The land of the setting sun

The Long Day Wanes

The British empire is on the retreat. Finally accepting that the complexity of Eastern society is a puzzle they will never solve, the massed ranks of Western officialdom are starting to pull up sticks and book their flights home. Victor Crabbe, and his eventual acquaintances Nabby Adams and Rupert Hardman are in the process of becoming anachronisms; although Crabbe is the only one to fully perceive it, he nonetheless clings the most doggedly to the evolving Malayan state. While the Malays, Tamils, Chinese and Muslims perform a vicious dance together, of accusations, fights and simmering revolution, Crabbe is hoping he can stay on long enough to help the indigenous peoples solve that puzzle for themselves. But how can Crabbe save the remnants of bureaucracy that might help to bring forth a nascent Malaya, when he has trouble saving his own career, marriage or sobriety? Through education, and a national symphony...?

Much is autobiographical about Burgess' sprawling cycle of books, originally published as A Malayan Trilogy. Burgess was a teacher; he spent a lot of his life in the east; his marriage had its ups and downs, and his first wife her alcoholic, dissipated spells. Indeed, much of the colour of this book is clearly first-hand: vivid, although with an inevitable touch of colonialism, it brings all the characters fully, utterly to life. Many of them are at least in part stereotypes of their race, but in the volatile environment of the Malayan peninsula at that time it's easy to believe that people would return to the values of the cultures they grew up with, entrenching racial divides at the expense of national unity. Moreover, in every case the stereotype typically forms only a tiny fraction of each portrait, like a vague political allegiance rather than the main drive of the personality. Burgess has developed the individuality of each person to the point where it completely swamps the moulds that originally formed their shapes: the inscrutable Chinese are either Britain-spoiled chortling aesthetes or confused, hair-tearing adolescent geniuses; the devout Muslims all take part in haram to varying extents, sometimes partying and mingling with the British; they in turn are neurotic and tortured, or gushing and well-meaning, scarcely ever bluff or stiffened of upper lip.

Such depth of character is very much welcome, because the plot of the trilogy might as well not be there. Events just sort of happen to people, and any attempt to take matters into their own hands leads them more often then not to minor perditions. It might be said that, certainly for Crabbe, external politics move him from place to place and advance the book, but one feels that the precise opposite happening would, as far as Burgess is concerned, suit the course of the novels just as well. It's this pointlessness, this lack of a teleology, that makes the books so convincingly realistic. A polemic, or a more surgical dissection of the mistakes and bad judgment that took part in the formation of the Federation of Malaya, might have served Burgess' cause more fully, but it's not entirely clear what he was pursuing with these novels (if anything more than his own career). However you interpret his political stance and the success of its communication, though, there's no doubting that he brings a transitional, forgotten world to life; if the remnants of the empire include the humanity of Crabbe and others, then it cannot have wholly failed.