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Unorientalized

Early in the first novel of Anthony Burgess’ Malayan Trilogy, published in the United States as The Long Day Wanes one of the characters remarks of her predicament: “‘This is like something in a novel, isn’t it. Like one of those cheap novels about Cairo and what-not?’” This statement is characteristic of the slyness of the whole work. Originally published as three separate novels, the trilogy chronicles the last days of the British Empire in the Malayan peninsula, as the newly formed Federation of Malay States struggles towards independence.

The first novel in the trilogy, Time for a Tiger (1956), describes the adventures of Victor Crabbe and his second wife Fenella, recent arrivals in Malaya, where Victor has taken up a position teaching history in an expensive private school in the fictional state of Lanchap. The story also features one Nabby Adams, transport officer with the Malay police, debt-ridden long-term expat, and confirmed alcoholic. Victor finds himself the victim of political shenanigans involving a possible Communist cell operating among the older schoolboys, and comes into conflict with his white boss, the headmaster Boothby. The novel ends with his transfer to the post of headmaster in another school in another state.

In The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) Victor and Fenella arrive at their new post in the fictional state of Dahaga, where they encounter Talbot and his wife Anne, with whom Victor has an affair. Victor comes into increasingly acrimonious conflict with one of his teachers, the Hindu Jaganathan. This novel examines the theme of marriage, describing the marriage of white lawyer Hardman to a local Muslim widow, and his necessary conversion to Islam; Victor and Fenella’s marriage falls apart, and the novel ends with Fenella returning to England alone.

Victor emerges older, shabbier and perhaps wiser in Beds in the East (1959). Chief Education Officer in another state, his efforts to help Malaya are now centered on a Chinese boy, a musical wunderkind, whose music Victor believes will glue the various racial factions of the Peninsula into a cohesive, national whole. There are various subplots describing the romantic adventures and quest for marriage of a blackskinned Jafna Tamil called Rosemary; and the adventures of a gang of Malay Teddy Boys. Victor makes his final voyage upriver into his own private heart of darkness, along the way meeting an American academic named Haynes who is collecting data on the various languages of the peninsula. The novel closes as Malaya achieves and celebrates independence.

The trilogy was Burgess’s first published novel, and is a fantastically assured, bravura piece of writing, veering from ribald, Rabelasian humour (‘Lanchap’, Burgess’ fictional state, is, according to the glossary in the 1981 Penguin edition–Malay slang for ‘masturbate’) to crapulous, unsettling meditations on the nature of Empire and assimilation. There is a steady darkening of tone throughout the three novels, with the first volume’s hilarity gradually replaced by a bleaker vision of loneliness, manipulation and menace. Each book stands alone and at the same time fits neatly into an overarching whole, with structural continuity provided by the character of Victor Crabbe and an underlying theme of the gradual decline of British influence. The trilogy is loosely based on Burgess’s own experiences as teacher and education officer in Malaya and Brunei in the mid 1950s, and many of the themes and incidents come from his own biography: the importance given to linguistics and music, for example. And drinking.

Burgess consciously places the trilogy in a long tradition of ‘Cairo’–or Colonial–novels, a tradition that encompasses all the usual suspects: Rider Haggard, Kipling, Conrad, E.M. Forster, George Orwell, Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham, the last of whom gets an especially ironic mention in the text, as we shall see.

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In 1978 Edward Said published his seminal critique of Colonial literature: Orientalism. Its central ideas are worth rehearsing as they shed light on the sophistication and ironies Burgess weaves into his first fiction. According to Said, the Westerner in the East makes sense of his surroundings by means of what he called a “textual attitude.” This works in several ways, for example by referring to previously acquired, textual knowledge when faced with the strangeness of reality, what Said calls, “preferring the schematic” authority of a text to the “disorientation of direct encounters with the human reality”; or by “studying” the East, tabulating it, describing it, in effect turning it into text, fixing it, literally contextualising it.

Said also showed how Western knowledge of the Orient, including that contained in fiction, travel literature and scholarly works–what he called Orientalist discourse–is contaminated by the imbalance of power between the writer and the subject, power which manifests itself more or less nakedly as either the exercise of justice (or injustice) or as paternalism.

