Indonesia: Banda Neira: Paradise and Practicality in Somerset Maugham’s The Narrow Corner

Nutmeg farms are stunningly beautiful. The smell of cinnamon, cloves, pepper and nutmeg fill the air.

The Narrow Corner on James Weitz's literary tourism blogIn 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.

Literary travels - The 1933 film

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.

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George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma

Dropping George Orwell's name in Burma opened no doors this time.
George Orwell, "Burma Days" and
George Orwell, “Burma Days” and Emma Larkin, “Finding George Orwell in Burma”

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.”

Literary tourism - Burma police officers mess.
Burma police officers mess.

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.)

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