Paul Theroux’s New Book 'Burma Sahib' Reveals a Fresh Fictional Account of George Orwell

Paul Theroux’s New Book 'Burma Sahib' Reveals a Fresh Fictional Account of George Orwell

Fifty years ago, Paul Theroux returned from the long railway trip from London via India and Burma to Tokyo and back which became “The Great Railway Bazaar,” an odyssey translated into 22 languages with sales of more than a million copies worldwide. Theroux went on to write more best sellers, both fiction and non-fiction, including “Riding the Iron Rooster” and “The Mosquito Coast.”

With the launch of his 57th book, Theroux’s “Burma Sahib” is a fictional masterpiece about Orwell’s experience in Burma. This book actually has Therouvian roots in Africa. From early on, as a young teacher in British Nyasaland and later in Uganda and Singapore, Theroux taught the work of George Orwell who, as a young man, had also been a government employee in the tropics – in his case a policeman in Burma, when his name was not Orwell but rather Eric Blair.

The transformative experience inspired Orwell to write: “There is a short period in everyone's life when his character is fixed forever…“

Eric Blair stood out amongst his fellow police trainees in 1920s Burma. Nineteen years old, unusually tall, a diffident loner fresh from Eton, after five years spent in the narrow colonial world of the Raj – a decaying system steeped in overt racism and petty class conflict – he would emerge as the George Orwell we know.

In his novel “Burma Sahib,” Paul Theroux brings Orwell's Burma years to radiant life, tracing the development of the young man's consciousness as he confronts the social, racial and class politics and the reality of Burma beyond. Through one writer, we come to understand another - and see how what Orwell called “five boring years within the sound of bugles” were in fact the eventful years that turned him from a powerful and well-paid colonial policeman, Assistant-Superintendent Eric Blair, into a poorly paid but brilliant and highly respected essayist, pamphleteer and novelist George Orwell, author of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Orwell was fond of quoting Rudyard Kipling’s lines that summed up his time in Burma:

We’ve only one virginity to lose.

And where we lost it, there our hearts will be.

That place for Orwell was Burma, which Theroux evokes, drawing on all his powers of observation and imagination.

BURMA SAHIB is available for pre-order here.

Praise for Burma Sahib in Booklist, January 2024

“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. . . . Theroux’s engrossing, suspenseful novel incisively maps the start of Blair’s metamorphosis into George Orwell, resounding critic of malevolent power.”

Praise for Burma Sahib in Kirkus, January 2024

"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."

Praise for Burma Sahib in Publishers Weekly, December 2023

"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."

About Paul Theroux

Theroux is the author of more than 50 highly acclaimed novels, travel books and short story collections, including The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), The Mosquito Coast (1981) Riding the Iron Rooster (1983), and Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads (2015). He is a 2015 recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Patron’s Medal and a past winner of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for literature. He has also received the James Tait Black Award and the Whitbread Prize for his novel Picture Palace. Theroux lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod. For more information, visit