Category Archives: Asia

Burgess and Japan

'In old age I decided that Japanese was too important for me to ignore.'

A page from Burgess’s A Mouthful of Air: ‘In old age I decided that Japanese was too important for me to ignore.’

Confucian Analects: the Burgess translation

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.08.31Consider these translations, by James Legge (1861) and Anthony Burgess (1958), of parts of the Confucian Analects.

Book IV, Ch. 4




If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness.


If a man be really bent on human-heartedness then he cannot be wicked.

Book IX, Ch. 28




The wise are free from perplexities; the virtuous from anxiety; and the bold from fear.


A wise man is not perplexed, nor is a human-hearted man unhappy, and a courageous man is never frightened.

Burgess’s rendition of these chapters is to be found in his novel The Enemy in the Blanket. The character Father Laforgue, a missionary

who had been ten years in China, four of them in prison,

is an admirer of the Analects. The character Hardman, who is preparing to convert to Islam, enters the priest’s house.

Hardman sat on one of the two hard chairs and saw on the table an open book which he knew to be the Analects of Confucius, row after falling row of ideograms preserving — outside phonetic change and above dialectal differences — that eminently seductive and dangerous common sense of old China.

Burgess never visited mainland China but gained a wide and deep understanding of Chinese civilization during his time in Malaya, now Malaysia, which hosts one of the largest overseas Chinese communities — about a quarter of the population.

Extracts from Burgess’s foreword to China in the Monuments of Civilisation series:

The gateway to China, ancient or modern, is the Chinese language. My own contacts with the country have been more linguistic than geographic. When I lived in Malaysia…I regarded it as my secondary duty to try to learn Chinese….I could not fail to become acquainted with China’s exported culture — its religions, philosophies, cuisines, folklore…architecture….

Chinese…is a highly logical language and it despises grammar — which, we must admit, is more decorative than useful….Chinese…reserves etiquette to verbal formulae which bespeak the graciousness of an ancient civilisation….This excessive politeness is the sign of a nation that has learned, over thousands of years, that civilisation is built on formal self-effacement….does the ‘nose’ ideogram [鼻] represent complicated layers of olfactory sensation?….even with the most abstract words you can see the ghost of [a]…pictorial image….But this is…palaeography: no living Chinese sees the original images any more than Europeans see the hieroglyph of an ox in the capital A of the Roman alphabet….such a complex system of writing could only be developed by a leisured class of priests and scholars. The ideogram stands for an ancient inequality and perhaps…a desire to mystify the common people….

There is…a higher common sense…which has been bred out of centuries of not asking too much from the world….Their cuisine can be exquisite, but it is made out of the immediately feasible, not the grandiose dreams of French chefs. The Chinese elegance…is an elegance of extreme economy….

The incrustations of a past which stretches…to remote beginnings hardly conceivable in the West, are embodied in the system of writing.

But the spoken language seems based on the principle of making much out of very little. There is an immense elegance in the manner with which a structure of monosyllables and tones can be made to serve the subtlest discourse, without the elaborate luggage of grammatical terminations and agglutinative sesquipedalia. Such a language does not take kindly to evasive political pronouncements or orotund slogans. If we are told that the Peking street in which the Russian embassy is located is called The Street of Struggle Against Revisionism, we smile at the pomposity. Call the street Fan xiu lù and the pomposity is at once deflated. For means a road…fan means to turn over…and xiu is to build….So you turn over or change a building process and you leave to the languages of the West the bloating of the image into the humourless terminology of the apparatchik.

To gain our picture of modern China out of inept translation is a sure way to falsification, and the same is true of the ancient country whose character and achievements, as well as struggles and sufferings, this volume memorialises.

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Consonanze e atmosfere: Burgess, Vargas Llosa, Faulkner

Luigi Salerno:

Leggendo e inoltrandomi nella lettura avvincente de La casa verde, di Mario Vargas Llosa, ho rivissuto le atmosfere e la freschezza de La trilogia malese, di Burgess, (i tre romanzi nati e sviluppati come testimonianza dei quattro anni di permanenza di Anthony Burgess in Malaysia quando, da insegnante incaricato, si trovò ad assistere al pieno processo di mutamento e di trasformazioni storiche, politiche e sociali del paese), e per la fluidità e la modernità dei dialoghi e della struttura stilisitica, anche qualcosa de La paga del soldato, di Faulkner. Sensazioni forse rievocate dalle luci della storia e delle vecchie altre storie delle quali ogni storia al mondo è impregnata, di scritte, di mai scritte, di non ancora scritte ma che sono già nell’aria, e che sono ritornate a rivivere grazie a quell’ultima, per uno strano meccanismo di scintillio e di consonanza fra zone linguistiche e geografiche anche lontane (L’Asia di Burgess e l’America meridionale di Vargas Llosa), ma che sperimentate dentro qualcuno ritrovano tra di loro un certo nesso, una rispondenza, anche solo per qualche piccolo punto, un solo dettaglio un profumo o una freschezza comune che poi le confonde.

