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Anthony Burgess: The Malayan Trilogy

Time for a Tiger
This is more of a series of vignettes of life in Malaya at the end of the British colonial period than a novel in the true sense. There are four main characters – Nabby Adams, a police officer, who has two interests only. Firstly, he has many mounting debts and wonders how he can pay them off. Secondly, and more importantly, he is an alcoholic (hence his debts). Most of his antics are about how he tries to beg, borrow or steal a drink. Working with is Alladad Khan whose two concerns are putting one over his wife and her brother and hanging out with the Brits. Finally, there are Victor Crabbe and his wife, Fenella. Crabbe is a teacher who does not quite fit in with the other Brits – he doesn’t own a car, speaks Malay and hangs out with the natives – while his wife misses England and wants to join the colonial set.

We follow the events at Crabbe’s school with the pompous headmaster, the racial mix and the plots against the authorities by the students, all of which ends in Crabbe’s ousting, to lead us on to the next book in the trilogy. We follow Nabby’s attempt to keep his head above water and his face in a drink, resulting in an unexpected windfall. We follow the various antics of the expats and locals, as they mingle uneasily and prepare to go their own ways. All of it is a pleasant, amusing, slightly exotic story but does not prefigure what Burgess is to give us later.

The Enemy in the Blanket
Victor Crabbe has been kicked out of the Mansor School but is now headmaster of the Haji Ali College. We follow the travails of Victor and Fenella as they arrive and they are soon immersed in a complicated local plot, whose aim is to get rid of Victor. Victor meets up with Rupert Hardman, a former fellow student and now a struggling lawyer who tries to mend his fortunes by marrying a rich local Muslim widow but soon finds out that the mysterious East is more mysterious and complicated than he had bargained for. Most of the story concerns the travails of Victor, including is dalliances and his problems with local politics, and Rupert who soon realizes he has made a very big mistake in marrying a Muslim woman who is determined to keep him firmly under lock and key and very nearly succeeds.

Beds in the East
The final novel in the trilogy is the end of the Raj as the Malays take over. The book is more interesting from the anthropological point of view than the literary point of view, as it focuses on what the various characters are going to do post-Independence. The main problem is not just for the whites, who can generally pack up their bags and go home or head off to some other outpost of the Empire, but for the Indians and Chinese who find they have had one set of masters – the Brits – replaced by another – the Malays. The Malays are slowly taking over. Victor Crabbe has to train his successor and other races, particularly the Indian, Syed Omar, are, or feel they are, the victims of the Malays. Syed Omar loses his job because he speaks out against his boss, a Tamil. His travails and those of his family are one of the themes of this book. The other two concern Rosemary Michael, an attractive Indian woman who wants nothing more than to be married to an Englishman and go to England. Many men are interested, including the veterinary official, Vythilingam, and Jalil, who already has three wives but she has pinned her hopes on the Englishman, Joe, who has gone home and is going to call her over (of course, he does not). Finally, there is Robert Loo, also in love with Rosemary, but an obedient son of a Chinese shop-keeper, who wants nothing more than to write music. Crabbe tries to help him but is thwarted by Loo’s father and Loo’s lack of ambition. Crabbe is intertwined with all of these plots – he tries to help Syed Omar and his family, tries to help Robert Loo and Rosemary has her eyes on him when Joe lets her down but Crabbe cannot help them and ultimately drowns in a strange accident, taking Vythilingam down with him. And that’s the end of the British influence in Malay(si)a.

Publishing history

First published:
Time for a Tiger 1956 by Heinemann
The Enemy in the Blanket 1958 by Heinemann
Beds in the East 1959 by Heinemann