Another crucial process at work in relations between West and East is stereotyping, which blinds Westerners to the true reality of what they are observing. Said characterised this process as having several interlinked elements. The first of these is a movement away from the specific instance towards a general category. According to Said, specific idiosyncrasies which do not fit into the general schema are brushed aside, ignored or regarded as irrelevant. Said quotes from Scott’s novel The Talisman, in which Sir Kenneth says to Saladin: ‘”I speak not thus of thee in particular, Saracen, but generally of thy people and religion.”‘ Concomitant to this movement is an essentialist stance, in which the essence of the Orient is sought, rather than its manifestation. Orientalists talk about such vague entities as the Oriental Mind, the Essence of Islam. This essence is of course ahistorical, ignoring current, changing social and political realities as they manifest themselves. The last element is the act of categorisation, in which the differences between categories are more important than the diversity of the elements within the categories. Thus, the categories Us versus Them, White Man versus Native obscure the huge variety of individual beings, and lead inevitably to racism.

For Said and the post-colonial critics who followed him, the combination of a textual attitude, power imbalance, and stereotyping make it practically impossible for a Westerner to really ‘see’ the Orient: “His Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized.” According to this view, Burgess, as a Westerner, living and writing about the East, can only fall into these traps, no matter how sincere his motivation in depicting life as he experienced it. Theoretically, by virtue of its origin and subject matter, The Long Day Wanes can only be an addition to Orientalist discourse rather than a departure from it. What makes the novels interesting, however, what lifts them out of the category of Orientalist, period curios, is the way they identify and satirise –20 years before Said–exactly those features of Orientalism which Said described.

The Long Day Wanes is full of satirical examples of Said’s “textual attitude.” Fenella, in the first volume, is taken to see a local festival. She describes it to herself, and to her husband as being straight out of The Golden Bough. At other times Burgess gives us a glimpse into an anthropological monograph she is writing in her mind:

The monograph droned on: The culture-pattern of the orang darat is necessarily limited. The jungle houses them and feeds them and provides them with an anthropomorphic pantheon of the kind which is familiar to us from our observations of primitive life in the Congo, and Amazon and other centres where a rudimentary civilisation seems to have been arrested at what may be termed the Bamboo Level…

In the same way that Fenella sees herself in a cheap Cairo novel, other characters see themselves as participating in a novel about the East, and the whole genre is satirised:

Both men in whites and wicker chairs on the veranda, facing the bougainvillea and the papaya tree, felt themselves 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… “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…

In the third volume, Beds in the East, the American academic Haynes and another field anthropologist, Moneypenny, who has gone native, have the following discussion:

“You would surely be the first to admit the professional anthropologist has his uses. I mean the fact that he comes with a background of intensive comparative studies….”
“Balls”, bawled Moneypenny rudely. “You’ve got to get into the jungle. You’ve got come face to face with the living reality.”…
“I mean what I’m after chiefly at the moment is the phonemes. I’ve no wish to be able to speak any of these languages with fluency: a working knowledge is all I aspire to.”

Haynes is a classic example of one of Said’s Orientalist scholars, tabulating, classifying and notating the East, but not really seeing it. He drives an air-conditioned van with state-of-the art recording equipment in it. At lunch, in a small town in the middle of the jungle, he produces from somewhere–it is never explained how–a peanut-butter-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich on rye, while everyone else is eating local food.

Haynes’s textual attitude is never far from the exercise of power, as Burgess subtly hints that his fieldwork might be a front for more sinister activity. One of the themes of the final book is how the amateur, gentlemanly imperialism of the British slowly gives way to the more professional and better funded, covert imperialism of America, whether of the CIA secret-ops variety or the rampant commercialism of American culture, symbolised in the novel by the presence of advertising and references to movies. Burgess shows how Malayan independence takes place against the gradual transition from Pax Britannia to Pax Americana, in much the same way that Graham Greene’s French Indo-China does in the The Quiet American.

