In a New York Times review, British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) muses that when Britain’s professional meddlers retreated from The East, Americans filled the vacuum. More recently, I’ve observed that when Americans left a void in Southeast Asia, Australians eagerly took up diplomatic, economic and cultural initiatives. Life goes on ob-la-di, ob-la-da.
In The Consul’s File, a youthful American diplomat who remains nameless narrates the comings and goings of Americans and British expats in the fictional town of Ayer Hitam. Never important, the tiny town is languishing as its rubber plantations, a symbol of British colonialism, shut down to make way for oil palm estates.
In 20 stand-alone stories, Theroux is at his best describing “the Empire’s orphans” – quixotic Malay, Chinese, Tamil and mixed-race characters – as they interact clumsily and cannily with each other and the expatriates who play fateful roles in their lives.
The polyglot locals are engaged in Chinese clans and secret societies, Communist cells and Indian sports clubs while the expats wile away their time smoking, drinking and playing tennis at the Club, where it’s perennially 1938.
Here and there, Theroux tosses in details of the ex-pat lifestyle: dealing with amahs and jagas, drinking Tiger Beer, smoking mentholated cigarettes, taking malaria-suppression tablets like Communion, and serving a 16-pound holiday turkey brought up from Singapore’s Cold Storage company.
Four women are notable among the Americans in the file. A shapeless, graceless teacher of English claims she was raped by an oily attacker, who may be a spirit. An anthropologist goes native in the jungle and marries an aboriginal chief. A skinflint travel writer’s shtick includes never paying for anything. An older-wiser U.S. embassy secretary, who had a fling with the consul in Kampala, invites him to the Raffles Hotel to discuss “diplomatic relations.”
Sadly, the “moderate and dependable” consul is a cheese sandwich in a land of sambal and spicy food. He makes a few tricky decisions but doesn’t embark on any real adventures. He’s nothing like Jack Flowers, who wheels and deals down in Singapore in Theroux’s Saint Jack. From the outset, the uninvolved consul senses that Americans won’t last as the professionals who pulling the strings in Southeast Asia. He begins by describing his assignment:
“It was my job to phase out the Consulate. In other places the consular task was, in the State Department phrase, bridge-building; in Ayer Hitam I was dismantling a bridge – not a difficult job: we had never been very popular with the Malays.”
This collection was published in 1977 although some of the stories seem to have been written years earlier. There is an early reference to being in the Federation of Malaysia, which melded Malay sultanates with Singapore and Borneo into one country until it broke up in 1963. Theroux taught at the University of Singapore for four years beginning in 1968, the timeframe of these stories. Mixed with his memories of Malaysia, Theroux shoots a few darts at the State Department for its failures and ignominious 1975 retreat from Vietnam.
A flinty U.S. diplomat named Flint complains that mollycoddled, malcontent Foreign Service wives in Saigon supported the Viet Cong by nagging and nagging.
“They talked about ‘our struggle’ as if there were some connection between the guerrillas shelling Nha Trang and a lot of old hens in the embassy compound refusing to make peanut butter sandwiches. It’s not funny. I knew lots of officers who were shipped home – their wives were a security risk.”
When a polo-playing American planter is hacked to death in Ayer Hitam, the Consul notes that a resurgence of revolutionary zeal is to be expected as “a natural result” of America’s collapse in Vietnam.
The consul’s ex-lover, who enjoyed a Saigon posting in an air-conditioned embassy compound, envisions a day when both she and the Consul are posted to Hanoi. “It won’t be long,” she prophesies.