Friday, 28 April 2017

Time for a Tiger - Anthony Burgess

Time for a Tiger was Burgess's first novel, the first in his Malayan Trilogy aka The Long Day Wanes. It was published in 1956 while he was still teaching in Malaya. The novel is a thinly disguised version of Burgess's actual experience. Victor Crabbe teaches in Kuala Hantor; Anthony Burgess taught in Kuala Kangsar; both are/were house masters; both have/had deeply unhappy wives and fractious relationships with their respective headmasters, who they loathe.

Crabbe's counterpoint, the six-foot-eight policeman and fledgling alcoholic is Nabby Adams, a man wholly devoted to expatriate life in the failing empire. He it is who always has time for a Tiger, the bottled beer which is his only sustenance. Nabby owes money to everyone. Where Crabbe might seek to enlighten the multi-national, multi-cultural natives, Nabby takes them absolutely as he finds them. He loves them like he loves his scabby dog Cough. Crabbe cares too, but his way is patronising, accidentally elitist. And this, of course, is the time of the Chinese Communist-inspired Malayan insurgency.

It is, however, an English comic novel in a colonial setting, falling somewhere between Kipling and Paul Scott. It is a long way from the experimental Burgess of the Seventies, or even A Clockwork Orange, which was only six years on from Time for a Tiger. It is, nevertheless, a comic novel that is actually funny, with complex characters and the occasional hint of the linguistic fireworks that were to come.

Everyone who reads later Burgess should also read early Burgess. I was lucky, I suppose, in that I first read the Malayan Trilogy just after I read A Clockwork Orange, which was around the time the Kubrick film came out. Me and a couple of mates went to see the movie, in a rare single showing outside London at the height of the controversy. It's appropriately Burgessian, I think, that what may have been the only time the film was shown in a mainstream provincial picture palace was at the Odeon Rugby. I know it happened 'cos I was there.

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