Burma sahib A novel

Paul Theroux

Book - 2024

"At age nineteen, young Eton graduate Eric Blair set sail for India, dreading the assignment ahead. Along with several other young conscripts, he would be trained for three years as a servant of the British Empire, overseeing the local policemen in Burma. Navigating the social, racial, and class politics of his fellow British at the same time as he learned the local languages and struggled to control his men would prove difficult enough. But doing all of this while grappling with his own self-worth, his sense that he was not cut out for this, is soon overwhelming for the young Blair. Eventually, his clashes with his superiors, and the drama that unfolds in this hot, beautiful land, will change him forever"--

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Historical fiction
New York : Mariner Books [2024]
Main Author
Paul Theroux (author)
First edition
Physical Description
390 pages : illustration ; 24 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

It's a risky proposition for one writer to attempt to channel another, especially one as closely read and influential as George Orwell. But Theroux has the chops and the moxie, drawing on his experiences as a novelist and travel writer to imagine Orwell's life-shaping sojourn in Burma with dramatic specificity. The future author of 1984 was then Eric Blair, a recent Eton graduate in Burma in 1922 at 19 to train as an imperial policeman for the occupying British. Eric's height and reserved manner (they call him Lofty) and concern about justice and due diligence (he teaches himself Burmese) offend and irritate his British colleagues while his ineptness gives them excuses to torment him, though the worst of their cruelty is aimed at the Burmese. As Eric struggles to navigate empire, tyranny, and racism, he's sent on investigations involving long river voyages, allowing Theroux to describe the countryside in gorgeous detail as Eric revels in its beauty and mysteries. He is also awestruck by women. The many supporting characters are diverse and vital, including Eric's problematic local relatives. Caught between British brutality and Burmese dissent, he thinks, "I am not cut out for this," and, indeed, things go disastrously wrong. Reading is Eric's "greatest passion," and Theroux's engrossing, suspenseful novel incisively maps the start of Eric's metamorphosis into George Orwell, resounding critic of malevolent power.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The stellar latest from Theroux (The Bad Angel Brothers) frames an insightful portrait of a young George Orwell (1903--1950) within a scathing depiction of British colonialism. The novel opens with an epigraph from Orwell's Burmese Days: "There is a short period in everyone's life when his character is fixed forever." What follows is Theroux's ambitious dramatization of that process for Eric Blair (Orwell's real name), who, having graduated from Eton, sails to Burma to become a policeman. There, Blair quickly becomes disenchanted with the shockingly foul attitudes of the British Raj. Though he attempts to toe the line, he soon realizes he will never live up to the brutal standards of his fellow officers ("What had not occurred to him then was that orders might be given out of spite, to humiliate and break your spirit"). He seeks solace in books and in the company of his dog, chickens, and ducks, as well as his "keeps," Burmese servants who share his bed at a couple of his posts, and the forward-thinking wife of a British timber merchant. But as often as not, Blair bungles his police work, exasperating his racist superiors. Eventually, he comes to recognize that the writer inside him wasn't the aloof officer he presented as a facade but rather "that other man who'd... hated every moment of his colonial captivity." With piercing prose, Theroux lays bare the fraudulent and fiercely despotic nature of the British Empire. This brims with intelligence and vigor. (Feb.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

This tightly focused novel relates how a young man, as yet unformed, gradually finds his own identity. In 1921, Eric Blair, 19 and newly hatched from Eton, sets sail for Burma on a posting to the Indian Imperial Police. There he will oversee native policemen--Burmese and Indian. From the start, his peers see Blair as an outsider. He feels like one too, alienated from them by height (his nickname is "Lofty"), bookishness, and latent humanitarianism. At every subsequent posting of Blair's, something goes wrong and he's shuffled off to the next posting to get rid of him. The crassness of his fellow Englishmen and their indifference toward local concerns affront him, driving him to writing as escape. Eventually, he returns to England, laid up by fever, and resigns. Succeeding in his new focus, the man renames himself George Orwell, and his experiences in Burma became background for an anticolonial novel, Burmese Days, and two of what will become his most famous essays, "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." VERDICT The prolific Theroux (The Mosquito Coast) has long been a expert writer of fiction and travel narratives, so this biographical historical novel, about the young adult life of the soon-to-be George Orwell, is a natural for him.--David Keymer

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

From a distinguished literary veteran, a compelling historical novel about callow youth. George Orwell wrote that for each of us comes a brief period in which "character is fixed forever." Theroux's premise is that for Orwell, that period was a 5-year stint in Burma during the early 1920s, where he--then Eric Blair--spent time as a trainee and junior policeman. From the start, Blair stands out from his fellow recruits. He's bookish, intimidatingly tall (one superior officer won't speak to him unless he's seated), a recent graduate of swanky Eton, adept with languages, and intent (to the consternation of many) to learn the languages of the Raj. Theroux's portrait of young Blair is complex and nuanced. Steeped in the violence of English public schools, Blair is both repulsed by and amenable to casual violence to enforce order and hierarchy. He's similarly appalled by, dependent on--and implicated in--the paternalistic racism that created and sustains British rule. Blair is torn between hatred of the moral position of the Brits here…and contempt for the often brutal criminals it is his job to pursue. A similar ambivalence--self-disgust, guilt, shameful pleasure--haunts Blair's sexual life, which consists of discreet visits to brothels, liaisons with Burmese women in his employ, and an affair with the wife of another Brit. Theroux nimbly weaves in episodes Orwell would write about in Burma Days, "Shooting an Elephant," and other works. The result is in many ways an old-fashioned novel--large in scale, slowish to build--but one that exemplifies the best virtues of such novels: steadily accruing momentum and depth, rich detail, psychological intricacy, and immersion. Best of all, the big canvas allows Theroux to depict a Blair whose wounds and offenses and flaws and guilty knowledge are changing him as we watch. The battered, self-loathing man who limps home at the end of the five years is recognizably on the cusp of being Orwell: keen-eyed, morally complex, skeptical of authority and what it allows--or requires--of those who wield it. Theroux is always great with setting; here it's not just Burma but the mind of Orwell that he persuasively inhabits. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.