Review | BURMA SAHIB by Paul Theroux (Malawi)


Burma Sahib
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
Mariner Books
February 2024
400 pages
$14.99 (Kindle); $30.00 (Hardback);  1 Credit (Audio book)

Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)


Here one of the more prolific, best-known Returned Peace Corps Volunteer authors reimagines one of English literature’s most controversial writers in his early, formative years. Theroux leads us on the journey of Eric Blair, a British Raj officer in Colonial Burma to his transformation to George Orwell, the anti-colonial writer.

Blair set sail for India shortly after graduating from the same prestigious private school of Eton whose alumni included Boris Johnson and nineteen other British prime ministers.

Despite his young age (19), he would oversee local policemen in Burma and deal with his fellow British’s racial and class politics while trying to learn new languages.

His father, a middling official in Britain’s opium trade, had served in India, and his grandmother, an uncle, and a cousin were still in Burma. This part of his family were virtual outcasts since some had married local women, which didn’t sit well with British sahibs (masters) who were convinced of the inferiority of the “natives.” Throughout the story, Blair tries to avoid his family at all costs.

During his time in Burma, Blair contended with his own self-image and identity. Theroux does a commendable job of following the thread of Blair’s parallel secret self and metamorphosis into a writer. “Blair had always tried to maintain a shadow existence, of reading, of letter writing, of making lists —trees, flowers, Hindi and Burmese words — or composing poems he knew to be bad.”  He was also a prolific letter writer, which helped strengthen his literary chops.

Blair’s writing was a form of transformation, “it took the sting out of their slights, because John Flory was the whipping boy, not Blair Sahib…”  John Flory would be the key protagonist in Blair’s novel about this experience, Burmese Days.

Eventually, clashes with his superiors and a traumatic scene towards the end of the book would end his experience in Burma. His “house girl” interrupted an Easter church service half-crazed and begging for money. Blair would not show any compassion, but would leave the country unannounced, thus ending a formative, but trying, period in his life. “This embarrassment was something physical, a sickening humiliation. A cup of tea was no help.”


In the Postscript, Theroux reveals that Blair eventually ends up in Paris as a dishwasher, interacting with the poorest of society and developing his writing skills. Orwell “descended into the netherworld. He swapped his decent clothes for shabby ones, as Jack London had done in People of the Abyss, and became a tramp, lodging uncomfortably in squalid doss-houses and living among homeless wanderers, beggars, gypsies, and hop-pickers…” This experience led to Confessions of a Dishwasher, which his publisher recommended he call Down and Out in Paris and London. It was here that Blair asked for a pseudonym with, “I rather favor George Orwell.”

At the end of the book, Orwell reflects that “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude. I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time, failure seemed to be to be the only virtue.”

His writing career would be limited to twenty years. Orwell finished his time in Burma in 1927, and his first book, Burmese Days, wouldn’t be published until 1934. His epic dystopian novel, 1984 was published 15 years later in 1949.

The works of Kipling and E. M. Forster, Passage to India, are mentioned several times in the book. Blair believed that his experiences in the far outreaches of the Empire would allow him to describe scenes Forster could never imagine. And he was right.

Theroux, like Orwell, was an astute observer of the nonsense of the class system and racism of the Raj empire. And they both held a resentment instinctive insubordination, a nascent antipathy to the nuances of rules and bigotries of British rule. Theroux has subsequently spent most of his lifetime recording and detailing the reality of colonial and post-colonial outposts, which he puts into the world of young Eric Blair. Both writers wrote poetry during their formative overseas experiences to cope with the isolation and travails of living in isolated parts of the world.

At one point, Theroux writes, “Colonialism brings out the worst of everyone.” Here’s a passage of a Buddhist monk’s assessment of the Raj on Burma, which reflects this resentment:

The British have made Burma into a business—a good business for them, a bad business for us, Blair read. A few thousand white men and Indians dominated fourteen million Burmese people. Is that right? And the British monarch is the boss of it all-the main “dacoit.” (from a Hindi word meaning gang of armed robbers).

