Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Long Day Wanes

Playful erudition, pungent description, and savage satire characterize the first three novels published by Anthony Burgess.

They form a trilogy that draws on his time spent as an education officer in Malaya and Borneo during 1956-60, when Communist rebels were trying to force out the British.

Most of the characters are governed solely by self-interest. No race goes unscathed -- Malay, Tamil, Chinese, or Caucasian. Even when not undone by their own faults, Burgess punishes them with ironic situations beyond their control.

The central character is a British teacher named Victor Crabbe, whose first wife drowned when their car plunged into a river. This event happened before the trilogy begins but reverberates throughout it, beginning with Crabbe's fear of water and reluctance to own another vehicle.

Time for a Tiger

“It's time for a Tiger” is a slogan for a brand of beer brewed in Singapore. For Nabby Adams, it's always time for a Tiger. He's a police lieutenant in charge of transport, and a fine comic character always in debt and always in search of a drink. In one of the most amusing episodes in the book, he sells a vehicle he doesn't own to a man who doesn't want one -- Crabbe, who caves in to appease his second wife, Fenella, who doesn't share his enthusiasm for Malaya.

Most Brits are portrayed as arrogant idiots with little regard for the country or its people. Nabby's boss and Crabbe's headmaster are both yawners, one “showing back fillings and a softly rising uvula,” the other “probably yawned in bed with his wife.” It's indicative of their intelligence and sense of commitment.

Crabbe on the other hand is a well-meaning bloke, but more devoted to work than his personal life, which includes a bored wife and a neglected mistress. Complications ensue when Alladad Kahn (Nabby's loyal underling), takes an interest in Fenella, and Crabbe's mistress tries to recapture his affection by means of a love potion, paying his flamboyantly gay houseboy to deliver it.

Towards the end there is an attack by Communist guerillas, a disastrous farewell party for the headmaster, and a winning lottery ticket that enables Nabby Adams to return to the country where he is most at home -- India. 

“I don't bath very much here, but I had a bloody good wash on the boat coming over."

The Enemy in the Blanket

Crabbe is now a paunchy headmaster at a different school, though he is soon challenged by a senior master, Jagnathan, who had been promised the position. He threatens to expose Crabbe as a Communist sympathizer, an allegation that is false until Crabbe discovers that his Chinese cook, Ah Wing, whom “he once caught eating a live mouse,” has been secretly sending leftovers to the guerillas.

Crabbe's former classmate, the financially hard-pressed Rupert Hardman, converts to Islam in order to marry a wealthy twice-divorced Malay woman, who disproves “the European superstition...that the women of the East are down-trodden.”

In a typically ironic episode Crabbe and Hardman visit a dying Muslim, Mahalingam, who has requested the last rites from a Catholic priest. When he recovers, Mahalingam denounces the priest to Islamic authorities, resulting in the priest's ejection from the country.

On the romantic front, Crabbe's marriage is floundering again, and he ends up bedding Anne Talbot, wife of the State Education Officer. At the same time a wealthy potentate called the Abang, who has his feet bathed in goat's milk, decides to acquire Crabbe's car and wife.

Subsequent events include Fenella's testing of Crabbe's love by pretending to drown, and the Abang sending a Falstaffian policeman to protect the Crabbes.

If you continue to abuse me, I shall call the police." The word started something off in his slow mind. "Police. By god, I am the police."

Beds in the East

Independence is nigh and the British are pulling out, leaving the Malays, Tamils and Chinese to squabble among themselves in ways that are amusingly petty and vindictive. Keeping track of them, however, can be challenging for the reader.

The Tamils include Arumugam, Kularatnam, Parameswaran, Sockalingam, Sundralingam, Vythilingam. The Malays: Nik Hassan, Syed Hassan, Syed Omar, Azman, Hamzah , Zainab, Maimunah. The Chinese: Robert Loo, Loo Kam Fatt, Lim Cheng Po.

A symbolically deluded character is Rosemary Michael, a much pursued woman who longs to marry an Englishman. One of her suitors is a Turk who reminds her that he's European (“I sick man of Europe”) and repeatedly enjoins her to “come make jolly time.” When she finally goes to bed with him, he falls asleep.

Crabbe -- now middle-aged with a receding hair line -- is repeatedly turned to for assistance, though his generosity is never rewarded with gratitude. Eventually he is sent upcountry to report on the death of a schoolmaster, and meets a loopy anthropologist who criticizes him for laughing at butterflies, and a bibulous beer salesman who knows Nabby Adams.

More significantly he also meets an American “linguistician” who provides an update on Fenella, now in England and a published poet who lectures on Malaya; and (in a play on their last names) George Costard, from whom he learns a devastating piece of information about his first wife.

It was the job of the British to help the Malays. That was well known, that was in the history books. And if Crabbe was slow in helping, there was always blackmail.


The novels are enriched by the author's polymathic command of music, languages, and literature. There is a Malay glossary at the end, and you may need to check an English dictionary for words like bathycolpous, edentulous, exophthalmic, and rhotacismus.

In a brief review of these novels, Bernard Bergonzi had this to say about Burgess: "Among contemporary writers no one is blacker, or more comic."