A review by George Orwell in The Observer, 13 September 1942.
Unjustified in other ways, the title of this book does have the excuse that its author, like de Quincey, is very much interested in his own reactions as an opium-smoker. An officer of the Indian Army, seconded to the Burma Military Police, he was axed in 1923 and settled down for a couple of years in Mandalay, where he devoted himself almost exclusively to smoking opium, though he did have a brief interlude as a Buddhist monk and made unsuccessful efforts to float a gold mine and run a car-hiring business. After a short visit to England, during which he tried quite vainly to cure himself of the opium habit, he returned to Mandalay, and on being arrested for debt attempted suicide—a ghastly failure, for instead of blowing out his brains as he had intended he merely blew out both eyeballs, blinding himself for life.
This bald outline of the facts does not do injustice to Captain Robinson’s book, which, in spite of the long passages devoted to the delights of opium, leaves a great deal unexplained. Those who knew the author in Mandalay in 19231 were completely unable to understand why a young, healthy and apparently happy man should give himself up to such a debilitating and—in a European—unusual vice, and on this point the book throws no further light. Captain Robinson merely explains that one night in Mandalay he happened to see some Chinese smoking their opium, decided to try what it was like, and thereafter became a habitual opium-smoker. Some other reason for wanting to escape from real life there must have been. It is never mentioned, but the clue is possibly to be found in the earlier part of the book, which describes Captain Robinson’s adventures as a frontier magistrate among the little-known tribes in the north east corner of Burma.
What are the pleasures of opium? Like other pleasures, they are, unfortunately, indescribable. It is easier to describe the miseries which the smoker suffers when deprived of his drug; he is seized with feverish restlessness, then with violent fits of yawning, and finally howls like a dog, a noise so distressing that when an opium-smoker is imprisoned in an Indian jail he is usually, quite illegally, given diminishing doses to keep him quiet. Like many other smokers, Captain Robinson felt himself, while under the influence of the drug, to be possessed of almost divine wisdom. He was aware that he not only knew the secret of the Universe, but had reduced this secret to a single sentence, which he was unfortunately never able to recall when he woke up. One night, so as to make sure of remembering it, he took a pad and pencil when he lay down to smoke. The sentence in which all wisdom was contained turned out to be: “the banana is great, but the skin is greater.”
This book is a small but not valueless contribution to the literature of opium. It is amateurishly written, but its facts are truthful. The description of the attempted suicide is worth the rest of the book put together. It is profoundly interesting to know what the mind can still contain in the face of apparently certain death—interesting to know, for instance, that a man can be ready to blow his brains out but anxious to avoid a disfiguring wound. Those who knew Captain Robinson in the old days will be glad to receive this evidence of his continued existence, and to see the photograph of him at the beginning of the book, completely cured of the opium habit and apparently well-adjusted and happy, in spite of his blindness.
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- Orwell was in Mandalay from 27 November 1922 to 9 November 1923 and then from 17 December 1923 to 25 January 1924. Presumably he knew Robinson—he refers again to ‘Those who knew Captain Robinson’ in the final sentence.