The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess

The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess

As I closed this book for the last time, I could not help but wonder how and why I had made it to my fourth decade as a Malaysian without having read this. I wondered why the existence of books about Malaya and Malaysia were not a part of my IGSCE or GCSE exams, part of my primary and secondary school education. We could have read this in English class, in History class, in Religion class, instead of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It would have made more sense, it would have been interesting, it would have given us a sense of who were were! No, we learnt about WWI and WWII, but never about the Malayan Emergency, never about Communism — except as a Soviet or Chinese or Cuban-Missile Crisis thing.

Such a misnomer, the “post colonial” world. There is nothing postcolonial about it. Burgess’s three intertwined novels prove that. Published in 1964 and reading them nearly six decades later, it’s clear nothing much has changed except the language: the racism remains, the ethnic conflict, the Malay calling the Indian lazy, the Chinese reviled for their share of the economy, the Malay condemned for their bumiputra entitlements. The primacy White Men still hold over those of darker fleshtones. Nothing is different except Chinese folks don’t say yam seng as much any more (Kam pai I think is the more popular term now. Not that I drink enough to know) and diluting whiskey with water and ice has become passé with the ubiquitous use of aircon. I recognized the sounds and smells and sweaty stickiness in Burgess’ Malaya, especially when I read the books while having a cup of steaming Horlicks. I laughed out when luncheon meat was mentioned, then counted how many tins I have in my pantry.

The novels are nothing spectacular plotwise; it’s the point that nothing happens. In the first book, Victor Crabbe and Fenella Crabbe drink and drink and drink, complain, complain, complain. Victor even complains that Fenella complains; for, in his view, he has purpose. Burgess does not name it but it is the White Savior Complex; Victor has it in buckets.

It is the characters which save the novels and make the trilogy worth reading. This is one of the few times I have read a book from this era that brought “native” characters to the forefront. Even Orwell’s Veraswami was a supporting character. Of course, we should not be too hasty; Victor Crabbe remains the central focus of the trilogy. But Rosemary, an Indian woman who has swallowed the White Mask — perhaps the whole bottle of white makeup — is prominent in the last novel, Beds in the East. Alladad Khan, a Muslim man is also given pride of place in the first one, Time for a Tiger. The second book, Enemy in the Blanket focuses more closely on the Crabbe’s marriage. I appreciated Fenella’s prominence here, even as a white character; she is a woman and it was pleasant to read a woman’s story, even if told by and from a man’s perspective. I enjoyed Anne Talbot a lot. Her spunk was refreshing.

But ugh, the racism threaded all the way through. I read it, recognized it, hated it, enjoyed it for its honest — if ugly — portrayal of Emergency era Malaya.

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