Friday, February 09, 2007

Did Burgess Get it Right?

Rob Spence asked a very good question in the comments a couple of days back. Referring to The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess, he asks:
What does the average Malaysian make of Burgess's portrayal of the place?
meaning of course, Malaysia.

Rob is a UK academic, and Burgess his area of special interest, so the question is a particuarly pertinent one (and you never know, might end up in a research paper!).

All I can say is that the local readers I know (including the members for my book club) have very much enjoyed it, and were not offended by its portrayal of the different racial groups. There are those in academia apparently (or so Faridah informs me) who consider the book a nasty bit of orientalism especially as it propagates "the myth of the lazy native", and have had a nice bit of post-colonial revenge on the text. (I want to follow this up.)

But I'd like to throw the question open to those of you who have read it.

BTW I've just finished writing an article for Kakiseni about the book and the banning thereof and it will be up as soon as the site is revamped.

And if we can get the status of the book sorted out, I suggest that we have a KL readathon of the book and a public debate later in the year. Who's up for it??

40 comments:

Sufian said...

Does it matter, Sharon, in the context of a fiction?

bibliobibuli said...

methinks not, sufian

but what's your take on the book?

Sufian said...

The book was interesting when I was reading it, but it wasn't at all memorable. Like Amis, Burgess' smug, deprecating and depressing look at life makes me want to slash my wrist (at least twice!) and listen to emo songs.

Thank god i read it to impress a chick :)

bibliobibuli said...

you read books to impress "chicks"??? sufian!!!

sympozium said...

I think I recognised bits of myself, family members and friends and friends of friends in the characters' good and bad traits. Which is the hallmark of a good novelist, isn't it?

Ted Mahsun said...

The book's pretty accurate as far as I'm concerned, stereotypes be damned.

Sufian said...

Sharon,

Yeah, should've gone for kitchen cabinets. Chix dig kitchen cabinets.

KayKay said...

It does work Sharon. My chick is constantly impressed how much I read:-) Am frequently asked for opinions, summaries and occasionally the entire story so she doesn't have to read it!
BTW, all this talk about the book has got me interested. Boleh pinjam your copy?

lil ms d said...

i know this is way off the radar, but sharon, have you ever thought of coming up with a weekly or monthly astrology predictions for writers?

bibliobibuli said...

nope ms d

was thinking of other things for writers ... like a directory, a list of local publishers ... but horoscopes ... no

okay - it's your baby now! write it an i'll blog it!

Sufian said...

Mac - Bitchiness will come your way.

April - More bitchiness.

May - Again with the Bitchiness.

June - Adulation. Nobel Prize.... Nah, bitchiness.

dreamer idiot said...

Haven't read it yet, my old copy bought years ago is with Machinist, who I trust will comment soon...

Ona quick note, I expected the postcolonial revenge coming from our local academics. From what I heard , the late Edward Said who wrote the influential Orientalism was pretty impressed with one of late sociologist's (his full name slips me) analysis of the myth of lazy native.

I would love to get my hands 'dirty' in writing a research paper to weigh on this debate on reception, reading and the politics of representation, but too bad don't have the resources to do it. If I do get to write this paper one day, I'll let you know... :)

bibliobibuli said...

ruhayat - what's the horoscope for scorpio then? (october)

dreamer idiot - i'm sure you will write it ... and i must read said's book, though it doesn't look a light read

Ruhayat X said...

Sharon, you're confusing Sufian for me. He's not me. He's actually intellectually tall.

