Nutmeg farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg fill the air.
In Somerset Maugham’s 1932 novel, The Narrow Corner, three worldly travelers, all practical-minded criminals of a sort, dock at the remote Dutch colonial island of Banda Neira, called Kanda Meira in the book, during a journey through the Spice Islands of the Banda Sea. They encounter two naïve tropical island dropouts from Europe, Erik and Firth, who seem to be living in dream-worlds of their own making. A collision of world-views occurs, leading one of the characters to his death.
The story’s clash between idealism and practicality is, even today,
reflected in Banda Neira’s idyllic setting and fascinating history. The
idealism: Here and in other nearby Banda Islands, crystal clear waters,
coral reefs and colorful fish make for amazing diving. Beautiful old
Dutch colonial houses with wide front porches dot the island. Nutmeg
farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper
and nutmeg fill the air. There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks or other
fast food chains. Credit cards are accepted by only one business. The
island itself is of such insignificant size, that Apple Maps does not
even credit the land-mass with a name.
The local Banda dialect (different from the original Banda language) is a beautiful lilting language, so similar in its intonation to Italian, and to some extent in its pronunciation, that it sounds like, well … Italian. “We hear that all the time,” one Bandanese told me. Speakers seem to use gentle accentuation to soften disagreements or complaints or sometimes to emphasize a point. Below are audio samples of Bandanese making daily conversation on a small boat and playing music and singing by the sea.
George Orwell. The very name is associated in the English lexicon
with critiques of despotic totalitarian rule. The author’s 1940s
writings on tyranny and the individual were so lucid and true, one
wonders how he penned such potent prose. Two reasons are usually given–
1) the strict regimen of the British boarding schools he attended and 2)
his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, where he saw facts
twisted into communist propaganda and where he was wanted by the Russian
police force. Emma Larkin, in Searching for George Orwell in Burma,
suggests a third reason– Orwell’s “work as an imperial policeman
contributed to his ability to write about oppression.” Larkin’s idea is
that Orwell’s years in Burma provided him insight into how authoritarian
institutions insidiously undermine individual identities and personal
relationships. She makes an intriguing case, presenting first and
second-hand accounts of Orwell’s life in Burma as well as some
discoveries of her own and juxtaposing them with his writing.
To fully appreciate Larkin’s idea, one first should get one’s head
around the fact that before becoming a writer, before empathizing with
the down-and-out in Paris and London or authoring his famously chilling
insights into the psychology of authoritarian governments, Orwell was in
fact, for five years, a British colonial cop with a toothbrush mustache
who beat his Burmese coolies “in moments of rage…. Orientals can be
very provoking” as he put it. But Orwell also wrote about coming to see
British imperialism as an “evil despotism” and about the part he played
in it. “For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it
had left me with a bad conscience.”
Following Orwell’s Trail
Larkin visited the cities and regions where Orwell worked. In Mandalay, where he received his training, he lived in the Police Officers’ Mess, a large red brick building that is still standing just a few blocks off the southeast corner of Mandalay Palace, now used to house visiting high-ranking police officials. I walked onto the grounds, and tried to go up the stairs to take a look at the rooms where Orwell had quartered. A smiling guard who spoke no English held up his hand and shook his head. I smiled back and showed him the cover of Larkin’s book with George Orwell’s name on the front, to which he responded by tapping out the positions of shoulder insignia on either side of his neck. His communicative gestures were more effective than mine. I walked out of the compound, but not before taking a quick photo of the building. On the second floor near corner is the room where Larkin writes that a police officer in training killed himself, perhaps influencing events in Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days. (Belief in ghosts is common in Burma, and the room’s whited-out windows seemed to suggest it might be in permanent disuse.)