November 22, 2013

80 years after publication, George Orwell’s Burmese Days wins Burma’s highest literary prize


George Orwell’s home in Burma

Writing in The Irrawaddy, Kyaw Phyo Tha reports that the Burmese Ministry of Information named the new translation of  Burmese Days the winner of the 2012 National Literary Award’s informative literature (translation) category. Originally published in 1934, Burmese Days is Orwell’s first book, and has been described as a “scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British.”

Writing Burmese Days, Orwell drew from the five years (from 1922 to 1927) he spent as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Force of Burma, when the country was under British colonial rule. Phyo Tha writes, “’Burmese Days’ is a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj, as well as a tale from the waning days of British colonialism. The book tells a tragic story of a British teak merchant who is disenchanted by the superiority of British officials to local Burmese, as well as Indians.”

According to the newspaper, Burmese readers are familiar with Orwell. “Burmese versions of the British novelist’s internationally famous works have been introduced in Burma since the 1950s. Animal Farm, a satirical retelling of the rise of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union with farmyard animals, was translated and published in Burma in 1951.”

There is a burgeoning movement to save Orwell’s house in Katha, which was the inspiration for Kyauktada, the fictional town in Burmese Days, with a small group of artists leading the way. In last weekend’s T Magazine, Lawrence Osborne wrote “In Myanmar, Retracing George Orwell’s Steps.”

It is strange to think of a young and unknown Orwell, who was born in India to a father who worked as an overseer of the colonial opium business, perhaps pacing around the ghostly Sule Pagoda 90 years ago and taking in this same view that I often enjoy when walking around the Maha Bandula park late at night. Back then, I suppose, on empty Sule Pagoda Road next to the park, gangs of boys did not play soccer under streetlamps, their naked backs glistening with sweat. The streets were probably swept free of garbage, and the dogs that swarm through them today would have been taken care of in brutal fashion. It was a different city, a famously wilder, greener place.

Osborne also notes Emma Larkin’s 2005 book, Finding George Orwell in Burma, describing her intriguing argument that Orwell’s three great novels, starting with Burmese Days, “presciently track the development of Burma — a colonial society transformed, through independence and the socialist military coup in 1962, into a version of Animal Farm, and then ‘1984.’”

The book’s Burmese publisher, who also published a translation of 1984 last year, is happy that Orwell’s books are finally getting wide exposure.

“I wanted to publish those books for a long time but I could only do it in the last year,” said Win Tin of Law Ka Thit publishing house, who published the translations of both “Burmese Days” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 2012.

He said the easing of literary censorship last year allowed him to publish those books, since criticism of the Burmese in “Burmese Days” and the satirical view of dictatorship in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would not have made it past the former regime’s censors.

“I feel glad one of the books I’ve published has won the highest prize in the country,” he said. “But I’m wondering: what’s wrong with ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’?

“They both are good books.”


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.