“Burma Sahib” by Paul Theroux

Detail of UK edition cover Detail of UK edition cover

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.

 

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

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.

What feels less compelling is the character at the center of the novel. Theroux’s Blair is not clubbable, despite his Eton schooling, and carries with him a sense of both awkwardness—partly as a result of his height—and disdain. As the novel progresses, these character traits develop into a more considered scepticism at the power structures embodied by colonial rule.

Theroux’s sources are somewhat opaque, but as well as drawing from Burmese Days, he also relies on two of Orwell’s famous essays on his time in Burma, “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging”. In the former, he discusses how he was “hated by large numbers of people”:

 

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better.

 

In this essay, as in much of Theroux’s novel, he is mostly preoccupied with not making a public fool of himself. Theroux extends Blair’s characterization by having him engage in some fairly lurid sexual relationships with both generically sensual Burmese women as well as a vivid (and fictional) colonial wife named Mrs Jellicoe whose frankness draws out Blair’s hidden inner character: “That other self, the sneak, the rebel, the sensualist—Mrs. Jellicoe seemed to speak for him, the inner man Blair thought of as George.” Here, as elsewhere, the character’s reaction is designed to elicit a knowing recognition from readers, relying on the reader’s interest in what Blair will ultimately “become”.

Orwell has probably never been as globally known, and Burma Sahib is well-timed in following Sandra Newman’s feminist retelling of 1984, Julia, as well as DJ Taylor’s biography, Orwell: The New Life; that volume, in particular, would be useful pre-reading for those hoping to get the most from Theroux’s novel.


Jonathan Chatwin is the author of The Southern Tour: Deng Xiaoping and the Fight for China’s Future, travelogue Long Peace Street: A walk in modern China and Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveler and writer Bruce Chatwin. He holds a PhD in English Literature.