I emphasize literary. Although Perlez rightly describes the novel as “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British” colonials who once ruled the country now known as Myanmar, it is most affective literarily as a portrait of its touching central character, Flory. He is a tragic figure who could have stepped out of the pages of a Joseph Conrad South Seas novel written from the point of view of the British Raj.
In her article about an attempt to preserve the house Orwell lived in in Katha, Myanmar, “camouflaged in the book as Kyauktada,” Perlez gives an apt summary of the story, which takes place in a “colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River [where] brutish characters swilled too much whiskey at a whites-only club, and wilted in the vaporous heat.”
The snobbery and ignorance of the British overseers in Burma are exemplified by Orwell’s youngest creation, a 22-year-old naïf named Elizabeth Lackersteen who arrives here with her blond hair bobbed into an Eton crop, the mode of the late 1920s, and wearing fashionable tortoiseshell glasses. She comes in search of a husband.Flory, a British timber merchant with a birthmark down one side of his face, the only character who shows empathy with the Burmese and who despises the boozers and bores of the British Club, falls for her.
He tries to interest her in local culture, taking her to a pwe, a Burmese play performed by gaslight outdoors on the street. She recoils at the “smelly natives,” calls most things “beastly” and prefers to laze in a drawing room perfumed by “chintz and dying flowers.”
Elizabeth’s favorite haunt is the British Club, where the men wear khaki shorts and topee hats and berate the Burmese servants for running low on ice for their tumblers of whiskey and gin. …
Elizabeth spurns Flory, who, overcome by desolation and rage, shoots himself. In turn, she is spurned by Lieutenant Verrall, a rude — even by British Club standards — polo-playing young army officer. At the end of the novel, the villain, U Po Kyin, an exceptionally rotund magistrate, moves to another district for a plum job.
It seems to me no accident that Orwell chose an epigraph for the novel from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — This desert inaccessible / Under the shade of melancholy boughs — as if to underscore the literary nature of his project.