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Novels about Southeast Asia

Some of the enduring novels written about Southeast Asia are Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, George Orwell’s Burmese Days, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. Following later and in a similar tradition were Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack. With the exception of Theroux, the authors of these novels are English and the story line draws heavily on colonial experience at a time of political upheaval.

The Quiet American and The Malayan Trilogy were written in the 1950s as Britain’s empire was winding down. A generation before Orwell captured the colonial administration of Burma in Burmese Days.

The world of Greene, Orwell and Burgess was different in substantial respects from the present world in Southeast Asia with the high band-width Internet connections, cable television, regularly scheduled flights, and the globalization of commerce. Even Saint Jack written in the early 1970s seems much closer to Burgess and Orwell than to contemporary fiction. Their world appears distant and remote as if lost in time. Reading them makes you appreciate exactly how much Southeast Asia as changed and how much the world has changed as well.

It is remarkable that these novels are almost never mentioned in local book reviews. They should be a touchstone of good writing, story telling, as well as literary landmarks of their time. Letting them pass out of the consciousness of readers, reviewers, and pundits is a mistake. Forgetting the past is always a danger. Forgetting great books is part of that process of converting all experience into the eternal now. There is a rich past history to understand and draw up, and in doing so we are better able to judge the current writing about the region.

These books form the backbone of expat literature since World War II. They should be read and reread to enrich your understanding of a culture, history, and politics of Southeast Asia.

Below is a passage from The Malayan Trilogy, which captures the tone and texture of the book.

“After the death of Sultan Iblis there was trouble again. Five chiefs claimed the throne, only one of them – the Crown Prince Mansor – with any right. The bad days of anarchy returned, the kris whistled through the air and lopped innocent heads, there was pillaging and arson in up-river kampongs, the Bugis appeared again – a portent, like the anti-Christ Danes at the time of Bishop Wulfstan – and even the Siamese, who already held Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu, began to be interested, It was now that the British intervened. Mansor fled to Singapore, imploring help from the Governor. Yes, yes, he would most certainly accept a British Resident if he could be guaranteed a safe throne, a permanent bodyguard and a pension of $15,000 a month. And so the wars gradually died down like a wind, though not before some British blood had been spilled on that inhospitable soil. The state began to prosper. Rubber throve, and the Chinese dredged for tin with frantic industry.”

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