Subtitle: The Long Day Wanes
The author of this book, Anthony Burgess (W), is relatively famous in his native Britain as a writer and intellectual, although for myself, I have to confess that like most Americans, I only know his name in conjunction with the Stanley Kubrick film Clockwork Orange. (Anthony Burgess wrote the book on which the infamous Kubrick film is based.*)
But before Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess served in Malaya as teacher and education officer for the British Colonial Service back in the 1950s, during the time of the communist insurgency period, and also when Malaya was in the process of becoming independent from Britain.
Anthony Burgess published a trilogy of books about life in Malaya during the 1950s. The books are fiction, but are based on his real-life experience in Malaya, and apparently some of the characters in the books resembled real-life people closely enough to cause libel suits (W). As Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction: “the…characters may sometimes seem implausible, but the reader may be assured that such characters existed during the period of my term in Malaya.” (Author’s introduction).
The books examine, in an often comical way, the tensions between the various races inside Malaya, and the bungled attempts of the British colonial administrators to solve the problems of Malaya.
The three books in the trilogy are:
Time for a Tiger (1956)
The Enemy in the Blanket (1958)
and Beds in the East (1959)
The three books were first collected and published in one volume in 1972, at which time they were also collectively given the subtitle: The Long Day Wanes.
As - with - all - the - other books that are a collection of smaller books, for this book review project I was faced the choice of reviewing each part of the trilogy separately, or reviewing the trilogy as a whole.
I’ve decided to review the trilogy as a whole since the copy I bought contains all three books in one volume. And also since (I believe) from 1972 onward it has been common practice for publishers to just print the whole trilogy as one volume.
* Ironically enough, although Anthony Burgess is best known for Clockwork Orange, it is his least favorite work. (W)
Why I Was Interested in This Book/ How I Became Interested in Malaysia
Although I do have a bit of a family connection to Malaysia (a cousin-in-law, to be precise), Malaysia* was never an area of the world I took much notice of until I spent a year in Melbourne, Australia.
This may not be common knowledge back in the United States, but the Australian universities are completely flooded with Malaysian students. For a certain economic class of Malaysians, mostly Indian or Chinese Malaysians, it is considered common practice to attend university in Australia rather than in their home country. (I remember one conversation I had with an Indian-Malaysian girl. She was praising my courage in leaving my home country to come all the way to Australia to study. “Yes, but look at you,” I said. “You came to Australia as well.” To which she replied, “But I’m Malaysian. It was always expected I’d come here to Melbourne. It means nothing.”)
In the student dormitories, either while chatting during lunch or during late night conversation sessions, I learned much about Malaysian culture and politics from my many Malaysian friends. I had not previously appreciated how multi-cultural and diverse Malaysia was—how many ethnic Indians and Chinese lived in Malaysia, nor how much of Malaysian politics and cultures is dominated by the history of cultural clashes between the native Malays, and the sizeable Indian and Chinese communities. I found the intra-national interplay of three different races, languages, cultures, and religions to be fascinating.
As Malaya was a former British colony, this new interest in Malaysia dove-tailed nicely with another interest I had at the time—my interest in the British Empire. Also during my year in Australia I was reading Kipling and working my way through the Flashman series, and my head was filled with overly romanticized images of British soldiers in the tropical jungles, sweating through their Victorian army uniforms, drinking gin and making understated remarks in crisp British accents.
The Malayan Communist Insurgency Period in the 1950s was something else I had never heard about previously (it had been completely left out of my history education in America) but it tied in nicely with my interest in Cold War history and politics.
So, when I heard about this book, which takes place during the waning days of British colonial rule in Malaya, during the Communist Insurgency period, and emphasizes the cultural various clashes in the country, it seemed like the perfect book for me.
* The nomenclature gets a bit confusing here, but Malaysia is the current name for the country. Malaya was the term for the same geographic region back when it was a British colony. Malays are the name for the ethnic group that is indigenous to Malaysia, whereas the many Chinese and Indian citizens can be called Malaysians, but not Malays. (I hope I’m getting that all right. Someone please correct me if I’ve misspoke.)
I suppose every reading experience is, to some degree, adjusting your expectations of the book to the actual book itself.
Because this book takes place during the period of both the Communist Insurgency and the Malayan independence movement, I had assumed the book would be heavy with battle scenes and political intrigue.
