Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Long Day Wanes

Wikipedia says that Burgess intended his Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, to be the definitive novel about the expatriate experience in Malaya around the time of its post-WWII independence. Burgess was stationed there in the fifties, and became fluent in the language, a fact amply demonstrated in the novel.

The author's cynicism colors everything in the novel(s), from the hopelessly corrupt protagonists and minor characters, to the description of small towns in Malaya. In fact, I'd borrowed this book from a Malaysian, who couldn't finish reading it because it contained so many stereotypes: the bookish, cunning Chinese; the lazy Malays; the warlike Sikhs; the effete Englishmen. I think this is an accurate statement about the first two novels, but the third one (Beds in the East) is different.

The first two novels (Time for a Tiger and The Enemy in the Blanket) follow Victor Crabbe, idealistic schoolmaster, shoddy husband, and all-around lame human being. Time for a Tiger opens with Nabby Adams, a gigantic, dishonest, hard-drinking Transport Police officer. Nabby and Crabbe cross paths, drink and horrify Mrs. Crabbe, and [SPOILER ALERT] eventually Nabby gets to return to his beloved India thanks to a winning lottery ticket. Meanwhile, Crabbe leaves his Malay mistress and gets transferred. In between are bits about the flamingly gay houseboy, the married Muslim who thinks he's in love with Mrs. Crabbe but was really just looking for another exile, and the menace of the communists hidden in the jungle.

The Enemy in the Blanket isn't too remarkable, and just shows how Crabbe becomes more of a douchetart while ethnic tensions begin to come to a boil. In this novel, everyone sleeps with everyone else's spouse.

The final book, Beds in the East, focuses on different characters of varying ethnicities. Again, the characters are almost caricatures: the whining Malay who thinks he's downtrodden; the Tamils who stick to each other and beat up everyone else; the formerly idealistic but now bitter ex-colonialist (Crabbe, now soon-to-be-divorced). And then there's the beautiful Rosemary. She's Tamil as well, but ADORES Europe and can't stand brown men. She's so psychotic that she creates fantastical lies about herself: she's Eurasian, a princess, and so on. I think Burgess intended her to be a poster child of colonialism, the self-deluding, smiling, harmless counterpart to the angry Malays sharpening their kris and talking about Malaya for Malays.

All in all, a good read for cynics, who will smirk at the characters and their shenanigans. This is fiction, after all, and hardly an accurate description of Malaya during its initial days of squirming out of British rule. Read it because you'll see exaggerations, amusingly dark human emotions, original descriptions of nature scenes, and you can learn a little Malay, too.