Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: The Long Day Wanes – A Malayan Trilogy, by Anthony Burgess

The fall of empire can be such an unpleasant thing. Up becomes down, moral relativism runs amok, and competing forces battle to fill the void left by the departing hegemony. It’s also an occasion for the sheer ludicrousness of existence, the unstable grasp we often have on human interactions, to come to the fore. So who better to write a farce about the collapse of colonialism and its very human effects than Anthony Burgess? This was a man who tackled complex moral questions in his work and had a deep investment in the absurd; he was also at the frontier of an empire’s collapsing influence in the world, having worked in the 1950s as an education officer in Malaya (now known as Malaysia) just as the country was gaining its independence from Britain.

The accumulation of Burgess’ experiences resulted in his first published fiction, a trilogy of novels known collectively as The Long Day Wanes. (The title comes from a line the Tennyson poem “Ulysses.”) The three books – Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East – form, in Burgess’ words, a kind of triptych view on the fading sunset of British imperialism in Asia. Its central character is one Victor Crabbe, who, like Burgess, works as an education officer in Malaya and finds himself entangled in the machinations of the country’s struggle for independence. And while Crabbe remains the constant protagonist across the three novels, his story is buttressed by a richly drawn cast of supporting characters reflecting the multicultural makeup of Malaya at the time – a country populated by Chinese, Indians, Arab Muslims, expat Brits and, of course, the native Malayans themselves.

Burgess was well-equipped to examine this poly-ethnic environment. Unlike many of his fellow British expats, who often isolated themselves from local communities in Malaya, Burgess roamed freely among the cultures that surrounded him, mastering their languages and their mores. Indeed, The Long Day Wanes is peppered liberally with terms in Malay, Hindi, Sanskrit, Chinese and Arabic – all languages that Burgess was, remarkably, fluent in – to the point of requiring a lengthy glossary at the back. And while this multiculturalism is a major source of the trilogy’s intellectual pleasures, it also sits at the heart of its farcical predicaments. Crabbe puts it well early in the first novel when describing the makeup of his classroom, which has rallied together to protest a decision by the school to expel a fellow student:

Crabbe was touched. The form had welded itself into a single unity on this issue. Tamils, Bengalis, and one Sikh, the Malays, the one Eurasian, the Chinese had found a loyalty that transcended race. Then, hopelessly, Crabbe saw that this unity was only a common banding against British injustice.

And therein lies the central conundrum that faces Crabbe through these three books. He is aware of the noxious impact that British colonialism has had on the lives of locals. He is also aware that any solidarity shown by Malaya’s various ethic groups is only superficial, and they will soon compete with one another – often violently – for cultural dominance in an independent country. But Crabbe is also a product of his upbringing and vocation: he still believes, despite everything, that the educational, cultural and intellectual achievements of Great Britain can have a positive – dare we say civilizing?– influence on the country, a kind of humanist stopgap against the sectarian anarchy that boils beneath the multiculturalism. In that sense, he sees the source of the poison becoming, paradoxically, the source of its antidote.

This, then, sets the stage to explore each of these comic novels in turn. Individually, they are a hilarious exploration of the expat experience; taken together, they are a grand portrait of the moral puzzles left by the legacy of colonialism.

Time for a Tiger

The title of the first novel is taken not from some high-minded literary reference but from a beer ad. Tiger Beer was one of the first truly cross-border brands of alcohol, and so it’s fitting that it plays an undercurrent role in a novel about the mixing of cultures. Here, we’re introduced to Crabbe and the central catastrophe that has brought him to Malaya: the death of his first wife back in England after Crabbe crashed their car into an icy river. He has subsequently married his second wife, Fenella, for whom he is far less suited, and brought them to the East to escape his distressing past. Unlike Crabbe, who finds solace in Malaya’s heat and strangeness, Fenella longs to return to England and all that it embodies. This schism – Crabbe’s post-traumatic need to be abroad and Fenella’s idealizing of home – lies at the heart of their crumbling relationship.

