and relevant his concerns about imperialism remain from the viewpoint of the present." - Rana Mitter, Financial Times

  • "Theroux, like Orwell, is the sharpest observer of the nonsenses of the class system, and he examines the ways that his subject was both snared and appalled by it. The cadences of Kipling -- the “good-bad poet” -- chunter at the back of this retelling (.....) By the time Theroux recasts these storied events, he has evoked a deeper understanding of the complicated life beyond their edges. The writer Orwell is emerging from the portrait of Eric Blair; you catch a glimpse of him not only in a disaffection with the apparatus of power, but increasingly, in the unadorned sentences, the telling detail of his crime reports." - Tim Adams, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) 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. (...) But if it becomes most compellingly a book about empire, then that is also where its perspective is most limited." - Lara Feigel, The Guardian

  • "He not only knows all the details of Orwell’s life but he also knows Burma well, and his fictional account of Blair’s life there from 1922 to 1927 is a valid and entirely credible attempt to add flesh to the skeletal facts we have of this time. [...] Theroux is now in his early 80s and this novel is one of his finest, in a long and redoubtable oeuvre." - William Boyd, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The stellar latest from Theroux frames an insightful portrait of a young George Orwell (1903-1950) within a scathing depiction of British colonialism. (...) With piercing prose, Theroux lays bare the fraudulent and fiercely despotic nature of the British Empire. This brims with intelligence and vigor." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(I)t should be pointed out that most biographies of Orwell cover the Burma years in a single chapter, whereas Theroux has managed to string them out to a whopping 392 pages. All this, inevitably, means that the supporting detail gets laid on with a trowel. (...) As a piece of imaginary biography, Burma Sahib is atmospherically and decorously done, but Saint Jack (1973) or The Family Arsenal (1975) -- to name only two highlights from Theroux’s golden age -- it is not." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator

  • "(W)hile Theroux’s ear for English speech is generally acute, there are moments of anachronism and Americanism (.....) But against these lapses we must hold up Theroux’s many fine passages. (...) Admirers of Theroux’s travel writing will find many such examples of his old capacity for precise lyricism -- restrained, no doubt, by Orwell’s own stern example." - Nikhil Krishnan, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Eric Blair -- better known now under the pseudonym he later adopted, George Orwell -- did not continue to university after graduating from Eton but rather entered the colonial British police force, trained and stationed in Burma. Beginning with his passage to Burma in 1922, when he was only nineteen, Burma Sahib is a fictional account of his years there.
       With his father having been a subdeputy (fourth class ...) in the Opium Department there's some history of working for the Civil Service in the family. There's also a family connection to this part of the empire: Blair's mother had been born and grew up in Burma, and his grandmother still lives there, in Moulmein (though without ever having learned Burmese); he also has an uncle there, who had married a Burmese woman -- a connection that Blair does his best to keep secret, as 'going native' to such an extent was something that was not done, and would reflect badly on Blair.
       Blair isn't a great fit for either the police or colonial administration generally -- something he is well aware of: "he kept to himself, and hated the life he'd signed up for". He takes stabs at trying to do what he can to fit in -- going to the local 'club', wherever he is, even though he dislikes it, for example -- but it's a constant struggle. Blair can't help but stand out -- including because of his height, something Theroux repeatedly mentions as an issue, but also because he can't play the role of colonial master -- pukka sahib --, the way it's done, in the expatriate bubble the British have constructed for themselves.
       As one superior notes about him: "You are cursed for being conspicuous", and while Blair tries not to be, he simply can't help it: his physical size, his actions and inactions (like avoiding being a club-regular) all drawing attention to him. He is reasonably competent at his job -- though the standards for success aren't very high -- but he makes some terrible mistakes as well as some enemies, and while he passes his probationary period easily enough he is repeatedly transferred -- often as punishment. Along the way, he sees colonial rule for the farce that it is:

