The Last Englishman: Obscure Origins, Hybridity, and Multiethnic Confusions in Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

In many senses a work about Malaya “in the twilight of British rule” (Beds, 347), Burgess's Malayan Trilogy details the life of one of the last colonial officials. In the first novel, Time for a Tiger, Victor Crabbe has just been in Malaya for six years. As the trilogy follows his career, his disillusionments, and the events leading up to his death, it is not exactly sparse in its juxtaposition of the demise of the British Empire and the death of "a crank idealist” (Beds, 367). Yet Crabbe is not “the last Englishman” (Beds, 368) who is briefly parodied in the last novel, Beds in the East. This epithet is reserved for Lim Cheng Po, a rich Anglophile of Chinese origins, whose public school accent, identification with the British, and yearning for a return home to Britain (specifically England) display an occidentalism that is wide-spread among the multiethnic protagonists of Burgess's panoramic trilogy.

The understanding, but nonetheless ironic, description of this occidentalism counterpoises the equally ambiguous invocation of orientalism. Europeans that yearn for an idealised home are juxtaposed with those that have gone or want to go native as well as with Asians that demand racial segregation - the Malays that want a Malay-only Malaya; the Jaffna Tamils that resent the presence of "the others" - and also with those whose occidentalism induces them to outdo the English in their Englishness. The problems created by this multiethnic and multicultural confusion are pinpointed by truly hybrid characters, by those of obscure origins, and those who deliberately obscure their origins such as Rosemary Michael, who alternately pretends to be a Javanese or a partly Hawaiian princess while in England and desperately attempts to hold on to her Englishness and her elusive English boyfriend when back in Malaya. In her vampire-like exploitation of men, her fixation on European males, her abhorrence of dark skins, and her dalliances with the newly arrived Americans at the end of the last novel, mark her out as the worst realisation of occidentalism.

This reverse form of orientalism serves to counterpoise the desire to go native exhibited by expatriates. Rosemary's contempt of dark skins (even when actually lighter than her own) finds its parallel in Victor's self-consciousness about his white skin: “The fact was that Victor Crabbe, after a mere six months in the Federation, had reached that position common among veteran expatriates – he saw that a white skin was an abnormality, and that the white man’s ways were fundamentally eccentric.” (Tiger, 48) Even more poignantly, Rupert Hardman, a Muslim convert, finds that he cannot change the fact that he is a white man, a “very white man” (Blanket, 191), almost an albino. It is ironically his meeting with Crabbe that revives in him “a whiff of nostalgia", which predominantly smells of "[o]ld oak in cool musty chambers” (Blanket, 186), reminding him of the exoticism of his new home and consequently of the confusions of his sense of origins and identity:

This chance meeting stirred up the whole past in Hardman’s mind as he drove expertly on to the town. The palm trees and the brown bodies and the China Sea became, despite the years of familiarity, suddenly strange, genuinely exotic, and he saw himself from the outside, driving a car in a Malay State to a Malay town, having spent the night in another Malay town where he had conducted the defence in a Malayan court, his home Malaya, his income -- such as it was -- derived from Malayan clients, wondering how the hell all this happened. (Blanket, 185)

In his process of assimilation allegiances have become confused: “He seemed to be letting Europe down. Was it for this that the Crusades had been fought and Aquinas had tamed the Aristotelian beast into a Summa?” (Blanket, 186) After his conversion, Hardman does indeed get “the worst of both worlds” (Blanket, 281). As the refrain in the trilogy goes, “[t]he time is coming for them to leave the East. At least, the time is coming for those who will not be absorbed.” (Tiger, 159) In the first novel, a significantly named Mr Raj prophesises Victor Crabbe that he will never leave Malaya, that he will be absorbed:

The country will absorb you and you will ease to be Victor Crabbe. You will less and less find it possible to do the work for which you were sent here. You will lose function and identity. You will be swallowed up and become another kind of eccentric. You may become a Muslim. You may forget your English, or at least lose your English accent. You may end in a kampong, no longer a foreigner, an old brownish man with many wives and children, one of the elders whom the young will be encouraged to consult on matters of the heart. You will be ruined. (Tiger, 160)

Victor Crabbe never returns, drowning in a river shortly before Malaya achieves independence. Other characters are more fortunate in being able to return "home" to the home of their choice. It is, in fact, significant that places of origins seldom correspond to places of departure and destination and, even more rarely, with home as a concept and an ideal. Nabby Williams, the amiable alcoholic in Time for a Tiger, eventually wins in the lottery, which enables him to return "home" to India - a place of departure where he has spent so many years of his life as to be homesick for it. At the beginning of the novel, Flaherty suggests that Nabby needs to make a choice between going native and the white man's privileges:

