The “Tedious Parody” of Colonialism: On Tan Twan Eng’s “The House of Doors” and Paul Theroux’s “Burma Sahib”

Meena Venkataramanan reviews two novels imagining the experiences of English literary figures George Orwell and W. Somerset Maugham in Southeast Asia: Tan Twan Eng’s “The House of Doors” and Paul Theroux’s “Burma Sahib.”

The “Tedious Parody” of Colonialism: On Tan Twan Eng’s “The House of Doors” and Paul Theroux’s “Burma Sahib”

Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux. Mariner Books. 400 pages.The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng. Bloomsbury Publishing. 320 pages.

“WE WILL BE remembered through our stories,” a fictional W. Somerset Maugham declares in Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors. Published last year and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the novel pays homage to the English author, endeavoring precisely to remember him through his stories, namely those from his 1926 collection, The Casuarina Tree. Tan, a Malaysian novelist, is no stranger to success: his first two novels, The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, also made the Man Booker’s long list in 2007 and its short list in 2012, respectively.

Set in Penang during British rule, The House of Doors reimagines the life of Maugham—affectionately called “Willie” by his peers—as he and his secretary-turned-lover, Gerald Haxton, sojourn in Malaysia in the early 1920s. Maugham’s influence by that time spanned continents: his oeuvre was renowned in England, the United States, and Southeast Asia. “Men and women swarmed around him,” Tan writes of Willie, “telling him how much they liked his books.”

Among those inspired by Maugham’s writing was a young Eric Blair, more commonly remembered today by his pen name, George Orwell. Like Maugham, Blair spent time in Southeast Asia, in his case working in Burma, then part of the British Empire, as a colonial police officer. Blair, who had been born in India but raised in England, worked in Asia from 1922 to 1927, arriving shortly after Maugham visited Malaysia in 1921. Paul Theroux, who is best known as a travel writer but has also written a good deal of fiction, conjures a fictional Orwell in Burma Sahib, his new novel set during the sojourn in Burma of the man who would go on decades later to write Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That stay inspired Orwell’s debut 1934 novel, aptly named Burmese Days, and catalyzed the English author’s writing career.

Still known then as Eric Blair, a fictional Orwell guides Theroux’s story, chronicling in the third person his Southeast Asian sojourn, beginning with the voyage by ship to Burma and ending when he decides to leave the region, return home to England, and become a writer. Tan takes a different approach in The House of Doors, narrating from both the first-person perspective of Lesley Hamlyn, a white British colonist who hosts Maugham and his companion at her Penang home, and from Maugham’s third-person point of view. The House of Doors also toggles between two time periods: 1921, when Maugham stays with the Hamlyns, and a decade earlier, when the Hamlyns met Sun Yat-sen—the revolutionary who played a role in the upheaval that transformed China into a republic—and observed the murder trial of their friend Ethel Proudlock in Kuala Lumpur. Lesley recounts these earlier events to Maugham in 1921, and they ultimately become fodder for The Casuarina Tree.

Tan’s talent as a writer is obvious: his prose is lush and effortless, though it sometimes borders on being overwrought, as when Lesley recounts swimming with Willie “among the galaxies of sea-stars, while far, far above us the asterisks of light marked out the footnotes on the page of eternity.” Though his writing is sleek, Tan’s attempt to tie the story’s loose ends together is a more strenuous affair: the focus on Lesley’s interactions with Sun feels half-baked, although the romantic fling she has with one of the revolutionary’s sympathizers illustrates her disillusionment with her own marriage, which is marred by her husband Robert’s affair with a Chinese man. Lesley’s own extramarital affair, then, represents a reclamation of power amid her persistent feelings of being trapped in both her marriage and in Southeast Asia, consigned to the role of a colonial barrister’s wife. “I had seen how divorce diminishes a woman,” Lesley reflects in a moment of unsparing honesty upon learning of her husband’s infidelity. “I would be pitied at first, tolerated, but eventually I would be shunted out of the world I had married into, and the doors would be shut and bolted behind me. […] Oh yes, I knew what would happen to me if I divorced Robert.”

Although more straightforward in plot than Tan’s novel, Burma Sahib is a much denser work. Theroux conjures the minutiae of Orwell’s life, including the names of people who exist only as footnotes in his biography, such as his fellow passengers on the ship carrying him to Burma. He “murmured their names in his mind, to remember them—Alec and Edith Peddy-Wilmot; Hamish and Rebecca Christie […]; the Reverend MacIntosh.” To keep up, the reader must do the same.

Both novels prominently feature Maugham, reimagined as a character by Tan and invoked by Theroux’s Orwell. Both figures are rendered honestly: at one point in Burma Sahib, Orwell discusses the man with his own lover, Mrs. Jellicoe, who comments on Maugham’s “hideous stammer,” which renders him incomprehensible to her. Tan similarly captures that distinctive stammer in House of Doors, illuminating—with ellipses to indicate pauses—the English author’s struggle to speak, despite his ease of expression when putting pen to paper.

