Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Beds in the East - Anthony Burgess

Beds in the East is the final part of Burgess's Malayan Trilogy (1956-59). Set in the final days of British colonial rule, the ethnically diverse natives are starting to take over as the Brits fade away. Likewise in the narrative - our hero Victor Crabbe enters late and leaves before the end. He just disappears, which I felt was a masterly touch from Burgess.

Crabbe's reduced role means that Burgess can concentrate more on the 'natives', only some of whom are actually Malays. There is also the extensive Chinese community and the close-knit Tamils, all of them jockeying for status in the new independent Malaya. Among them is Robert Loo, son of a Chinese cafe proprietor, who is certainly a self-taught musical prodigy and whom Crabbe considers a genius. He tries to get a commission for Robert to write a Malayan anthem for the independence ceremonies and a scholarship to get him to a conservatory in England or America. There is Sayed Omar, who believes he has been blackballed for promotion by the fiendish Tamil Maniam and seeks his revenge. There is Maniam's Tamil friend (the Tamils are all 'friends') the vet Vythilingam, desperately trying to avoid the arranged marriages his mother is equally determined to oversee.

Linking them all, and messing up all their plans, is the mixed race sex bomb Rosemary, who pretends she is English, who pretends her British fiance Joe is really going to send for her, and who lives amid her dozens of cats and a similar number of (largely) frustrated admirers. Rosemary is unusual for Burgess (a dominant female character) and I wonder why he didn't create more in his later work. I suppose there is the Dark Lady in Nothing Like the Sun, but I don't recall any others.

You can feel Burgess stretching his wings in Beds in the East, really hitting his novelistic stride. He is happy to let his syntax loose, happy to flaunt his own musical prowess without feeling the need to explain it. At the same time it finishes off his debut trilogy beautifully.

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