And make up your mind about what bloody race you belong to. One minute it’s all about being a farmer’s boy in Northamptonshire and the next you’re on about the old days in Calcutta and what the British have done to Mother India and the snake-charmers and the bloody temple-bells. Ah, wake up, for God’s sake. You’re English right enough but you’re forgetting how to speak the bloody language, what with traipsing about with Punjabis and Sikhs and God knows what. You talk Hindustani in your sleep, man. Sort it out, for God’s sake. If you want to put a loincloth on, get cracking, but don’t expect the privileges --’ (the word came out in a wet blurr; the needle stuck for a couple of grooves) ‘the privileges, the privileges…’ (Tiger, 13)

Yet Nabby is certainly furthest from going native in Malaya. He proves resistant to any form of cultural or linguistic assimilation as Malaya remains a foreign country to him as opposed to India, which has become his first home just as Hindustani has become his first language, the language he usually thinks and dreams in: “Though he had been in the Federation for six years he spoke neither Malay nor Chinese: his languages were Hindustani, Urdu, a little Punjabi, Northamptonshire English.” (Tiger, 18) His origins are significantly obscure, indeterminate, mysterious, even double: "And the genesis of Nabby Adams. Did he really have an Indian mother, or a Eurasian father? These characters emerged in his stories as salty Northamptonshire rurals. His father had been a sexton, his mother a good hand with pastry and curing a ham. At the core of Nabby Adams lay a mystery never to be solved.” (Tiger, 111) It is ironically his alcoholism that has obscured his racial characteristics, investing him with an unidentifiable bilious colour. While this alignment of drink and race seems oddly to tie in with European theories of degeneration and racial suicide, first conjured up by Victorian colonialists, Nabby is also the most likable character in the novel, one of the few that are rewarded and enabled to return home, and moreover a unique combination of a range of clichés:

But Nabby Adams appealed to another side of her [Fenella], the bookish side. He fascinated her, he seemed a walking myth: Promotheus with the eagles of debt and drink pecking at his liver; Adam himself bewildered and Eveless outside the Garden; a Minotaur howling piteously in a labyrinth of money-worries. She treasured each cliché of his, each serious anecdote of his early life, she even thought of compiling his sayings in a book of aphorisms.” (Tiger, 110)

Most importantly, Nabby Adams is genuinely at home in India and genuinely longing to return. There is nothing pseudo-intellectual or ideological about his yearnings. Similarly, naïve, though of course much less boorish, Father Laforgue in The Enemy in the Blanket is truly homesick for China. As Hindustani has become Nabby's first language, Mandarin has become Laforgue's, while his French has degenerated just as Nabby's English has: “In China he had spoken good Mandarin, and in ten years this had become his first tongue. Here he found himself with a parish of Hokkien and Cantonese speakers and a few English people whose language he could hardly talk. His French, severed from its sources of nourishment, grown coarse through lack of use, halted and wavered, searching for the right word which Mandarin was always ready to supply.” (Blanket, 213) Their genuine homesickness contrasts sharply with the orientalist and the occidentalist pretensions of a range of admittedly uprooted characters. Invoking the original meaning of nostalgia as an extreme case of homesickness that could cause physical distress, Laforgue pines for a return home to China: “And he was so sick for China that he wondered whether anything mattered now except his returning there.” (Blanket, 216) This nostalgia, which becomes a physical necessity to return, is nicely juxtaposed with the fake nostalgia for France aired by various Europeans in order to flatter Laforgue:

France meant nothing to him. Europeans had sometimes invited him to dinner and given him stuffed aubergines and onion soup and Nuits St Georges and what they said was good coffee. […] They had evinced, in their curious French mixed with Malay (both were foreign languages, both occupied the same compartment, they were bound to get mixed), a nostalgia for France which amused him slightly, bored him much, flattered him not at all. (Blanket, 216)

Laforgue is eventually allowed to return, just as Nabby is. Victor Crabbe is literally swallowed up by Malaya as he drowns at the end of Beds in the East.

The conclusion of the trilogy is primarily cynical as British colonial influence is neatly replaced by American neo-imperialism. There is also little hope that the multiethnic nation with its many necessary compromises will work. As it is put in the first novel with reference to the compromises required in a Malayan public school that accommodates members of many races, beliefs, and eating habits: "Nobody was satisfied but nobody could think of anything better.” (Tiger, 34)


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