The trilogy has a huge cast of characters and multiple perspectives, but it’s primarily just about everyday life in the sleepy provincial backwaters of Malaya. (The communist insurgency is very much in the background of the books—it’s a problem that’s on the minds of all the characters. But the communist guerillas themselves make very few appearances in the story.)
Each of the books in the trilogy follows roughly the same pattern. At the beginning of the book, a number of characters are introduced from various walks of life in Malaya (some British, some Indian, some Chinese, and some Malay). The stories of all the different characters are interwoven together, but each character also has their own specific problem. The plot of each book moves fairly slowly, so we get several chapters of various characters just wallowing in their respective miseries without much advancement of the story. Then, just when you begin to think the book isn’t going anywhere, during the third act a lot of stuff begins to happen, story arcs suddenly get resolved, and the book will come to an end, and then you move onto the next book in the trilogy.
I’m probably making the book sound pretty boring with that description, but it’s actually a very pleasant read. Anthony Burgess is a talented writer, so he can create interesting characters who I didn’t mind spending time with, even during the sections when the story wasn’t going anywhere.
Anthony Burgess is also very skilled at creating scenes: conversations in the English Club, drinking sessions in the small Malay villages, trips up the jungle on riverboats, are all painted with a lot of skill. Whether it’s all accurate or not someone else will have to judge, but you certainly feel like you’re transported to British Malaya as you read this book.
And the humor is another thing to recommend this book.
I’ve seen The Malayan Trilogy described as a comic novel, which may be somewhat misleading—at least for us Americans who are brought up on television comedies with obvious punchlines. The humor in this book is a lot more subtle than say the obvious humor of a Terry Pratchett book, and it’s often based more on quirky characters and awkward situations than on obvious punchlines. But there is a sly subversive humor that does seem to be winking at you throughout many of the sections of this book.
And yet…despite all the humor in the book, it is a book that does takes the problems of its characters seriously, and you can feel their pain even as you laugh slightly at their situations. It’s both a serious book, and a humorous book, and often combines humor and pathos as it veers into dark comedy. (It’s hard for me to describe the atmosphere succinctly, and the book probably just has to be read to get the full flavor of it. In my limited reading experience, the closest analogous author I can think of is the dark comedies of Kurt Vonnegut, but I suspect someone better read might be able to make a better comparison.)
The common thread throughout the three books is the story of British schoolmaster Victor Crabbe. Within each book in the trilogy, Victor Crabbe’s story arc is no more important than the other characters. But as Victor Crabbe is the only character who is featured in all three books, he can be thought of as the main character when looking at the trilogy as a whole.
Victor Crabbe is a British educator who is teaching in various Anglophone schools in Malaya. He is often more progressive than his fellow countrymen—he believes in self-determination for Malaya, and believes in the potential for the races. He also believes he has something useful to contribute to Malaya, and is constantly trying to improve the condition of the country, usually by trying to change the way the people think. His efforts are never successful. (It would be an exaggeration to say that his efforts always end in disaster. What usually happens is that most of his ideas just never get off the ground in the first place.)
As such, Victor Crabbe is in microcosm a good representation of everything that goes wrong with the best intentions of colonial governments.
(Of course some people would argue, with good cause, that colonial governments are never benevolent institutions, and it’s misleading to portray them as misguided idealists. But within the complex machinery of the colonial governments, there are many different people and contradictory motives at work, and there are undoubtedly at least some people analogous to Victor Crabbe.)
Various Notes and Other Random Thoughts
* Coincidence plays a heavy role in the plotting of this book. There’s perhaps a few too many unbelievable chance meetings in this story. Although, possibly, you could argue that a comic novel is allowed to take greater advantage of comic coincidences than a more serious story? I don’t know—it’s probably a judgment call on the part of the reader as to how much they are willing to forgive this.
* In his essay, Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell writes that “…every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
I thought about that quote often as I read through this book. Anthony Burgess presents many scenes of Englishmen looking ridiculous in Malaya, and presenting scenes that the natives certainly ought to have laughed at. But curiously enough in Burgess’s book, the Malayans never laugh at anything, but just regard everything the Europeans do with a sort of detached awe and interest. (I’m not sure if this was reflective of reality in British Malaya, or simply because it is a comic novel in which, to increase the absurdity, everything that is absurd has to be regarded as somewhat normal.)
