Saturday, March 10, 2007

Earthly Powers


When I was posted, a year after my arrival, to Kuala Kangsar to teach English, I found myself on my own mission to understand Burgess and the Malaya he painted. The royal town did not disappoint: it had more than its share of eccentric characters, the Ubudiah mosque was still ‘as bulbous as a clutch of onions’, the Istana did indeed look as if it had been designed by a Los Angeles architect -- just as Burgess had described them -- and I became a fully paid-up, bar-propping member of the Iblis (sorry, the Idris) Club.

But by the 1980s, MCKK had completely forgotten the author. There wasn’t a copy of a single one of his books in the library, no commemorative plaque on the wall, and an embarrassed silence in the staffroom when I asked if anyone had read him. Not even the longest serving English teacher -- who had been on the staff at the same time as Burgess -- was prepared to discuss him.

Burgess was incredibly prolific, producing over thirty novels, including the visionary and dystopian A Clockwork Orange , and Earthly Powers, which was nominated for the 1980 Booker prize and recently voted third best British novel of the last 25 years. He also produced hundreds of reviews, academic studies, television and film scripts, opera librettos -- and, being an amateur composer, even several symphonies. Be that as it may, Kuala Kangsar just wasn’t interested. Never mind that the author was arguably one of the most important literary figures of the 20th Century.
My article about the neglect of Burgess, Malay College, and the restricted books issue is up on the Kakiseni website. Eliciting controversy, I hope with all my heart. Please do go read.

The jawi inscription at the top, is the dedication at the front of The Malayan Trilogy: To All Malaysians. And I thought I'd throw in a picture of me as cikgu at Malay College with my boys in 1988. I'm sure you can find me!

I still have every hope that we can celebrate the anniversary of the trilogy and do something good for readers and for the boys of Malay College ... once the book is declared 'unrestricted' (as commonm sense dictates it should be) and the MCOBA (Malay College Old Boys Association) make a decision about what it is they want to do.

Thanks, Zedeck for being the kind of bullying, pain in the arse kind of editor that gets a much better piece of work out of me. (But I told Zedeck I'd put him in my suitcase and take him back to the UK with me if I get deported!)

I was asked to write an article on banned and restricted books for MPH's Quill, but it was deemed "too sensitive" for publication when I sent it in, (although there was nothing in it that isn't in the public domain already, with just a soup├žon of opinion added). Which I understand, particularly when there is going to be a pic of the PM on the cover. Still ... it feels funny to have an article on banned books ... in a sense banned!

Zedeck's editorial this month focuses on the happy ressurgence of things literary in KL.

21 comments:

Chet said...

Is that you, eight from left, on the front row, next to the guy behind the A-Level sign?

bibliobibuli said...

'tis indeed. sitting next to the principal.

Chet said...

Oh ... that's the principal.

Do you keep in touch with any of the other teachers?

bibliobibuli said...

some of my british friends, and some of the students ... but i feel sad that i haven't seen some of the other teachers in a long while.

Amir said...

The jawi actually reads: "To all my friends in the Malay peninsular."

It's the most enjoyable novel I've ever read set in this fair land. Read it in Form 4. Maybe should revisit.

Amir said...

oops, peninsula!

at least that's how i suppose "tanah melayu" should be translated.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for the correction amir. my jawi is not too hot!!

Greenbottle said...

i'm not surprised nobody from mckk cares about anthony burgess. the malay students who were and still are selected to go there are earmarked to do the 'sciences'...they'll get good mce (spm) grades and then go on to study engineering or medicine , etc - mostly in australia, uk or usa...
i've quite a few mckk friends who studied in the same university with me and they are as bright anyone and go on to become engineers, doctors professors and some even are millionaires now..but when it comes to arts and lit without exception they are downright philistines and quite clueless on anything ...

they become typical middle class malysians...only concern about career and money and quite thick as plank when it comes to anything else...

Rob Spence said...

Thanks for this Sharon - really interesting. I must get over to KL and drink in the atmosphere - or at least drink some Tiger...
Also - yet another mention in today's Guardian! And once more, not in the online version. Scan on its way...

cendanapura said...

Burgess's books, back in 1981, were still part of MCKK's library collection.

Their disappearance may be more to do with wear and tear or stolen.

animah said...

