The Teaching of Victor Crabbe: Anthony Burgess’s “The Malayan Trilogy”

Anthony Burgess’s anti-hero, Victor Crabbe, is one of his most memorable characters.  Who is Crabbe, you may ask? This idealistic teacher is a type everyone recognizes, though few teachers retain their idealism. 

Crabbe is the intellectual, quixotic, half-effective British protagonist of Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, written in the 1950s during Malaya’s struggle for  independence. The reader experiences the political and social upheaval partly through Crabbe’s eloquent observations, partly through the smouldering, eclectic clashes of  the Malay, Indians, Chinese, and Eurasians in Malaya.  

If you are a fan of Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham, you will enjoy this neglected trilogy, which consists of Time for a Tiger,  The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East.  There is a cast of hundreds of characters, or so it seems, but we always identify with Crabbe, who loves the tropical country but sweats up his shirts by the end of a morning’s teaching, because he walks to work, having refused to drive since he had an accident and his beloved first wife was killed.  

Crabbe is also hard-drinking.  In his free time, he drinks gin at bars with people of all races and easily makes friends, while his second wife, Fenella, a poet who longs to go home to England, miserably stays in bed with “a copy of Persuasion, a volume of John John Betjeman’s poem and a work of literary criticism by Professor Cleanth Brooks.” 

Burgess himself was a colonial officer in Malaya and Borneo from 1954 to 1960.  He writes in the introduction that one of the most attractive elements in Malaya at that time was “the profusion of race and culture and languages… [but] the Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.  They despised the Indians and had derisive names for them.  They even despised the English, whom they called ‘Mat Salleh’ or ‘Holy Joe.'”

In the first novel in the trilogy, Time for a Tiger, Burgess paints a vivid portrait of a sweltering, tropical country where extreme heat exacerbates the constant drinking of alcohol, which sometimes alleviates problems, sometimes intensifies them.   Crabbe, a talented, if often misunderstood, history teacher, hopes to promote tolerance and unity among the Malays, the Indians, the Chinese, and the Eurasians, before he leaves – or rather, till he is  kicked out with the rest of the British.  Burgess explains Crabbe’s point of view:  “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.”

Burgess’s sentences burst with intelligence and brim over with his polymathic vocabulary, complete with a glossary in the back with Malay phrases.  But none of the scholarship gets in the way of the page-turning story: he moves gracefully from musings on Malay politics to the description of a school staffed by permanently dissatisfied teachers to a dangerous trip through the jungle (where bandits and the Chinese communist terrorists live). 

Fenella is a complete innocent, pining for culture.  “Are the people really different up there?’ asked Fenella.  Cool libraries with anthropology sections were in her head.” 

In the second book, The Enemy in the Blanket, Crabbe has lost his teaching job but been promoted to headmaster in Dahaga, another Malay state.  Again, school politics are too much for him – rumor spreads that he is a communist, because he speaks of communism to a group of students, and the man who wanted his job digs up an article Crabbe had written on communism in college. (Actually, the article was supplied by one of Crabbe’s supposed old friends, a lawyer who has ended up in Malaya, and is one of Crabbe’s many ill-wishers. ) Unhappy Fenella finds a way to leave, and we are happy for her- anyway, Crabbe has been fooling around with a neighbor’s wife.

And, in the third novel, Beds in the East, Crabbe’s days are numbered, along with those of the British.  One of the most comic scenes is when he finds a paper in the train with a very bad poem by Fenella about their marriage.  He is startled.  But his role in this novel is disappointingly smaller than in the others.Here Burgess develops many of the characters native to Malaya.

Among the most memorable  in Beds is a beautiful Eurasian woman, Rosemary, who, like Fenella, longs to go to England. She keeps falling in love with Englishmen whom she fantasizes about marrying – but they have no intention of marrying poor Rosemary.

Then there is Victor’s protégé, Robert Loo, a Chinese merchant’s son who has written a brilliant symphony, without even knowing how to play the piano.  Robert loves math, and hears the music in his head.  Victor, who believes that, if performed, this symphony could improve the status of Malayan culture, contacts musical friends.  Loo, however, is an Aspergers type who is perfectly happy NOT to hear his music performed and doesn’t mind working at his father’s shop.

But no good deed goes unpunished:  But no good deed goes unpunished:  Crabbe has contacted musician friends, but Robert Loo rips up his symphony and begins to write jukebox-style songs – and Robet hates the jukebox –  after a single sexual encounter with Rosemary. 

And so – did any of Crabbe’s teaching make a difference?   Yes – no – perhaps – probably not. 

Burgess himself is both cynical and idealistic about the influence of the West.  

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