Greenbottle said...

never read burgess but have seen stanley kubrick's adaptation of his a clockwork orange a long long time ago.


can't understand why people get all riled up by being called lazy. As a malay myself i couldn't give a fuck if anybody call me lazy.What i resent is some malay politicians wanting to make us a poor carbon copy of the hardworking (southern) chinese immigrants...(nothern chinese are quite lazy as anyone else)

All malays and all south east asian people (cambodians, thais and pilipinos and Indonesians are basically laid back in nature.and laotians!..they are the mother of all laziness and laidback ness...and this is a very charming trait!)

laziness is also the mother of invention...people are lazy so they invent computers to do all the tedious calculations for them etc...the japanese are lazy so they wait till somebody invent the cameras and cars and they then copy and make much better versions of these...the only problem with laziness is if you only want to go to SLEEP!

my fav malaysian 'stereotype joke...

if you find one chinese you see him working hard to make lots of money, if there are two of them, they start gambling...if you find one indian you'll see him drinking toddy, if there are two of them they start forming an asociation...if you you find one malay, you see him SLEEPING, if there are two of them they start having a KENDURI...

Madcap Machinist said...

DI, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that your book is very safe and almost spotless because I place it on my desk for 'desk reading' which means a few pages every other day. I promise I'll finish it during CNY in your honour.

(When I got it in the mail from DI I was appalled at the near-mint condition of the book. A bit stained around the edges but the pages were crisp and you can cut yourself at the corners... and the spine is perfect--I love to 'wrestle' with my books.)

The fact that it's obviously not 'unputdownable' should be noted.

Under the cover of fiction one can be as perversely truthful as one likes, and that's what I think Burgess does... and I read it with the mind that this is a guy who is telling a story about a bunch of wankers in a fictional corner of Malaya from the moment I saw that it's set in the state of Lanchap -- not to be taken seriously.

I wanted to share some interesting excerpts but they'd have to be pretty long and...ah, malas-lah nak taip!

acid burn said...

I think it was a pretty accurate description of us. Stereotyped, to some extent, maybe. But he poked fun at the mat sallehs too.
That said, we were brought up to be 'sensitive' about racial issues.. in public at least.. and I know many people would be insulted if they ever get around to reading the book. But I trust that most of them don't care for books, not this kind, not any kind.. =]

bibliobibuli said...

sorry ruhayat - bad mistake to make, hey? you would never try to impress a girlfriend with a kitchen cabinet, would you?

greenbottle - agree with you about laziness being a charming trait. have you ever checked out the idler magazine where laziness is extolled as a lifestyle choice? ... your joke made me laugh esp. the kenduri at the end

actually machinist, i have scanned some of my favourite pages and should put them up. i am also malas.

acid burn - perhaps ... but i am yet to meet a single one of them. the people who will read this book are people who read. people who read have hearts and minds wide open because they read. therefore readers will not be offended. the only people who will be offended are the people who don't read and they won't be offended because they won't read it.

that dazzling logic should be conveyed at once to the kkdn.

is suffian intellectually tall? naw ... i doubt it

bibliobibuli said...

machinist - if DI is careful with his books i will never borrow them

my current read has a creased cover and generous libations of last night's pizza on it

Anonymous said...

Who the fig calls himself 'intellectually tall'? Hahahaha...
It's like calling yourself humble - habis!

Kiasi

Ruhayat X said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miao said...

I hope he'll write about Singapore too. It'll be interesting.

Ruhayat X said...

Isn't Lanchap an actual place in Perak?

They have some really funny names in that state. Someone should do a book on it.

Ruhayat X said...

Sharon, who needs a kitchen cabinet when a club is more portable? Wahaha. Get it? No? Never mind. I'm not very good at making sexist jokes

bibliobibuli said...

ruhayat - i used to live in kuala hantu ... and there is a coastal town called tahi panas!

miao - sorry dear, burgess can't do singapore because he passed away some time ago

Rob Spence said...

