Anthony Burgess may be best known for A Clockwork Orange. But anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia should read The Malayan Trilogy.
Like all good novels, this big book about the early years of Malaysia is both timeless and of its time.
Set in the 1950s, it has its King-and-I moments. Take this episode, for example. When Wigmore, a British planter, is killed by the communist guerrillas, it is discovered he has left 20,000 dollars to the state for “the improvement of the lot of the people”.
But the money is not going to the people, Victor Crabbe, a British education officer, learns from his Malay colleague.
“The Sultan wants a Cadillac,” explains Nik Hassan.
“But damn it, he can’t do that,” protests Crabbe, the protagonist of the novel. “The terms of the will are clear, aren’t they? It says something about the good of the State, doesn’t it?”
Nik retorts: “They say the highest good is the Sultan’s good.”
“Who say that?” asks Crabbe.
“The Sultan and the Raja Perempuan and the Tungku Mahkota and the Mentri Besar,” replies Nik, naming the highest officials of the state.
But the relationship between the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians described in the book could be right off current newspapers.
Burgess, who was an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950, writes about the official preference given to the Malays.
For example, Nik Hassan demurs when Crabbe suggests the Chinese musical prodigy Robert Loo’s compositions be broadcast to celebrate independence.
“Chinese, isn’t he? Pity about that.” Nik Hassan made a sour gangster’s face. “Pity he’s not a Malay. Though, of course, he could use a what-you-call…”
“That’s right, a Malay pseudonym. It might carry a bit more weight. After all, everybody knows the Chinese are clever. We’re a bit sick of hearing it. We’re just dying for a Malay genius to turn up.”
But Nik is an anglicized Malay. Burgess writes:
Nik Hassan liked to be called “Nicky”. It was chic to have an English name in his circle. His friends Izuddin and Farid were called “Izzy” and “Fred” …
Nik tells Crabbe he wants to dump his wife for someone more sophisticated and westernized.
“There’s always Rosemary,” says Crabbe.
“Oh God, man, she’s too bloody dark,” protests Nik. “Black as the ace of spades. I can’t stand the touch of a black skin.”
The funny thing is Rosemary is no less prejudiced. The beautiful Rosemary, who has been to England, bridles when someone calls her a “coloured woman”.
She a coloured woman! She walked, head up, with an indignant hip-swing past Crabbe’s house, round the corner, down the lane to her own quarters… Coloured woman! She was a European, at home in Paris and London, fond of European clothes and European food… She was also, of course, a Javanese princess, or Balinese, or Hawaiian. But she was not a coloured woman. Hadn’t her rich tan always been admired in England?
She spurns her Malay and Indian suitors, seeking out only Englishmen. The only other man she is attracted to is a Chinese who speaks with a posh English accent.
Cast of characters
The Malayan Trilogy is full of memorable characters. To name only a few:
- There is Crabbe, the education officer haunted by memories of his first wife, killed when he crashed his car in a drink-driving accident.
- Fenella, his second wife, who returns to England at the end of the second book,The Enemy In The Blanket. She is leaving him not because of his affairs with other women, she says, but because he is incapable of loving anyone except his first wife.
- Rahimah, the pretty widow with whom Crabbe has an affair in the first book, Time For A Tiger.
- Anne Talbot, a colleague’s wife, who seduces Crabbe in The Enemy In The Blanket.
- Nabby Adams, the perennially hard-up, alcoholic police lieutenant who yearns to return to India and befriends Crabbe in Time For A Tiger.
- Alladad Khan, Adams’ Indian assistant who falls in love with Fenella.
- Rupert Hardman, Crabbe’s lawyer friend who converts to Islam to marry a wealthy Malay widow — and then yearns to return to England – in The Enemy In The Blanket.
- Normah, the sensuous but deeply religious, wealthy Malay widow Hardman marries.
- Father Laforgue, the French priest who has virtually become a Chinese.
- The Abang, the Malay ruler who tries to seduce Fenella in The Enemy In The Blanket.
- Jaganathan, the Indian teacher who tries to replace Crabbe as the headmaster of the school in The Enemy In The Blanket.
- Syed Omar, the Malay police clerk who resents his Indian superior in the third book, Beds In The East.
- Vythalingam, the Jaffna Tamil veterinarian who has a crush on Rosemary in Beds In The East. He is the last person to see Crabbe alive.
Yes, Crabbe dies near the end of the novel. Sent to investigate the murder of a headmaster of a school in an outlying estate, he tries to contact the local British officer. But a new man is in his place – an Englishman who, it turns out, had an affair with Crabbe’s first wife. The man blames Crabbe for her death and sends him away.
Broken by the revelation of her infidelity, Crabbe limps back to town – and drowns as he tries to board the ferry home.
Vythalingam, who knows Crabbe, sees the tragedy from a distance but does nothing.
Vythalingam saw Crabbe try to board the launch. He put his foot clumsily on the gunwale. The foot seemed to crumple underneath. Still carrying his stick and his bag, he faltered in the air for an instant and fell. Vythalingam saw water, green and white, shoot up long fingers of protest as a weight crashed the surface. He heard faint human noises, and then animal noises, and, hearing the animal noises, he rose to his feet in compassion. He stood undecided. And then, as noise subsided and the river settled and the launch moved on again, he sat down on the grass once more. Human lives were not his professional concern.
There is no search for the drowned man. Even officials who knew Crabbe make no attempt to recover his body because they are busy with independence celebrations.
“Poor Victor,” says Rosemary with tears in her eyes at a party.
“Poor Victor”. And then somebody asked her to dance.
Those are the last words in The Malayan Trilogy.
Burgess knew what he was doing. He wrote in his introduction: “It is to be hoped that this novel…may, through tears and laughter, educate.”