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Did You Know This Famous English Writer Who Wrote “A Clockwork Orange” Spoke Fluent Malay?

Did You Know This Famous English Writer Who Wrote “A Clockwork Orange” Spoke Fluent Malay?

World-class author Anthony Burgess actually kickstarted his writing career in Malaya and wrote three novels that would later be known as The Malayan Trilogy.

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Anthony Burgess was a phenomenal writer in the 60s, best known for his eerily eccentric novel that was turned into a highly controversial film, A Clockwork Orange.

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian satirical black comedy novel set in England where an ultraviolent delinquent arrested by the authorities undergoes an experimental program in prison to reduce his sentence. Brought in as the psychotic leader of an extremely brutal gang, he came out of prison with a completely new personality. Or so the story goes.

(Credit: Jobsite Theater / Facebook, Brittanica)

The novel was published in 1962 and was known for its bizarre ideas, mind-boggling plots, and futuristic features. It was then adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 which made Burgess wildly more eminent, worldwide. Although the movie was banned in a few countries, the original book is still critically acclaimed and even made into classic literature.

But did you know that this well-known writer can actually speak Malay fluently? Here’s a little Malaysian background history of Anthony Burgess you may not know about.

He didn’t just speak fluent Malay, he wrote 3 novels inspired by Malaya

An avid writer, Burgess started off his literary career as a grammar teacher in England. That’s when he got transferred to Malaya to teach English to the elite children at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Perak or also known as the “Eton of the East” from 1954 to 1956.

I came as a teacher but I left as a writer.

Anthony Burgess, Writer

After a dispute with the higher-ups, he and his wife, Lynne, who followed him to the land of southeast Asia, moved to Kota Bharu, Kelantan where he then taught students at the Malay Teachers’ Training College. There he further learned and perfected his Malayan vocabulary and attained fluency both in written and spoken Malay. He even got a salary raise due to his proficiency.

Here in Malaya, he took up writing as a hobby and managed to write not one but three fictional novels based on the time he spent here. The three novels centred on the adventures of Victor Crabbe, a British teacher who teaches at Malayan boarding schools, much like himself. The three novels then became The Malayan Trilogy and were later published into one volume called The Long Day Wanes.

(Credit: Thrifty Traveller, Penguin Books)

During his time here, Burgess felt that he had to document the interesting country he was in as nobody really captured the essence of Malaya from a local’s point of view at the time.

Here was a place that was going to disappear from the British consciousness before long, namely Malaya, and it had to be written about.

I knew it had been done by Somerset Maugham … but good as he is and as much as he’s recognized as the real fictional authority on Malaya he never knew the people, he never knew the language.

I did and I was able to write from the inside.

Anthony Burgess, Writer

The Malayan Trilogy

The first book he wrote here was called Time for a Tiger, which was based on the town of Kuala Kangsar, or Kuala Hantu which he changed in the novel. The book also touched on live issues such as the ethnic divisions between the native Malays, Chinese and Indians, as well as the position of the British army nearing the end of colonial rule.

In the novel, he even wrote that Crabbe, the protagonist, was cheating on his wife, Fenella, with a local hostess named Rahimah, which was the same name as the pretty divorcee that Burgess was having an affair with in real life. The similarity was indeed uncanny.

Besides that, the fact that Burgess often drank Tiger beer while writing Time for a Tiger undoubtedly influenced his decision in naming his first novel. He would visit local bars frequently in his free time, sketching a plot or two on his novel while enjoying a bottle of Tiger. He actually became fond of the beer’s advertising slogan at the time, Time for a Tiger.

(Credit: The International Anthony Burgess Foundation)

The second book was titled The Enemy Under The Blanket which chronicles Crabbe taking a position as a headmaster of a local high school in Dahaga, which was actually Kota Bharu. Besides touching on the communist tension happening at the time, and some work politics, the book also carried on with the story of how Fenella discovered Crabbe’s affair.

The third and final book of the trilogy was entitled Beds in the East and lacks the plot and character development of the first two, according to James Weitz, a literary tourism journalist. Crabbe remarried and is now working as an education officer. The book also featured Malaysian native music and culture.

The three novels later became one of his pioneer literary works that got him to write more intriguing stories with eccentric plots, social satire and unique backgrounds. And that’s all thanks to Malaya.

That was the start, and he just couldn’t stop churning up novels

After he was done serving in Malaya, he then took a post further in the East, in Brunei until 1959. He also wrote a novel there, inspired by the Brunei setting, but had to change it to an imaginary East African territory named Dunia, for libel reasons.

After returning to England, Burgess became a full-time professional writer and the rest is history. He went on to write over 50 books, some novels, and some non-fiction. Besides A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was also known for his epic saga Earthly Powers, which was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize.

It’s good to know that Malaya rubbed on quite nicely to this professional writer.

To know more about his books, visit Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website.


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