Victor’s position in Malaya–like Burgess’s–is the result of a power imbalance, symbolised in the first volume by the school. The multicultural classroom controlled by a British teacher, set up and funded by a British administration and using a British curriculum with English as the language of instruction is, of course, a symbol of multicultural Malaya under British administration. British power includes the exercise of summary justice, as in headmaster Boothby’s unfair suspension of a Malay boy for improper relations with a woman, which causes a protest in the class Victor is teaching: “the form had welded itself into a single unity on this issue. Tamils, Bengalis and one Sikh, the Malays the one Eurasian, the Chinese had found a loyalty that transcended race. […] This unity was only a common banding against British injustice.” It also extends to the paternalism of Victor’s job as Education Officer in the last volume, where he is supposed to mentor and teach a Malay who will take over the position at independence, when the ‘natives’ have learnt how to administer. Even Victor’s desire to absorb the culture, to learn the language, to help the Malays is marked by an unwitting paternalism. He is never the equal of the native: he is always, as it were, either above them looking down as he helps them, or beneath them looking up as he studies or admires them. The native is always the Other.

This power imbalance marks relations between all the whites and nonwhites in the novels, except perhaps for Nabby Adams, who has been an expat longer than anyone else, and whose world has anyway been reduced to the extremely narrow confines of the search for his next drink, and the wherewithal to pay for it. His friendship with Alladad Kahn is completely colour blind: they swear and grumble at each other, and look out for each other, but do so in terms of absolute equality, with none of the self-conscious patronage of the other inter-racial relations in the book.

The trilogy is full of characters who relate to their environment in terms of the elements Said anatomises as part of a stereotype. For example, Victor points out in a discussion about the racial mix of the peninsula that ‘”the Chinese had made the country economically rich, that the British had brought rule and justice, that the majority of the Malays were Indonesian immigrants”‘, categorising, essentialising, and generalising all at once. The headmaster Boothby’s categorisation is more overtly racist: “These Wogs are hot blooded…They let you down if they think you are soft.” Burgess also knowingly includes a stereotype of a stereotype rehashing a stereotype:

Rivers was now very drunk. He tottered about the Club shouting, “Lash them, beat them, nail them to the door, pepper them with a hot lead, ha, ha. Treat them as they deserve to be treated. Speak to them in the only language they understand, Go through them like a dose of salts, ha, ha.”

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One of the measures of Burgess’s achievement in this early work is that he is quite clearly describing what Said later called Orientalism, but he is not participating in it, pace Said et al’s insistence that theoretically it is impossible for a Colonial writer not to. Burgess achieves this by including a plethora of native voices. This is not a novel about white people in Malaya, but a novel about all Malayans. Equal space, especially in the later half of the trilogy, is given to the Sikhs, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Chinese. Burgess reproduces their speech patterns in masterfully written dialogue without resorting to cheap imitation or condescension. For someone who has spent the last twenty years knocking around the Far East as I have, Burgess’s recreation of native voices, especially of their varieties of English, has all the ring of authenticity.

But the clearest sign that the Orientalism is his characters’ and not Burgess’s lies in the narrative voice, that part of a text which is usually most closely aligned with an author’s viewpoint. In his narrative voice Burgess manages to avoid an authorial Orientalism through the use of a style that is intensely polyphonic, by including parodies of all kinds of voices, free indirect style, in-jokes, and overt and covert references to English Lit: Keats, Shakespeare, Joyce. A very good example of this is the reference to W. Somerset Maugham:

‘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.’

This little snippet begins as free indirect speech coming from Victor, describing his response to his first encounter with the overly dramatic Talbots: ‘All this had been set out years ago…'; it then seems to change to a more neutral voice, informing us that Maugham’s stories are ‘still well remembered in the east’. The second sentence then lurches into a parody of Edwardian, colonial, club-talk, if we can call it that. The source of this parody is two-fold: it could be Burgess parodying British administrators in general, but it could also be Victor mocking the type of man Talbot is, in free indirect speech again.