Theroux felt that the idea to write this book was “a gift,” according to an interview. He revered Orwell and read most of his books. He’s been to Burma five times and had a strong connection to England. He’d spent much of his adult life among the Brits in Africa, Singapore, and England. His first wife was British, as were his children, although he didn’t love England.

Theroux’s Peace Corps coming of age experience came in the end days of the British empire. Working as a Peace Corps teacher in a school in the former territory of Nyasaland, just before Malawian independence, informed the writing of this book.

Theroux’s keenly researched book impressively recounts details of Eton, Burma, the British Raj, and the different religious and social customs of the Brits, Hindus, and Scots, to mention just a few groups represented. I kept a dictionary close at hand due to the different dialects and terminology.

For example, “Maybe you can find one for me; a wee one will do, but I’d be ever so “chuffed” if you found one.” Chuffed is an informal British adjective for “delighted,” first recorded in 1855-60.  A “kukris” to carve up a dacoit is a Hindi large “knife“ with a heavy curved blade used by the Nepalese Gurkhas. Or “thrawn,” an Ulter Scots word that was first recorded in 1400-50, a late Middle English term meaning “stubborn.”  And “chee chees” (half- breeds), a word Blair loathed.


I’ve read and reviewed Theroux’s last seven books and this ranks as one of the most impressive. I took my time reading it like a fine wine. To speed-read this would lead to missing the underlying meaning, the different social, cultural, not to mention, linguistic nuances.

I was pleased to learn from a recent interview that at 82 years of age, the Dean of travel writing is already planning his next novel. In the spirit of On the Plains of Snakes and Deep South, he plans to hit the road once again in his car, crossing our neighbor to the north. He won’t take a laptop and rarely uses a cell phone and writes with a pen/pencil on a notepad, and at the end of the journey, after listening to what the locals in some very isolated places tell him, he’ll come back with the materials for his 56th novel.


“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.” — Booklist (starred review)


Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Pillars of Hercules, was shortlisted for the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. 


Reviewer Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) Walker’s two books are Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond and My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, which was named Best Travel Book by the Peace Corps Writers Group. Of his 30 published essays, two were recognized by the Solas Awards. His forthcoming book, The Guatemala Reader: Extraordinary Lives and Amazing Stories, should be out by April.  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala.




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    • Thanks Lorenzo–I appreciated your heads up on his recent interview of Theroux–it was revealing and I used some of what I learned in this review. Evidently Theroux has seen it and said, “Many Thanks–A nice review”.

  • Excellent review of an excellent book, which I just finished reading. P.T. is my favorite living American writer; I’ve read about thirty of his books so far, and this one is one of his best.

  • Thanks for a very articulate and thorough review, as always. I’ve read several of Theroux’s earlier books. Now, I’m going to read this latest book. Glad he’s still writing at age 82, like so many of us.

    • Earl–you won’t regret it! Since you’ve written about Baja–I’d also recommend Theroux trip through Mexico–in his car. On the Plain of Snakes,A Mexican Journey. You can find my review on my website–it was one of my favorites, especially when he reached Oaxaca and met comandante Marcos!

  • Great, Mark! I started your wonderful review before I went to Cebu from Yokohama home base, put it down then just read it slowly now at pumpkin hour Kanto time. My reading is backed up but now that I’m almost retired from my tenured gig at Tokyo City University I will start with Angelo Brothers then Burma Sahib after my own scribbles and walks. You did a great job of distilling the magic of the book and the vocab thrown in. All so very pithy and fresh. Thank you!!! And goodnight!!! 🙂

  • Eric, That’s quite an honor from someone who studied journalism and is an established writer.

    I have a few stories about the University of Arizona Press, Paul Theroux (who thanked me for my review, but that’s not all).

    I also have a few stories about Cebu and Japan, although I must agree with Theroux that Japan is not an easy place to understand, let alone write about.

    I’ll shoot off an email to continue the dialogue!


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