A Feeling of Connection: Anthony Burgess and His Characters

Anthony Burgess tells his story through his characters, in a way that makes him stand out among writers. Many writers of fiction tell their stories primarily through the narrator’s voice, and characters are presented to the reader through this medium. The narrative voice is usually so important because it will colour the whole story, influencing the readers’ perspectives on the characters. But Burgess seems to inhabit his characters fully, making them speak and act and think so that we seem to hear and see them for ourselves, and the story moves along, driven by their actions and dialogue and resolutions and changes of heart, as they introduce themselves, develop and make discoveries, and leave the stage again. Burgess’s novel is theatrical and visual.

Time for a Tiger is the first novel in Burgess’s “Malayan Trilogy”, written in the 1950s. He saw Malaya first hand, working as a “colonial education officer” in Malaya and Borneo during this time. He prided himself on his knowledge of the local language, and understanding of the culture, something which other colonial writers often lacked. William Somerset Maugham was something of a model for him, but Maugham would write about the East with a Westerner’s eye, without a great understanding of the local culture.

Though the novel is filled with curious characters, Victor Crabbe seems to be the main focus, and is perhaps based on Burgess himself. Victor is a history teacher in a Malayan village, and differs from most of his white associates by having, or at least priding himself on feeling that he has, a real sympathy with the locals. Part of him wants to return to England. “But,” he reflects, “I love this country. I feel protective towards it. Sometimes, just before dawn breaks, I feel that I somehow enclose it, contain it. I feel that it needs me.”

Perhaps the purpose of the novel is to explore this complicated feeling of connection with a foreign country, in this case the somewhat paternal feeling Victor has for a colony whose independence is just around the corner. The new characters that Burgess introduces at every turn stand, in one way or another, in contrast to Victor. We get the locals wondering at his eccentric ways, such as his refusal to travel by car, even though he is rich, highlighting the way Victor stands out in this country in many ways still strange to him, how alien he seems to the locals despite his professed love for them. We get Victor’s wife Fenella, who simply wants to leave this climate and this culture and return home. And Nabby Adams, on the other hand, seems rather close to Victor, with his friend Flaherty telling him “make up your mind about what bloody race you belong to.” Nabby and Victor are both picked up often for “letting the side down”, and losing sight of their own white identities. (“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 is a great example of a writer who knew how to “show don’t tell”. For every point of view through which Burgess wants us to explore the landscape, there will be a living breathing character who embodies that perspective. Like Dickens, Burgess writes stories that often seem theatrical, since the drama is always moved along with descriptions of people, what they do, and what they say. (I seem to remember that Burgess himself makes a similar observation about Dickens somewhere.) Though it is a sort of trick – of course, there is a narrator, guiding you and nudging your perspective – the illusion is complete and putting the book down I feel that I’ve been watching actors moving on a stage, rather than listening to a story-teller.

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