The title of this series of novels, at least in its trilogy form comes from the Tennyson poem “Ulyesses,” which is famously about the Greek hero looking back on his legacy and seeing how it has stripped him of her personal identity and value.
I primarily know Anthony Burgess the same way that most of you (the Americans specifically) as the author of A Clockwork Orange, and if we’re being very honest from having watched the Stanley Kubrick film way too many time. But I have also read his follow-up novel The Wanting Seed, and in one of those moments that I can squarely recall of wanting to know more about someone and devoting time and resources into doing so, finding out about the rest of his literary career. At the time, I would have been primarily interested in any of his books that are themselves or, say, rhyme with dystopian/post-apocalyptic writing. As every good morbid 20th century boy, those with very interesting to me.
But this novel series is more interesting to me now that I am older and more educated, and specifically I think is more important. It’s easier to like dystopian literature for a lot of reasons. If you’re a white man, you have every reason to believe you’ll be one of the ones cast as the hero or a survivor. You might very face experience violence, but never trauma or loss of dignity. You’re going to be the Bernard Marxes, the Alex DeLarges, the Winston Smiths, the, hell, Mad Maxes (no I don’t feel like looking up how to spell his last name), and not the regular people who just suffer or die or both.
So reading a series of lapsing colonial novels speaks to something else. Your options are still plentiful, but they’re less heroic (again, unless you’re an American). So you can be the cruel colonial magistrate, the drunk colonial slowly becoming an ex-pat, the intelligence man, the bartender, the missionary, the teacher, or some version of the above. You don’t really get to be the hero, because one of the clarifying factors of colonial writing written from a colonizer’s perspective is how you’re being left behind and will be specifically (if rightfully) excluded from the next phase. A lot of this kind of writing, like the Ulysses quote above, is about how that triggers a sense of “loss of manhood” and loss of masculinity of these various figures. And so in some novels, like The Jewel in the Crown, this experience means applying cruelty in the face of Indian dignity (and sexuality) or in something like George Orwell’s Burmese Days it means applying gin in the face of what you might consider Third World backwardness.
In these novels, we get more of that left behind feeling. The novels themselves are explicitly anti-racism (though they definitely fail at times) in their thesis, and so the colonial figure of Crabbe is mostly trying to do good things, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that his living in and exploiting/glomming off of a culture that’s not his leaves him without a strong sense of identity or purpose. There should be a sense that he’s building for a future he won’t experience, a noble feeling sure, but since he’s also on the wrong side of that future culturally and racially as well, his sense of alienation is overwhelming at times.
Like the Paul Scott books, and any good novel, there’s more going on than just this. These books also deal with plenty of other shortcomings of colonial cum post-colonial political situations, the gaps that open up for corruption, the loss of capital that would otherwise be invested in the country itself, the various forms of petty tyranny that crop up and other ideas. These novels are very funny and remind me a lot of the Orwell colonial writings (novels and nonfiction), and are a particular take on a trope or sub-sub-genre of writing. At times I found myself a little lost to some tedium in them, but over all they are quite good. I am more interested in these being Anthony Burgess’s first novels (he is praiseworthy in their skill) and more interested in the rest of his output. I am either off this kind of colonial writing for a while, or I will really dive into more in the coming weeks. Who knows.