Passages in the narrative voice that betray an Orientalist attitude–judgemental, scholarly, generalised comments–on closer examination are either revealed to be the thoughts of the characters presented in free indirect discourse, or are put in parentheses to isolate them clearly from the surrounding text, thus creating another layer of narrative voice: ‘(Optionally, Malay repeats words to express plurality and intensity. The connotation of both these terms was appropriate to ‘Che Normah.)’ “Another smug European fallacy is that Eastern women lose their beauty quickly.” By carefully isolating and ambiguating the source of this kind of comment Burgess shows an ironic awareness of the problems surrounding the origin and status of such knowledge, of the way it represents an inequality of power. It’s worth comparing this with Kipling’s style in Kim, where the narrative voice also includes generalised Orientalist comments: “All hours of the twenty-four are alike to Orientals”; “Kissing is practically unknown among Asiatics”. Kipling’s narrative voice is resolutely monologic, however. It reveals one viewpoint only: the viewpoint of the narrative voice, and by extension, the author’s. In contrast, Burgess’s polyphonic narrative voice refuses a final viewpoint.

The use of in-jokes also signals a knowing archness about the whole project of describing relations between East and West, my favourite being the list of titles of the local ruler: “Scourge of the Wicked, Friend of the Oppressed, Loved of God, Father of a Thousand, who claimed descent originally from the faeces of the White Bull of Siva…” and there is a wonderful parody of the kind of expat who likes to show other expats his expat credentials by incorporating local speech patterns into his English, as a character named Vorpal does when Nabby Adams faints: ‘”He’s coming round lah, speak to me Nabby. How do you feel now lah? Christ, you gave us a turn lah.”‘ Look, says this character to all and sundry, I’ve spent some (carefully unspecified) time in Singapore.

The gap between describing an Orientalist attitude and participating in it is most clearly seen on the plot level in Victor’s relationship with the Chinese musical savant. Victor is trying to get the boy’s symphony performed. He believes that the boy has composed something truly Malayan, a great work that will bind the disparate racial elements of the new nation together:

“Strangely enough it’s he who’s convinced me that something can be done in Malaya. It may be pure illusion, of course, but the image is there, in his music. It’s a national image. He’s made a genuine synthesis of Malayan elements in his string quartet, and I think he’s made even better job of it in his symphony.”

Burgess–and the reader–can see what Victor cannot: that a string quartet and a symphony orchestra are archetypes of Western high culture; Victor is in effect saying that the new Malaya can only achieve cultural unity through the means of Western cultural constructs, by essentially aping Western culture. Success for the new country will be determined by how well it conforms to Western criteria rather than by establishing its own indigenous criteria. This is underlined later when the American academics–the new covert masters of Malaya–reject the boy’s symphony in a hilarious letter.

This Chinese boy turns out very competent imitations of imitations–second rate cinematic romantic stuff,…. we’ve heard it all before. We can do it far better ourselves. In fact, we didn’t come out these thousands of miles to see a distorted image of ourselves in a mirror…

The final irony is that decisions about cultural matters in the new Malaya are not made by Malays, but by Westerners.

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The trouble with Said’s theory of Orientalism, and the whole field of post-colonial studies that it gave rise to, is that they forestall all attempts at refutation with the charge of racism: anyone who disagrees is simply blinded by their own unwitting racism. Any Westerner who sincerely tries to see the East for what it is, not for what he can do to improve it, or get out of it, is, the argument goes, merely deluded as to the extent of their imprisonment by their own ideology. Theoretically, it is impossible to really see. On the one hand post-colonial theorists lambast Western writers for creating unsympathetic portraits of Orientals which conform to the worst stereotypes–Conrad’s impassive Oriental faces, for example–or for suppressing the native voice altogether. On the other, they lambast writers who do try to create more sympathetic, complex portraits of natives and who give natives their own voices, charging them with insincerity and the worst kind of blackface impersonation. Western writers who write about the East, whose theme is the clash of cultures, the impact of the foreign or the exotic, are therefore locked into a vicious circle from which there is no escape: they are racist imperialists no matter what their stance towards the East is; they are damned if they do express racism in their works, and damned if they don’t.

Burgess is aware of all this even though he predates Said, and responds to it by creating a dizzying vortex of ironies and playful ambiguities in which all the arguments made later by Said are turned round on themselves. One prominent theme in the trilogy is what we could call reverse Orientalism, in which it is the white man who is the Other, the exotic. In a hilarious scene Victor, Fenella, Nabby Adams and Alledad Kahn stop for something to drink on a nocturnal car drive. The natives all come out of their houses to watch the whites, who unwittingly provide an evening’s entertainment for the village:

They were sitting in a kedai on the single street of Gila, acting, it seemed, a sort of play for the entire population of the town and the nearest kampong….the play, after its opening scene in which Nabby Adams had cracked his head smartly on a hanging oil lamp, must seem to lack action, thought Crabbe…

Some locals join the party at the table. ‘The introduction of local talent did not, however, please the audience. They wanted the exotic and the mythical.’ Burgess makes a point I know from my own experience: the Westerner is the real exotic in the East. The narrative voice –or is it Victor’s free indirect discourse? — remarks: “He 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….The Europeans were rather like … lunatics.”

