Paul Theroux Goes East of Suez in ‘Burma Sahib’

Lee Polevoi


Burma Sahib

By Paul Theroux


400 pages


At the outset of Burma Sahib, the new novel by esteemed travel writer Paul Theroux, a woman and her husband aboard the ship Herefordshire take an interest in another passenger—a young man standing at the bow looking out to the sea. Who is he? Where is he going? The year is 1922, the young man’s name is Eric Blair, and he’s headed for Burma (present-day Myanmar) to serve in the British colonial constabulary—in effect, helping to police a distant outpost of empire.


Years later, long after a hellish five years in the Far East, the world will come to know this young man as George Orwell.



After the novel’s artful introduction, we are deeply ensconced in young Blair’s point of view. What seems at first to be a painfully shy youth of 19—with dark memories of his recent time at Eton -- will progress to depths of nearly bottomless self-loathing as the story goes on:


“Apart from a few words with Jones, or the steward, Blair had not spoken to anyone on the ship. He had mainly kept to his cabin, with his books; he’d taken his meals alone, vaguely disturbed by the excessive amounts of food. On deck, he’d hidden himself, strolling with his head down, or keeping to the bow rail, forward of the cranes and the citadel of lounges, stacked one on another, his back to the windows and the passengers. As for small talk, he’d always made a dog’s dinner of it and hated talking about himself.”



And in a sparkling version of a classic maritime setting—that is, select passengers gathered for dinner at the captain’s table—his struggle to be congenial butts up against the follies and foolishness of some colorfully drawn secondary characters.


This self-isolation continues when Blair—as he’s called throughout the novel—arrives at the backwater outpost and begins training as a colonial police officer. Theroux leverages a chapter of classroom instruction to convey a lot of facts and history of Burma, which seems unnecessary and translates into a few stock characters spouting a lot of exposition.


At the same time, the author is skilled as always in describing a foreign tropical environment (“… the jungle and its leaf-scented air, its sheltering trees, the glimpses of green fields and fences, a geometry of gigantic earthen trays of standing water”). Theroux knows the region well and the Burmese backdrop comes alive in his telling.



However, several minor characters seem to exist only to serve as conduits for Blair’s education and enlightenment. Throughout the training period and beyond, readers are guided through bazaars and brothels, and fed facts about life in Burma that do little to advance the plot. For example, an instructor named Captain Balfour outlines the “need” for British authorities to impose order on the indigenous people:


“There remains an ingenious criminal class in Burma, and still dacoity [banditry] and brigandage throughout the country. In the past ten years the population has risen about nine percent but the increase in serious crime has risen shockingly, a thirty percent rise in murder and over a hundred percent in dacoity …”


This ongoing imperative to explain clogs the narrative, diminishing its urgency. Also, references to Blair’s height and inability to speak the native language are more plentiful than need be—not to mention, the authorial obligation to hew as much as possible to the outline of George Orwell’s actual colonial experience.


Still, Theroux convincingly portrays the blight of imperial rule, as when porters in Colombo assist departing European travelers with their luggage:


“The porter was unsteady, the tin case swung to the side as he attempted to find his footing at the end of the gangway, and as he tottered the white policeman dashed from the dock and screamed something in Hindi. Bracing himself on the handrail of the gangway, the policeman leaned like a rugger hearty and kicked the porter in the backside. The porter staggered and fell hard onto the dock, his turban coming loose, the tin case dropping with a clatter.”


Burma Sahib should be of great interest to Orwell’s millions of fans around the world. They might just wish the story could get moving a little faster than it does.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of two novels, The Moon in Deep Winter and The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.  


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo Credits:; Wikimedia Commons.


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