Sunday 13 June 2010

Anthony Burgess Part 2: The Malayan Trilogy

I like to have a book in my pocket to kill time on public transport. Since the passing of the pocket sized paperback (see my earlier diatribe on this here) I’ve had to depend on the vagaries of the second hand book market to provide my reading matter for buses and trains. I suppose the nice thing about this is, you never know what’s going to turn up. Last year at a church book sale (about the only time you’ll catch me in church) what turned up was a copy of Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy. This was a rather nice Penguin edition, with cover art by Peter Bentley of Bentley/Farrell/Burnett. It gathers together Burgess’s first three novels, Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East. Together these form the Malayan Trilogy which has the umbrella title The Long Day Wanes, although you wouldn’t know it from my Penguin. I’ve always liked the title of the first book, Time for a Tiger (written in 1956), which seems to suggest tumultuous and violent events in this jungle nation, when in fact it simply means "it’s time for a beer", Tiger being a Singaporean lager popular in the far east at the time and popular all over the place now. The title of the second book (1958) remains obscure to me even if Wikipedia thinks it alludes to the conflicts in the central character’s marriage. Beds in the East (1959) is a quote from Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra): “the beds in the east are soft.” Quoting from Shakespeare is something Burgess does rather too much of in these books, straining credulity by having some of the most unlikely characters spout this stuff, or reflect upon it. The trilogy is a mixed bag, although it unquestionably conveys a vivid and unforgettable portrait of Malaya, or Malaysia as it is now known. Just how accurate Burgess’s picture is was demonstrated to me last week. One of the running gags in the books is the obsession the local sultans have with acquiring posh and shiny cars. Politically incorrect you say? Downright racist stereotype? I might have been inclined to think so myself, until I read this news story. Burgess is a remarkable and important writer. Probably my biggest beef with him, however, is his ineptitude in handling plot. It’s not, I think, that he’s incapable of writing a carefully plotted and satisfying story. It’s just that he doesn’t care. This propensity was particularly obvious in Any Old Iron (see my earlier blog entry) where the whole, lengthy narrative, is supposed to concern an ancient sword. But the story of this goddamned sword is deployed raggedly, perfunctorily and almost resentfully, as though Burgess regretted having lumbered himself with it. It keeps getting elbowed aside by the characters and vignettes, which is good news because both of these are great. This same tendency is very much in evidence in the Malayan Trilogy. In Time For a Tiger, Victor Crabbe, the hero of the trilogy, is burdened with a psychological block. He can’t drive a car because of traumatic memories of the fatal accident in which his first wife died. Finally, late in the novel, as the result of an ambush by communist insurgents on an isolated jungle road, Crabbe is forced to take the wheel of a car and drive. If this suggest a conventional story arc of tribulation, catharsis and redemption, forget it. Once again Burgess is so slapdash and perfunctory in his deployment of the plot that it hardly amounts to a story at all. And, anyway, certainly not a satisfying one. Equally slapdash and half hearted is his account of Crabbe’s affair with a local widow and a rebellion by the students at Crabbe’s school. In fact I found it hard to take any interest in Crabbe or his doings. He never appealed to me as a character. Who did appeal to me, though, was the wonderful Nabby Adams. From the moment that this huge, shambling loser rose from his bed, his old dog emerging after him, her medal clanking, I was enchanted. I loved the story of this sweating, scheming wreck with his impossible debts, his alcoholism and his dog. I’ll never forget my disappointment when I learned, turning to chapter two, that the whole book wasn’t going to be about him. Time For a Tiger never really recovers from this. And indeed the trilogy never recovers from Nabby’s departure into the sunset at the end of the first novel. Supplementing this lovely bit of characterisation there are some of Burgess’s other typical strengths on display — the book has a brilliant ending, even if it is totally deus ex machina. The second novel, The Enemy in the Blanket is considerably weaker than Tiger. The plotting is as half-hearted as ever and with Nabby Adams gone we’re stuck with the dull Crabbes, annoying Victor and his drippy wife Fenella plus a cast of numerous other colourful (or, in the case of Rupert Hardman, literally colourless) individuals who never come fully to life or arouse much interest. The final volume, Beds in the East, continues the tradition of token, tepid plotting, but that doesn’t really matter because it features some wonderful new characters. Victor Crabbe is still in attendance, even less sympathetic and engaging than before (if that’s possible). But we also have the gorgeous Rosemary Michael, a kind of Walter Mitty would-be femme fatale surrounded by her pet cats and an amusing array of drooling suitors. In some ways a hair raising caricature (“Black but comely...”), Rosemary is also unquestionably a great comic creation. But even better than Rosemary is Robert Loo, the teenage son of a Chinese shopkeeper. Robert is gifted with musical genius, and this provides Burgess with an excuse for descriptions of Robert’s inner mental landscapes when he is composing. And it is here that the author shows real genius of his own. These are marvelous, rhapsodic, hallucinatory episodes which are the most striking thing in the book. And that’s hardly surprising when you consider Burgess’s own deep involvement with music and love of it. Eventually Rosemary and Robert are manoeuvred together in a characteristic piece of Burgess contrivance. But this plot device works well enough, not least because it’s invested with the ironic energy which builds and builds to finally give the book, and the trilogy, an ultimately satisfying, and highly comic, conclusion. I was chuckling almost constantly as I turned the last few pages. So what’s my verdict on The Long Day Wanes? I’d recommend that you read the third book, forget about the second altogether and if you’re going to bother with the first one, just skip through it and read the chapters about Nabby Adams. That sounds like a pretty savage indictment, but it’s not. The trilogy shows Burgess’s formidable talent as a novelist just beginning to warm up, and Beds in the East is definitely a minor comic classic. If there’s a fatal flaw in these books it’s the supposed protagonist, Victor Crabbe. Unsympathetic and uninteresting, I was only too pleased when he finally got stung by a scorpion and fell in a river. Sorry, Victor. Sorry, Anthony.

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