Entering a Novel about the East: Literary Allusions in Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy is replete with literary allusions, ranging from Finnegans Wake (Blanket, 212) to Alice in Wonderland (Blanket, 313). Emphatically and atmospherically set “in the twilight of British rule” (Beds, 347), as it is put in the last novel of the trilogy, Beds in the East, it is naturally indebted to and partly a reaction to what has come to be known as European Orientalism and specifically the literary legacy of such colonial writers as E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham. The title of the last novel, for instance, is an allusion to Antony and Cleopatra, which is already quoted in the previous book: “The beds i’ the East are soft” (Blanket, 219). What is important is that such allusions, at times bordering on intertextuality, are usually ironically invoked, even while the exoticism of the East is curiously sustained.

However, the first novel, Time for a Tiger (an allusion to a beer commercial), opens up with a parodic reflection on the indeterminacy of the exotic "orient". To Flaherty, Malaya is not properly the East. The orient of his orientalist conceptualisations is in the west. As he accosts Nabby Adams, who longs for India in an even more fervently homesick way than Flaherty idealises his time in Palestine, he pinpoints the inconsistency of orientalism and the oriental experience:

‘East?’ They wouldn’t know the bloody East if they saw it. Not if you was to hand it to them on a plate would they know it was the East. That’s where the East is, there.’ He waved his hand wildly into the black night. ‘Out there, west. You wasn’t there, so you wouldn’t know. Now I was. Palestine Police from the end of the war till we packed up. That was the East. You was in India, and that’s not the East any more than this is.’ (Tiger, 11)

Nevertheless, versions of colonial experience are the central subject of the trilogy even though it emphasises the unique position of multiethnic Malaya as it trembles on the brink of indepence and the threat of American neo-imperialism. Displaying a wry and at times even black humour, the novels not only offer a depiction of cultural admixtures, adjustments, and confusions that is both comic and bitter, but also a parody of orientalist and ethnographic literature. Thus, “Fenella’s first flush of Golden Bough enthusiasm [is] mitigated” by the reality of physical inconveniences (Tiger, 125). In contrast, the world of Maugham's Malayan short stories is evoked as obtrusively and embarrassingly real - embarrassing because of its orientalist, literary, and hackneyed stereotypes and clichés. In a lengthy pastiche of Maugham towards the end of Beds in the East, Victor Crabbe is described as self-ironically entering "a novel about the East" in his thoughts as he watches a sunset, enumerating all the clichés that lend colonial and postcolonial delineations of orientalist landscapes much of their charm:

The western sky put on a Bayreuth montage of Valhalla. Towards it the Muslims would now be turning, bowing like Zoroastrians to the flames. It was genuinely the magic hour, the only one of the day. Both men, in whites and wicker chairs on the veranda, facing the bougainvillea and the papaya tree, felt themselves to begin to enter a novel about the East. It would soon be time for gin and bitters. A soft-footed servant would bring the silver tray, and then blue would begin to soak everything, the frogs would croak and the coppersmith bird make noise like a plumber. Oriental night. As I sit here now, with the London fog swirling about my diggings, the gas fire popping and my landlady preparing the evening rissoles, those incredible nights come back to me, in all their mystery and perfume…” (Beds, 367)

The embarrasingly real stereotypes that make the characters feel that they enter a hackneyed novel about the East is a recurring theme in the trilogy. As Victor Crabbe goes native, taking a Malay divorcee as his mistress in Time for a Tiger, his wife, Fanella, is entertained by Alladad Khan, who secretly admires her, which induces her to remark that this part of her hitherto dull colonial experience is just “[l]ike one of those cheap novels about Cairo and what-not” (Tiger, 82). This conflation of oriental locations pinpoints and parodies the exoticism of vaguely orientalist fiction that randomly deploys clichés about the seductions of "the East". In The Enemy in the Blanket, the second book in the trilogy, Maugham's rendering of Malaya is more specifically invoked, as notoriously adulterous Mrs Talbot flirts desperately with Crabbe in front of his wife:

She [Fenella] looked at Crabbe and Crabbe looked at the floor and both felt a slight chill of premonition adding its draught to that of the ceiling-fan. Crabbe felt also shame. All this had been set out years ago in the stories of a man still well remembered in the East. Willie Maugham, damn fine bridge-player, real asset to the club, remembered me, put me in a book. Things here were all too simple. That Elizabethan play of adultery and jealousy, Fenella remembered, that play with the ironical title of A Woman Killed with Kindness, had reflected a civilisation a thousand times more complex. (Blanket, 198)

Re-enacting the plots of Maugham's stories even after commenting on their embarrassing simplicity, Crabbe has an affair with the said Mrs Talbot, who, however, eventually leaves with someone else, while Fenella returns to England in the company of an Anglophile Sultan. Towards the end of the novel, Crabbe tries to take stock of himself and consequently of the entire orientalist tradition in South-East Asia. The end of British colonialism and of Victor Crabbe is also the end of a romantic dream, of liberalism, individualism, and orientalism. Crabbe's own romantic dreams are one by one dispelled:

Leaning back in his armchair high above the jungle, lulled by the engine-noises, Crabbe tried to take stock of himself. The romantic dream he had entertained, the dream that had driven Raffles to early death, was no longer appropriate to an age in which sleep was impossible. The whole East was awake, building dams and canals, power-houses and car factories, forming committees, drawing up constitutions, having selected from the West the few tricks it could understand and use. The age of Raffles was also the age of Keats and Shelley, the East attractively misty, apt for the muffled clang of the romantic image – Cathay all golden dragons, Japan the edge of the world. Liberalism, itself a romantic dream, had long gone under, and there was no longer any room for the individual, there was nothing now that any one man could build. (Blanket, 295)

In the last novel, Crabbe significantly describes himself as "a crank idealist” (Beds, 367). His project to promote Robert Loo's compositions as unique Malayan music crucially fails as Loo is unconsciously and unwillingly influenced by the American hits played in a newly acquired jukebox in his father's coffee-shop. The potential Crabbe sees in Loo's music is of an allusive, intertextual, kind: “Robert Loo had sucked in hundreds of polyglot street songs with his mother’s milk, absorbed the rhythms of many Eastern languages and reproduced them on wind and strings. It was Malayan music, but would Malaya ever hear it?” (Beds, 355) But the sounds of Malaya are swamped by the influence of the American jukebox. The specialists that summon Loo to the United States Information Service building, the former British Residency, dismiss Loo's new work with a significantly orientalist attitude: “In fact, we didn’t come out these thousands of miles to see a distorted image of ourselves in a mirror.” (Beds, 505).


Burgess, Anthony. The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1964.

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Last Modified: 24 October 2002