Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Bits of Burgess

In a shop called Bookthrift in South Kensington, I found the Biswell biography of Anthony Burgess I mentioned some time ago, and there and then skim read the Malaysian part. (Too poor to buy it for now.) See if you can recognise the following very famous poem which Burgess attempted to translate into Malay:
Bulan April ia-lah bulan yang dzalim sa-kali
membawa bunga lilac daripada tanah mati
menchamporkan ingatan dengan nafsu.
I say attempted because I think Burgess gave up before he got much further. It's one thing to be able to find equivalent words and quite another to cope with all the references to things that the local audience has had no experience of.

A Malaysian audience would ask: What's so special about April? Why is it "cruel"? And what's a lilac anyway?

How can anyone who hasn't experienced it first-hand truly understand the stirrings of new life after the grey and freezing winter?

It's a lesson I wish could be learned by those who set the literature syllabuses here! I've already mentioned the ubiquitous Daffodils. And then there's Sonnet 18 on the present SPM syllabus - how do you explain to Malaysian kids just why a poet might want to compare his lady love to a hot sunny day when we suffer from an overabundance of heat and sun?

Burgess apparently wrote a book called English Literature: A Survey for Schools while he was in Malaya just prior to independence. This quote may well cheer you all up:
Chinese, Malays, Africans and Indians reading this book may well themselves contribute to English literature.
They may. They just may!
Burgess also wrote a piece for orchestra called Symphoni Malaya. I've never heard it performed and have no idea if it's any good or not. But maybe the MPO could resurrect it!


Jordan said...

Where I'm from the lilacs come out in June, if I remember correctly, a little earlier than in Eliot's wasteland....and I really miss that smell on those beautiful, pleasant, sunny, warm-but-not-too-hot days. Lilacs heralded the comiing summer; they meant freedom from the classroom, freedom from heavy clothes. They brought promises of barbecues and picnics and days at the beach. It's like summer comes in a package and lilacs are what you smell when you tear it open. The smell is gone too soon, but it always comes back when a fresh bag of summer lands on your doorstep the following June!

Anonymous said...

What's special about April ? she's kinda cute.. oh you mean the month ? er.. not much :)

lilacs are part of the whole "postcolonial" thing, but maybe less than lavender. You don't really need to be British to know what lilacs smell like.

I mean.. you don't need to actually KNOW what lilacs smell like, I think you can get the general idea. It isn't about lilacs, it's about April. Anyone who's read enough knows about spring. I don't think poems are meant to be taken that literally :)

lil ms d said...

actually i find the translation lyrical :)

bibliobibuli said...

that's the fun of it i suppose - one object can have totally different associations for different readers ... i think even in britain lilacs come out later ... but the buds begin to open in spring

Kak Teh said...

i think, its hard to describe how, even with a ray of sunshine or an increase in temperature can change moods..never mind the sight and smell of flowers. Thanks for sharing Sharon and if I work hard enough, I will go and get that book.

bibliobibuli said...

very true kak teh - the last day i was in central london the sun came out unexpectedly and it felt so miraculous (hardly any sunshine the week before) - i even had my lunch at a pavement cafe, jacket off ... such a small thing but it made me feel so happy

i think you'd like the book, tho' i think i prefer burgess' autobiography which is as readable as any novel ...

the bookshop too is a very nice one and wish i could have brought it back ...

lil ms d said...


c u over the break?