Thanks, Sharon, for opening this debate, and I must say that I was intrigued by many of the comments. In particular, I think it's easy to accuse AB of propagating colonial attitudes, but actually, some of the most unsympathetic characters are the English- the anti-hero of the trilogy is an abject failure at virtually everything he does. Burgess was particularly contemptuous of the colonial vision of writers such as Somerset Maugham, who, he felt, never engaged with the local population in their novels, and just used the country and its inhabitants as background. Burgess, on the ither hand, gave major roles in his three Malaysian novels to members of the indigenous population (including ethnic Chinese and Indian characters) and certainly, some contemporary commentators felt that it was a true to life portarait of the Malaya (as it was) of the time.
Burgess, of course, spent some years there, learnt more than one local language, and was considered by his expatriate peers to be rather dangerously "pro-native".
As an Englishman, in the country as part of colonial rule, I suppose he is open to the critique of post-colonial critics. But I do think he emerges with more honour from the colonial adventure than many writers.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks rob, v. nicely said

now we just have to fight this 'restricted' book issue ... and i hope my article in kakiseni soon hits the right people. will link it when it's up.

Rob Spence said...

Sharon - I still find it almost impossible to believe that the trilogy was banned. It seems extraordinary that a government should take such an attitude towards a book that's half a century old. It doesn't suggest a government with much confidence in itself or the country it governs.

bibliobibuli said...

it's not the whole government ... just some pompous civil servant somewhere having a bad day and the whole machinery of inertia ...

sadly just makes malaysia look very silly on the world stage

still, we're fighting!

Anonymous said...

The government wants to instill good reading habits by banning good books.

lil ms d said...

bloody hell sufian! thanks a lot!

motto: see no evil, hear no evil, talk no evil and move on. haha.

btw, does anyone know how we can get hold of dr azmi shahrom?

Sufian said...

Sorry Ms D, I'm afraid Jupiter, Mars and the Pluto formerly known as a planet have spoken...

Miao said...

Bibliobibuli: I am amused by your response! I find it unintentionally very funny. Anyway, I didn't know that he has passed away, so thanks for the information!

bibliobibuli said...

ms d - dunno how to contact him ... sorry

miao - glad you were tickled! maybe you should set out to write the singapore triology yourself!!

Sufian said...

Sharon, deep down we know it's true:

http://www.sinfest.net/archive_page.php?comicID=2261

bibliobibuli said...

sufian - fun!!! thanks

The Eternal Wanderer said...

I have yet to get to read Burgess' book. I wish I could, I would definitely love to know what Burgess wrote.

I think its a swell idea to hold a readathon of the book and have a public debate about it. It's the radical, idealistic thing to do! We'll definitely be pushing some buttons, but hey, I love to push people's buttons, especially those who say "we want to protect the people."

lil ms d said...

sufian - i give up trying to contact ur gf, r x. you ada nomboir tak? ada orang nak your services as illustrator, desginer etc. dinazaman@gmail.com!

boris said...

May I suggest that we are getting a little confused here. Sharon did mention 'banned' and 'restricted'. Is it (or 'are they' - 'The Malayan Trilogy', or aka 'The Long Day Wanes') banned or restricted? In addition, may I suggest, it is the foreword to the edition of 'The Malayan Trilogy' which I saw in MPH Bangsar in about 2001 that would offend some. I must admit, what he wrote rather surprised me. From memory, his foreword was along the lines that the predictions he made in his book about Malaysia post-independence had materialised. I will say no more than that I bought the book for a Malaysian girl friend of the time, and wished soon after that I had photo-copied the foreword. I had a feeling that sooner or later someone would take offence and the book would disappear from the shelves. I wonder if she still has it... I can't help myself, I will say more. I first read this book in 1976 during my first stay in Malaysia. It was a very enjoyable book, on several levels. But for me, and the person who suggested that I read it, much of the enjoyment was of the Malaysian characters that Burgess portrayed. Somehow, at that time, they were all recognisable and loveable. Somehow, now, they appear to be rather thin on the ground.

bibliobibuli said...

"rather thin on the ground" meaning those old types are no longer around? that i can quite believe

thanks for this, boris

and yes, "restricted" not banned

in a few days time my kakiseni article clarifies the status of the book