Meanwhile, Malaya is in the throes of upheaval: as the country prepares for independence, the threat of Communist terrorism hides behind every corner. Crabbe becomes entangled in the country’s power struggles in a situation that involves him purchasing a car from an alcoholic police officer (this, despite the fact that Crabbe now has a phobia of driving as a result of his accident back in England), him having an affair with a Malayan divorcee, his involvement with his students’ Speech Day at the school where he teaches, and the subsequent visit to a village along a route that is controlled by Communists. These interwoven threads expose Crabbe to the inherent hypocrisies in Malaya’s attempts to avoid descending into communism and result in his having to be transferred to a new posting at a new school elsewhere in the country.

The Enemy in the Blanket

By far the strongest of the three books, The Enemy in the Blanket picks up Crabbe and Fenella’s story after they’ve arrived at the new school in the fictitious sultanate of Dahaga (the Malayan word for ‘thirst’.) Fenella has learned of Crabbe’s infidelities and it strains their marriage even more. Shortly after his placement in the new school, Crabbe runs into a long-lost university chum named Rupert Hardman, a failed lawyer who is converting to Islam in order to marry a wealthy Muslim widow named `Che Normah. The machinations ramp up in a number of wonderfully convoluted ways: Crabbe sparks a feud with a disgruntled coworker named Jaganathan who looks to supplant him as the head of the school by drumming up a McCarthy-like witch hunt that exposes Crabbe’s youthful experiments with socialism (this following an impromptu discussion Jaganathan has with Hardman about Crabbe’s past); meanwhile, Crabbe begins having an affair with his boss’s wife, a nymphomaniac named Anne Talbot; meanwhile, the Sultan of Dahaga is attempting to seduce Fenella, ostensibly to gain possession of Crabbe’s car (this kind of token expropriating of foreigners’ automobiles was, according to Burgess’ memoir, a common occurrence in Malaya during pre-independence days); meanwhile, Hardman realizes just how austere and demanding Islam can be as `Che Normah commences with a relentlessly religious henpecking; meanwhile, the country spasms with sectarian angst.

What’s interesting is how the dynamics of these characters’ relationships –multicultural, fragmented, decentralized from a sense of self – mirrors the broader political situation in Malaya. Crabbe and Fenella’s marriage finally disintegrates and Fenella looks to return to foggy, cold and cultured England in order to take her place as a published poet of some renown. Crabbe and Anne Talbot fall in love but cannot be together for complex reasons. And Crabbe confronts Hardman about the situation with Jaganathan, perceiving it as a betrayal of their friendship when in fact it was simply a case of Hardman making a slip of the tongue about communism in Jaganathan’s presence. In the end, the future for everyone is uncertain, loyalties are vague and the past cannot be unwritten.

Beds in the East

The title of the final book in the trilogy comes from Antony and Cleopatra, act 2, scene 6: "The beds i' the east are soft; and thanks to you,/That call'd me timelier than my purpose hither;/For I have gain'd by 't." Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the three novels, perhaps because Burgess has lost patience with providing a nuanced portrait of what is ultimately for him a foreign culture. Malaya’s various ethnic groups are treated with less sensitivity here than in the previous two volumes, but there is something even more wrong. The novel is almost completely undone by a near-misogynist rendering of a character named Rosemary Michael, a foil to Crabbe’s position at yet another school who exudes a perpetual (and perpetually annoying) cocktail of female hysteria and vanity. You cringe each time she’s onstage, longing for Fenella’s subtler anguishes.

The arc of the trilogy falls apart a bit as well: Crabbe and Fenella have finally split up and Crabbe finds himself alone and trying to help a young composer named Robert Loo further his career as a truly nationalistic composer. There’s a beer salesman named Tommy Jones who is the embodiment of the ‘ugly foreigner.’ There’s a British anthropologist named Moneypenny who is studying Malayan cultures and who has lost complete touch with reality. None of these tracts seem to amount to much. The book’s saving grace is its hilarity, embodied in part by the character of Lim Cheng Po, a Chinese lawyer who has been completely Anglicized, to comic effect.

Despite the weaknesses of its dénouement, The Long Day Wanes is a powerhouse collection of novels and a testament to Burgess’s polymathic mind and interests. These were his first forays into fiction (what he considered at the time nothing more than a gentleman’s hobby) and proof of the mad, varied genius that he would display throughout his career.

No comments:

Post a Comment