The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy

Time for a Tiger

Rating: ★★★

As character comedy and 'wit', the two qualities praised on the binding, this would probably be sub-par for me. The humour rests mostly on how awful the characters all are, which is amusing for a bit but gradually just ends up depressing. The main character is a nasty alcoholic type, always borrowing or stealing money to get a drink, presuming on the hospitality of others and occasionally resorting to threats of violence to get his way. As part of the joke, he ends up rich beyond belief.

As plot also, it's not great. It doesn't really go anywhere, the various characters just find themselves mixed together and hang around drinking, the men telling stories while the woman cries because of how much she hates the country and wants to go home (her husband won't leave, though even he's not clear as to why).

Where the novel has some value, however, is in its highly-convincing sense of place. Burgess thrusts a stark, unfiltered view of Malaysia at us, an eastern melting-pot filled with grift and vice and hidden tensions. There is a lot of believable detail, and though I don't particularly like the sound of the seedy, sweaty setting, I can appreciate the effort taken to convey it.

The Enemy in the Blanket

Rating: ★★

The first of this series, Time for a Tiger, is saved from its depressing humour and unsympathetic cast by at least communicating something about the state of postwar Malaysia. What, though, does the sequel do to justify there being more than one novel?

Well, not much. The alcoholism is swapped for adultery and the tired noises huffed out by a neglected marriage undergoing final collapse. It is a little gratifying that Crabbe's wife does eventually get to leave the hellhole of a country, as she has been asking for them to do basically throughout this and the previous novel, but she is hardly relatable even with such a horrible husband as counterpoint.

There are a couple of interesting character ideas -- a lawyer converted to Islam for his wife's money, a Catholic priest absorbed by Chinese culture -- and a general theme of colonial withdrawal coming hand-in-hand with a retreat of a tired Western culture. There's also a swelling sense of the lines of ethnic tension that to this day still characterise Malaysia. But it's all quite tired stuff, astute situational dressing for a rather dull plot.

The completionist in me will probably prevail in getting me to take on the last slim novel of the trilogy, but if not entirely checked out I am at least packing my bags ready for the morning.

Beds in the East

Rating: ★★★

Marginally more entertaining than the previous two, with less of the tiring focus on vice and slightly more on the comparatively uplifting topic of hope for Malaysia's future. The characters seem a little more alive, a little more relatable -- or, as in the case of Rosemary, more amusing in their delusions -- and there is a languid tropical movement to the narrative.

Crabbe's tragicomic death ends the sequence that linked the three novels together. His story is all oriented around his dead first wife, and there is as little to this story as you might suspect -- Crabbe does and does not move on from her memory, and then at the end discovers that the memory was false, that she wasn't who he thought she was. Yawn.

The series is perhaps a good read if you are interested in Malaysia in the sense that novelists think they can capture something: impressions of character types, a sense of the atmosphere in a place. Burgess obviously had first-hand experience to draw upon, and can communicate it effectively. My issue was I'm not particularly concerned with the setting that is meant to be the hook, and the plot within that setting is generally underwhelming.