While House of Doors pays effusive homage to Maugham, Burma Sahib highlights Orwell’s more restrained appreciation of the author and his work. Orwell and Lesley Hamlyn, respectively, read On a Chinese Screen, Maugham’s 1922 China travelogue that depicts scenes from his sojourn with, according to Lesley, an “unsparing eye, but […] without any sneer of superiority.” For his part, Orwell is less impressed. Maugham “knew nothing of women,” he rather sneeringly remarks of the gay author, and also suggests that Maugham ignored the harsh realities of colonial life in his writing. Indeed, in Tan’s novel, Maugham distances himself from the locals, describing himself as a “brief sojourner in a strange land” during his stay in Penang, and confessing that he “came here to recuperate.” A young Eric Blair, on the other hand, is enmeshed in quotidian life as a police officer, dealing with the fallout of murders, thefts, and rapes in the colony. It was through such harrowing encounters that the glimmering facade of British colonialism began to lose its shine for Blair, ultimately giving birth to the writer Orwell, remembered now mostly for his critique of totalitarianism, though he was also a critic of imperialism.

What unites these novels, beyond their similar settings and their weaving-together of historical and fictional characters, is their underlying cynicism. This cynicism is reflected in the ways a young George Orwell and a fatigued Lesley Hamlyn respectively ponder the impact of British colonialism on Southeast Asia and negotiate their own (relatively privileged) desolation under the empire. “It was in the nature of such an office of the British Raj for authority to build and hover like a thunderhead—a strangely suffocating cloud, the vapor of power filling the room, stifling doubt, making you submit,” Eric Blair observes, recognizing that he “was no more capable of refusing an order than one of his prisoners was of disobeying him, and in that respect he saw how he was also imprisoned.” It is this realization that ultimately prompts him to acknowledge the banality of life under the Raj, to reckon with the bleakness of it all. He begins to grasp the immense toil of Burmese, Chinese, and Indian laborers and the empire’s steady reliance on them.

Of his own colonial experience, Theroux’s Orwell reflects that he “spent his life here repeating himself, and what at first had seemed original and comic became, after a time, tedious parody.” Lesley, in Tan’s novel, similarly observes the parodic nature of colonists’ lives in Penang, including her own: “I gave up my job and threw myself into the activities that were expected of the wife of a barrister: dancing and tennis, […] the church choir and […] various charities.” It is only when Blair decides to devote himself to his writing that he begins to discover a respite from the tedium, finding inspiration in Maugham’s Casuarina Tree, the same story collection that forms the centerpiece of Tan’s novel. “He read the stories slowly,” Theroux writes, “studying the sentences, the way effects were built up without calling attention to themselves, a simplicity and subtlety that he wished to emulate.” But a soon-to-be Orwell, drawing upon his experience living and working in Burma, is determined to unabashedly portray the hypocrisy of colonialism in Southeast Asia, beginning with the affected “pukka sahibs”—the esteemed white gentlemen—who carouse in the social club. Maugham’s fiction, then, is influential to Orwell for its style but lacks the sociopolitical candor to which Orwell aspires in his own writing.

When Blair begins his affair with Mrs. Jellicoe, he slowly unearths meaning in his own life, kindling the flames of his secret alter ego, whom he calls George. “[I]t seemed that he mattered in an important way, for the first time in his life—that he was an essential element in the plot, the sort of romantic entanglement you might find in Kipling or Maugham,” he reflects, once again invoking a perennial source of inspiration. “What was unfolding, as far as he knew, was a story that had not yet been written. That was the wonder of it, as well as the promise that it was his own story, an episode in the hidden life of his secret self, that he might himself one day write.” Ultimately, an exhausted Blair abdicates in favor of his secret self: George Orwell, who returns to England and pens his first novel, Burmese Days. He channels his conscience into the protagonist, John Flory, the jaded English timber merchant living in Burma who experiences a moral conflict regarding British colonialism, echoing the one that afflicted Blair during his stint in Southeast Asia.

It is evident that Orwell’s Burmese days and Maugham’s Penang days were formative for each author’s view of life in the British Empire’s Southeast Asian outposts, offering fodder for many brilliant stories. But a good story, we are reminded by both Theroux and Tan, doesn’t descend magically on a writer like an autumn leaf onto a windowsill. Nor is it simply an abstract conjuring of the mind, but rather a felt urgency that takes on a life of its own. “The story must demand to be set down on paper,” Willie Maugham tells Lesley Hamlyn in House of Doors, characteristically stammering to make his point. “With my … best stories, I always felt that I was merely their … conduit.”

LARB Contributor

Meena Venkataramanan is a book critic, journalist, and essayist who writes about identity, culture, and race. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, among other outlets. She is currently a doctoral student in English at Brown University, where her research primarily focuses on the intersection of contemporary Asian American and Black American literature.


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