In the second volume, the local leader, dreaming of what his life will be like after his position has been abolished by independence, is just as seduced by the myth of the West as Westerners are by the myth of the East, but in his case, a textual attitude is replaced by a filmic one:

He had a rough idea of what the West was like….he had a vision of new kinds of power, perhaps being lifted to heights of Occidental myth through marriage with a Hollywood film star. He saw himself in a smart suit and a songkok bowed into the opulent suites of Ritzes and Waldorfs and baring, under dark glasses, a hairy chest to a milder sun by a snakeless sea.

The creation of stereotypes of the Other is by no means limited to the white man’s perception of the native or vice versa, but also appears in the relations between the various ethnic populations of Malaya. In the last volume of the trilogy, more space is given to native characters, and the white people are relegated to the periphery of the action: the more central characters are the Jafna Tamils, who rail against the greed of the Chinese, the stupidity and laziness of the Malays, the hypocrisy of the Muslims. The second volume includes the frequent reappearance of two Malays, who talk to each other in their own language in overtly racist terms about a group of Sikhs:

Two Malay workmen, dish-towels round their heads, came in to drink iced water.
“There [the Sikhs] go, hairy sods, drinking all day.”
“Doing no work.”
“Let them have their pleasure. They won’t have it much longer.”
“Their reckoning is coming.”
“Shit for brains.”
“Like prawns.”

The irony is further compounded by the fact that these two characters are strongly redolent of Shakespeare’s mechanicals from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, or perhaps Hamlet‘s grave diggers: they are essentially clowns, the lowest class commenting on the behaviour of their masters, a status further underlined by the way their language is represented to the reader through the use of a kind of cod Cockney.

Burgess’s description of the racial tensions among the native population of Malaya, and the fears the non-Muslim characters voice about their status in the newly independent country have unfortunately a counterpart in real life. The government of modern Malaysia is one of the most disgustingly bigoted and repressive in the region, with non-Muslim populations and minority groups actively discriminated against in politics, the law and the media.

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Perhaps, though, the biggest weakness of Said’s Orientalism is that it seems predicated on an assumption that the earth is flat, that West and East are spread out on a map with a fixed point of orientation somewhere in the mid Atlantic, that East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet, as Kipling famously wrote. For Said, the Occident is America, Britain and France, and the Orient is the Middle East. But from where I sit in northern Taiwan writing this, the (mythical) east is the malls and freeways of Southern California, while the (wild) west is Canton, Cathay and the rocky shores of Fujien Province. All is relative on a globe; and Said’s insistence that the ‘Middle East’ is a limiting Western construct is in itself a limiting construct that excludes the reality of vast tracts of physical and mental territory. For Said, the Orient is restricted to the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This narrowness and fixity of outlook is beautifully satirised by Burgess–proleptically, again it must be stressed–at the beginning and end of the trilogy. At the end of the final novel, the Jafna Tamil Rosemary is given a marriage proposal by a Turk, and instantly before her mind’s eye arises an image of the Orient, located to her west, and created just as much by post-colonial theorists as by Western mythmakers:

Rosemary saw films unwind swiftly in her head, a montage of the mysterious Orient which she had never visited, an Orient purged of hoicking Chinese in underpants, an Orient without a Public Works Department, an Orient visited by Europeans wearing white tuxedos not bought on an initial outfit allowance. Glamour, romance, cocktails by a shining evening river…

The opening words of the first volume, which set the tone for the whole work, brilliantly lampoon post-colonial theory, and the arguments against it:

“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, so you know nothing about it, either, so you needn’t be talking…”

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Quentin Brand Lives in Taiwan where he teaches English. More of his writings can be found on The Lectern.