     Knowing how poor he was at doing his job, it amazed Blair to think that anyone trusted him. It seemed proof that the system was deeply flawed. Half the bureaucrats he knew in Burma would have been hard-pressed in England to get a job mending bicycles. How did the empire persist, then ? It was the indifference of the majority of natives living in villages, oblivious to government -- religion, and ancient superstition and lack of education allowed the system to flourish. And people like him, unfit to be policemen, pretending to keep order.
       Among the crimes that are pursued is that of sedition, with Blair led to arrest monks who speak against system and the king. The locals are, in any case, treated like a completely different class:
     "The native is a child in every aspect except age," Stewart said. "And should be treated as a child. That is to say kindly, but with the greatest firmness. By firm, I mean don't hesitate to thrash them when necessary.
       Throughout, we also see the development of the writer Orwell -- just foreshadowed, for the most part, but slowly taking on form. Blair is not much of a writer -- some poetry, but he abandons that, and later what amount to little more than sketches, though ideas, such as for Burmese Days, begin to take on form. Throughout, he is not yet ready to really write anything substantial -- and, indeed, is mostly concerned that he is saying too much in what he does write: he frets about what to write his parents in his letters, wanting to avoid much that would be too revealing or exposing, and similarly is careful with the notes he has delivered when he wants to contact someone locally. But literature -- reading -- is always something he turns to: even once he's been in Burma for years and settled in: "Blair pretended he was a pukka sahib, but he lived in books".
       As Theroux has Blair realize:
Reading was an intimate act, your reading showed who you were. And my reading shows I'm not a true policeman.
       His reading is revealing: early on, while still being trained, he reads D.H.Lawrence -- "The keenest pleasure in his life at the fort was retreating to his cubicle upstairs after dinner and immersing himself in his book, mentally going home". Later, he is more occupied with works by authors writing about the colonial experience -- E.M.Forster's A Passage to India, works by Maugham. He is drawn to writing, but admits: "I read Wells and Maugham and Lawrence, and it seems unattainable".
       He has an affair with a married woman, Mrs. Jellicoe, who becomes his great solace. She is encouraging, and sure of him: "'You will be a writer,' she said, one afternoon, groggy after sex. 'You will make your mark.'". Speaking presumably for Theroux, she tells him:
"I know it will happen." She shifted on the bed, naked, unembarrassed, and faced him. "Because you're a reader, but most of all -- essential to being a writer -- you're a listener."
       Burma Sahib is a work of historical fiction -- unusual for Theroux, who here has to write based on the historical record rather than experience (which, to varying degrees, figures very prominently in much of his fiction). In writing a fictional biography of Orwell, Theroux is constrained by the facts of Orwell's life; he works well within these bounds, but it does limit his range some. Nevertheless, it is a richly imagined portrait of the times, place, and circumstances, with Theroux capturing much here very well, including the complex relationships between the three main groups -- the colonialist British, the Burmese, and the large Indian contingent. As always, Theroux is good on local color -- the feel of place --, as well as the types and characters -- across all the groups, and especially in relationship to Blair, whether as superiors, underlings, servants, lovers, relatives, or friends (not that Blair manages to achieve much that could be called friendships ...).
       Orwell's future is amusingly prefigured at times, too: "Of course, become a dishwasher and atone, Blair thought on his way home and laughed at the absurdity of it" (Theroux noting in his Postscript, in case readers aren't aware, that Blair would go on to write a book: "he planned to title Confessions of a Dishwasher. But the publisher preferred Down and Out in Paris and London").
       A character suggests that: "There's a short period in everyone's life when his character is fixed forever"; Theroux of course means to show that these Burmese years were defining ones in the-man-who-would-become-Orwell's life but he doesn't force that idea too hard (recognizing that there was more to it, too -- as he shows by quickly summarizing some of what came after in his Postscript). No doubt, however, the experiences were significant ones, and Theroux does present them well as such.
       Burma Sahib is an enjoyable work -- a good story, too, especially in its exploration of the various personal dynamics (even if that is complicated some by Blair's frequent moves, which mean there are few near-constants in his life), and an interesting take both on young Orwell as well as the obscenity and ridiculousness of late-colonial British rule.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2024

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Burma Sahib: Reviews: George Orwell: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2024 the complete review

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