* Near the end of the trilogy, as the British administrators are preparing to leave Malaya, the American experts come pouring in to fill the void. (As one British character cynically describes it, “The British are going. Nature abhors a vacuum.” (p. 506).)
The American experts in this book are portrayed exactly like Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. They are portrayed as having a lot of booksmarts, but no idea of how thinks actually work on the ground in Asia.
Given that this portrait of Americans has now showed up in two books I’ve read by British authors in the 1950s, I’m tempted to conclude this must have been the prevailing stereotype at the time.
….either that, or, possibly Anthony Burgress had read The Quiet American, and was influenced by it. (The Quiet American came out in 1955, so Anthony Burgess could easily have read it before he wrote the end of his trilogy in 1959.)
* I was mildly surprised that a book published in the 1950s contained multiple instances of the characters using the word “fuck” in casual conversation.
* Anthony Burgess portrays the British expat community in Malaya as being almost all rampant alcoholics. It was very similar to George Orwell’s portrayal of the British expat community in Burmese Days.
* The British Empire no longer exists, of course, but the process of Westerners trying to improve the lives of people in Southeast Asia, and getting frustrated in the process, still continues in the form of various international aid groups and NGOS. (Joel Brinkley documented much of this frustration in Cambodia’s Curse ).
I once witnessed a conversation between a British United Nations worker and a Vietnamese national. The Vietnamese suggested the international aid workers were coming to Southeast Asia simply to get jobs. The British UN worker responded indignantly that he and his colleagues could get much better paying jobs back in their home countries, but had come over to Southeast Asia because they wanted to help the people here. And yet, he complained, they seldom got any appreciation from the local people for their sacrifices.
I was reminded of that conversation when I read this section from the book, in which the English man Victor Crabbe is having a conversation with a Chinese man Cheng Po.
Cheng Po yawned. .... “…your liberal idealism bores me….Let Malaya sort out its own problems....”
….”You’ll never understand us,” said Crabbe. “Never, never, never….I’m a typical Englishman of my class—a crank idealist. What do you think I’m doing here in early middle age?”
“Deriving an exquisite masochistic pleasure out of being misunderstood. Doing as much as you can for the natives” (he minced the word like a stage memsahib) “so that you can rub your hands over a mounting hoard of no appreciation.” (p.417)
* Although this book was published in England and Singapore in the 1950s, it did not become available in America until 1972, when the whole trilogy was first published as one book.
My edition of the book contains an introduction by author Anthony Burgess (presumable written in 1972) in which Anthony Burgess suggests that if his book had been published in America earlier, it may have had some effect on the Vietnam War. “We have to understand the nature of the East, and also of Islam: we can no longer, since Vietnam, regard those far regions as material for mere fairy tales…It is considered in America that, if my book had appeared earlier, it might have had some small effect on the attitude towards Orientals which, during the Vietnam adventure, vitiated any hope of American success. The Americans understood neither their friends nor their enemies. To many, the Far East hardly exists, except as material for televisual diversion. (from the author’s introduction).
I’m actually skeptical that the earlier publication of The Malayan Trilogy in America would have made any difference on the Vietnam War one way or another. The book is not overtly political, and although it deals a lot with cultural misunderstandings, it’s not really a clear warning sign about the dangers of getting involved in military campaigns in countries you don’t understand.
Besides that, even excepting The Malayan Trilogy there had been plenty of warnings available back in the 1950s for those who cared to take notice. The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia published in 1954, gave a historical account of the quagmire Napoleon III had gotten himself into in his Vietnam adventures. The Quiet American, published way back in 1955, very explicitly and accurately broadcast the message that the Americans had no idea what they were doing in Vietnam.
* For other books on Malaysia that I’ve read, see A History of Malaysia and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng.
As I wrote in my review of The Gift of Rain, the reason I read that book was because a co-worker of mine gave it to me when I told him I was interested in the various cultural clashes in Malaysia.
I wish he would have given me this book instead. The Malayan Trilogy is the book to read if you’re interested in an examination of the different cultural clashes in Malaysia (albeit one that comes from a British colonial viewpoint.)
Finally, for some of my pictures from my brief but fascinating trip to Malaysia, see here.
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