Often there are autobiographical aspects to novels. Readers are warned to not make the mistake of assuming those details that appear most fitting to the author’s life are as they seem. Some writers excel at playing the game with their readers. But John Wilson’s Malayan Trilogy (written as Anthony Burgess) is about as frankly autobiographical as they get. Gin soused, Burgess and his wife arrived in Malaya where he taught at The Malay College in Kuala Kangsar for five years. It was during this period that Burgess wrote his trilogy.
At 35, Victor Crabbe arrived in much the same way. As a member of the British Education Service, he taught English and Malayan history at the Mansor school. His wife Fenella, is bored and homesick. She threatens to take the first boat back to England several times. Within their extended circle are as colorful group of characters (in all senses) as you’re likely to come across: Englishmen, Malays, Chinese, Indians…
Nabby Adams is an alcoholic Police-Lieutenant. He’s got more tabs at bars than would seem possible. But he can always get a beer. Usually a Tiger beer. Sometimes a Carlsberg. For Nabby, there is never a time when it is not “time for a tiger”. Alladad Khan, a Malay, works with Adams in the service. Victor and Fenella, along with Nabby and Alladad form a group that sees a lot of each other, for a variety of reasons.
At one point, Fenella Crabbe decides to forego her desires to go back to England (she’s constantly changing her mind). She has instincts to take care of those around her who are essentially – like herself – lonely: Alladad Khan and Nabby Adams. On Adams:
But Nabby Adams appealed to another side of her, the bookish side. He fascinated her, he seemed a walking myth: Prometheus with the eagles of debt and drink pecking at his liver; Adams himself bewildered and Eveless outside the Garden; a Minotaur howling piteously in a labyrinth of money-worries.
Like John Wilson, Victor Crabbe is constantly at odds with his Headmaster, Boothby. Unlike the other three characters, who are representative, but fully realized, Boothby is a bit of a “:type” – the colonial administrator, superior to the natives in all ways. Boothby can easily be read as a stand-in for England herself, glory days past, and mission in the world fading – waning.
If he had stayed at home he would have been a decent little schoolmaster. He has had too much power, In a few years he will retire and then he will drag on his empty life, freed by an adequate pension from the need to work. But he will be recognizably mad. People will laugh at him and not wish to play golf or tennis with him, and he will bore people with his unintelligible talk about a country he could never learn to understand.
The wonderful thing about the four friends, is they cannot necessarily communicate directly with each other, so their conversations are carried on in at least three languages. Fenella is restricted to English, while her husband speaks an English-Malay mix, Alladad speaks Malay and Nabby speaks Urdu (like many Brit colonials, he longs for India). By the end of the first book in the trilogy, the group appears to be going their separate ways, even as they have come together in several – the language barrier being one.
They drank, and the evening poured itself out in a long bubbling or frothing or aromatic stream, and Alladad Khan sang a Punjabi hunting song and addressed the Crabbes seriously in Urdu, and the Crabbes addressed Nabby Adams in Malay, and it became Whitsun more than Christmas, for the Tower of Babel lay with the empty bottles.
Burgess was a pioneer of this kind of ex-pat, post-coloniall lit. V. S> Naipaul was yet to come. But keep a dictionary handy!
(Some) Words That I Learned From Burgess That Will Be Difficult To Work Into Conversations:
“squawked psittacinely”: like a parrot
“recrudescence of the past”: Fenella wishes to be back in England again
“concupiscence”: sexual desire – Crabbe’s Malay Arabic teacher explains the different Arabic words for “sleep”. Ok, I did know this word, but the usage and the comparison made with it’s use was very funny.
“refocillated”: as in refocillated a dying love. Refresh or revive
“a dilatation of hope,…a perisytole of speculation”: hope grows and (a reference to the working of the heart) a small period of speculation
“the exordium of a stock monograph”: Fenella imagines an essay on the peoples of a region, and the exordium is the introduction – the beginning – to it.