أنتوني بيرجس والإسلام

A number of Anthony Burgess’s books are available in Turkish translation, but as far as I am aware not a single Burgess work is available in Arabic or Urdu or, for that matter, in Malay. An edition of A Clockwork Orange was recently brought out billed as a ‘banned book’, which is a misnomer; the real banned book is Burgess’s 1961 Borneo novel Devil of a State — it is almost certainly banned in Brunei. Meanwhile the Malayan trilogy appears to be tacitly banned in Malaysia, though I would be delighted if it could be shown that this is not so.

It is a pity Burgess’s work is not more widely known in the Islamic world, for he wrote affectionately about the parts of it he knew. He said:

There’s a charm about Islam in a country like Malaya…where it has to stand on its own and jostle up against other religions….And it’s very amusing. It’s very touching to see how it gets on…against Buddhism and Christianity.

Hence the epigraph in the 1959 novel Beds in the East, Arthur Hugh Clough‘s ‘Allah is great, no doubt, and Juxtaposition his prophet’ from the verse-novel Amours de Voyage.

In the late 1950s Burgess seems to have flirted with the idea of becoming a Muslim. As he put it,

You believe in one god. You say your prayers five times a day. You have a tremendous amount of freedom, sexual freedom; you can have four wives. The wife herself has a commensurate freedom. She can achieve divorce in the same way a man can….Four wives and an incalculable number of offspring, all attesting…virility and sustained by…patriarchal authority.

But this enthusiasm seems to have been succeeded by disillusionment. In The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the character Hardman, an impecunious English lawyer who becomes a Muslim in order to be able to marry a wealthy Malay, has this to say about the Quran after studying it closely:

I wonder how, with such a repetitive farrago of platitudes, expressing so self-evident a theology and an ethic so puerile, Islam can have spread as it has.

Burgess in an interview has called the Quran ‘a very bad book’, and has expressed concerns about Islam

when it becomes monolithic and a genuine state religion, as in Saudi Arabia. Then it’s rather repulsive. It’s very like Calvinism.

The appealing side of Islam, when it ‘jostles up’, in Burgess’s words, against other aspects of a vigorous diverse society, in the way it does in Malaysia today, is reflected in a new BBC comedy called Citizen Khan, created by and starring Adil Ray. The sitcom centres on a Pakistani Muslim ‘community leader’ and his family living in the Sparkhill district of Birmingham in central England. You can view the first episode here, and some of it is also available here.

The scene at 7 minutes and 9 seconds here, in which Mr Khan belts out the Tom Jones song Delilah and it is relayed through the loudspeakers on the minaret, strongly resembles the scene in Devil of a State in which the character Paolo Tasca is holed up, drunk, in the minaret of the mosque in Brunei Town:

He stood, gasping, his hands on the fitted lectern with its microphone, and looked down….There were the fairy clusters on the streets, there the…hotel, there the Chin Chin Cinema, there the Kool Kaffi. Somewhere below, an angry and agitated worm, was his father. Paolo…laughed….He switched the microphone on….he sang, for a bar or two, Stardust in Italian….Paolo’s voice…smote [Mr Bishopspawn] and the whole town with a few bars — in bops and bups — of Sweet Sue.

The moment in the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan when Mr Khan starts giving a rendition of the Tom Jones number Delilah through the minaret loudspeakers

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Comments

  • Clifford Duffy  On May 20, 2013 at 5:49 am

    Informative as always! There are things to follow up on here, that television series sounds terrific.

    • Geoffrey Grigson  On May 25, 2013 at 9:57 pm

      Hi, Mr D.

      The TV series was (moderately) amusing. It provided an insight into the lives of Muslims living in Western societies.

      All the best!

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