Orwell has long been one of my favourite writers. I’m yet to see an example of a single bad line written by him. This little novel is no exception.
I first read it many years ago planning for a trip to Burma (In the end I only snuck in just a few miles into a militarised zone after a 3-day motorbike ride to Three Pagoda Pass).
It is the sort of gritty love-story that only Orwell could ever conceive of. It revolves around the motley collection of characters of a little colonial outpost up the Irrawaddy River. The lead character is memorable for a big dark birthmark that spreads across the side of his face – which gets worse when he is embarrassed or angry. Orwell’s work is always rich with metaphors and half-hidden social commentary and he rarely includes anything in a story that is not there for a deep reason. It is mostly the desire to see how these characters destinies will be joined that makes this such a page-turner but the adventure itself also leads to some unforgettable drama and action.
Some of the characters are deliberately shallow and a couple are horribly and bitterly racist. The lead character tries to inspire the girl he loves with his own fascination for the richness of Burmese culture but she sees only dirt and squalor. Orwell’s own respect for the Burmese (think I recall reading somewhere that he even spoke the language) and love of the country comes through and you can’t help wondering how many times he felt frustrated with the same kind of colonial ignorance.
My latest copy of this book was doubly memorable since it also inspired the tale of the ‘mystery girl’. Perhaps she’d been reading this book on her trip through Malaysia and Singapore before she left it at the Berlian Inn, Kuta, Bali. I read it through an assignment in Ternate and Papua and left in a waiting room at Jakarta Airport. Where is it now?
Kitbaggers book project – travel literature on speed.
Have you ever handled a classic paperback and wondered where it’s been and whose hands it passed through? Do you love the well-handled look of a book that’s obviously seen decades of serious mileage through places you might only have imagined?
This project was conceived long ago through a conversation (in San Jose, Costa Rica) between a group of friends who’d wondered about these same things and thought it would be interesting to try to trace the history of just a few random books that we read on the road.
More than just a review – this is also the story of a single adventurous copy that’s probably still out there touring the world somewhere. Let us know if you find it.
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