Sharon, so pretty! And you still wore those earings. I scanned the boys to see if I could recognise anyone, you know big corporate figures. But couldn't.
On not having Burgess, well that's Malaysia - we're not interested in history - to the extent that we don't teach it in schools anymore.
I've not read kakiseni for a month. It's become so difficult to read - takes about 5 minutes to get to an article (which is generally the window I have during respites at work) so I've given up on them all together.
Why does the Quill have to have politicians on the cover? It's very dull. But then so is the magazine. if they're banning your article - then send in a blank page with small typeface saying "The Article on Book Banning has been Banned"

Whitearrow said...

hehe that's quite funny animah. a shame about the 'banning' of the article, sharon, but perhaps it's even sadder that i'm not really surprised. ah, well, shall nevertheless hope for the best and work tirelessly (or tiredly;D)to create liberating strings of words, regardless of any shackles encountered along the way.

yasmin said...

"they become typical middle class malysians...only concern about career and money and quite thick as plank when it comes to anything else..."

wow! and it's ok to make sweeping statements like this?

bibliobibuli said...

in all honesty yasmin, it was a last minute change my editor made because he felt my original sentence was a bit too weak to stand by itself:

"But will any of those present at the meeting have a real understanding of what literature is, and why it is so important that the novelist’s voice not be censored?"

i should have checked the final version more carefully before it went up (i was just so relieved to get it out of my hair)

and agree with you about it. those guys may not be well read but no need to insult them

still it isn't possible to disclaim anything that gets published with your name on it, is it?

but i've learned a lesson here

Martin Bradley said...

Hi can anyone here help - I am desperate to get hold of a copy of The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed H Alatas. Also would like to have a copy of The Asian Renaissance by Dr. Anwar Ibrahim. Amazon doesn't ship The Myth to Malaysia and the alternative Alibris is way too expensive for me - 269.316 MYR

bibliobibuli said...

martin - suggest you contact raman at
silverfishbooks at sbooks@streamyx.com

he ships books overseas and should know where to get hold of these things or who else to contact

you could also contact farish noor as he recently wrote on the myth of the lazy native and an obit for syed h alatas

if you want to buy second hand books on the internet, don't bother with amazon abebooks ships to malaysia and is excellent

hope you find what you are looking for

Yusuf/Martin said...

Yes thank you. I have already contacted Raman. I will try the others asap, thank you for your kind assistance.

bibliobibuli said...

cendanpura - i think the basic problem at mckk was not one of censorship, but simply that no-one really cared. or, come to think of it, cared about other writers that mckk had produced. i only heard of the malay poet zaaba years after i'd left the school and didn't know that he was an old boy of the school until quite recently.

come to think of it, victoria institution doesn't brag its connection with somerset maugham either!!

greenbottle - answer yasmin, please.

rob - many thanks and really am looking forward to seeing you here in kl

Madcap Machinist said...

Greenbottle, I find that comment totally uncalled for. You will find that there is no shortage of alumni who do not only appreciate but are active in the arts, just attend the alumni's annual dinner (and concert) and you will see.

What is true, at the very least, is that the syllabus taught in MCKK is the same as in the other schools in this country. Nothing special happens there unless someone goes an extra mile. Please make your inferences with that in mind.

Of course, here, the only ones that should feel insulted are your friends.

Greenbottle said...

For some reason my response didn’t get published…
Anyway here it is again the same version -more or less;

To respond to Yasmin’s…

I stand by my statement. My statement is not meant for mckk alumni per se but to Malaysians in general who are getting fat materialistically but empty other wise. Look at Malaysia. Do you really think that we are a terribly an enlightened nation/and people? Look at our cultural pulse, (the arts, the papers the books…can anybody raise his/her hand that he has read a great Malaysian book lately? A Malaysian book that he’s truly proud of? Can anybody say NST or the STAR as great newspapers? –let alone the racist vernacular papers) & look at our politicians and look at our political parties. A country that has parties based on racial lines and the majority feels no guilt in supporting them is not a country with ethical & thinking people in my book.

Malaysia may be better off materialistically than some of our neighbors but when it comes to arts , do we compare favorably with many of them? When people say the word Malaysia what first come to their mind? (answer: blank)

And madcap machinist;

Just to illustrate a point. I was in paris recently. Met a Malaysian family. The guy is doing a phd in UK and came to visit paris…for what? To see Disney land…now go figure.

We are a nation of fools… I can go on eating glass ..but that’s for another day…

Madcap Machinist said...

Greenbottle:

Not to be a contrarian, but I don't see anything uncultured about someone wanting to see Disneyland in Paris. I marvel at Disney's technical achievements, which we could learn to emulate.

And as for the rest, it is painfully evident that we're all in this boat together--whether we truly care about Burgess or not.

mm