Now read on…



Graham Greene stated that Evelyn Waugh

had the rare quality of criticising a friend, harshly, wittily and openly to his face, and behind the friend’s back of expressing only his kindness and charity.

Greene with envy

That is true. Greene also stated:

There were times when certain popular journalists tried to push us [him and Waugh] into what the Indonesians call a confrontation [a reference to the Konfrontasi, Jakarta’s struggle with Malaysia in 1962-68].

That is false. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe anything I read in the newspapers either. But you can take cherchez le journaliste too far. Greene, as I explain here, could be as silly as he was conceited.

Greene’s Konfrontasi with Anthony Burgess wasn’t choreographed by journalists; it was entirely of his own making. Greene became envious of Burgess’s mastery of the medium of television, and professed to consider Burgess’s appearances vulgar. The truth was that Greene, owing to the poverty of his ideas, lacked confidence in the glare of the television lights. In a one-hour documentary for the BBC, he refused to show his face, allowing only his hands to appear. Burgess, by contrast, had something to say and knew how to say it. It caused a gnawing envy in Greene, who au fond regarded Burgess as an upstart.

Matters between Greene and Burgess were not helped by an interview Burgess conducted with Greene for one of the London newspapers. Burgess took the trouble to travel to Greene’s place of residence in Antibes, Greene lacking the confidence to be interviewed anywhere but on home ground. Burgess was rewarded for his pains with snobbery and snideness. Burgess’s crime in Greene’s eyes appears to have consisted in the assumption that they could meet as equals rather than as master and apprentice.

It’s time

‘His real wife, his houri, his paramour was everywhere waiting, genie-like, in a bottle.

Dust-jacket of the 1964 W.W. Norton edition of The Long Day Wanes (detail)

‘The hymeneal gouging-off of the bottle-top, the kiss of the brown bitter yeasty flow, the euphoria far beyond the release of detumescence…’

AB’s ‘willed collapse’

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was teaching a class at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien College in Brunei Town when he appeared to undergo some sort of personal crisis. He lay down on the floor and ‘let other agencies take over’, refusing to speak.

A description of the collapse appears in the 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick — German-language title Der Doktor ist übergeschnappt (1968); later Der Doktor ist defekt (1985) — when something of the kind happens to the character Edwin Spindrift, a doctor (of philosophy) working in Moulmein.

Edwin thought of…his…accident. A lecturer on linguistics in a college in Burma who had one day, quite without warning, fallen on the lecture-room floor while lecturing on linguistics. He had been talking about folk etymology (penthouseprimroseJerusalem artichoke) and then, quite suddenly, he had passed out. He came to to find concerned, flat, delicate-brown Burmese faces looking down on him, himself saying: ‘It’s really a question of assimilating the unknown to the known, you see, refusing to admit that a foreign word is really foreign.’ While he lay on the cool floor he could see quite clearly, on the fringe of the group that surrounded him, one or two students taking down his words in their notebooks. He said: ‘While we honour none but the horizontal one.’ That, too, was taken down.

Burgess writes in his autobiography:

I was teaching one morning when the end of my colonial career was signalled. The class was Form Four, the subject the Boston Tea Party; the fans were not working and it was rumoured that a female cobra was looking for her young in the corridor outside. At the end of the lesson I felt I had also come to the end of my tether. A great deal of tension had been building up — a dissatisfied wife, a libel action, Australians who called me a pommy bastard, a disordered liver, dyspepsia and dyspnoea which morning droplets of Axe oil did nothing to alleviate, a very large measure of simple frustration. I had done my best; I could do no more: let other agencies take over. I lay on the classroom floor and closed my eyes….There was prompt action. The principal, [L.A.] Bradshaw, appeared, and he summoned strong Malays. I was taken to the local hospital. I felt well enough now but maintained my passivity: passivity from now on would be the answer to everything….Lying down on the classroom floor had been an act of purgation or reconciliation or something.

I discuss the ‘collapse’, or ‘willed collapse’ as it might have been, in depth in the three-part video Burgess’s Borneo Breakdown (Part One below).

The acrostical Burgess

It was Anthony Burgess who revealed the identity of Mr WS’s dark lady. ‘I found her name,’ he wrote, ‘acrostically presented’ in Sonnet 147:

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me…

‘Ftmah’ he wrote, was an ‘almost pedantic transliteration of the Arabic spelling of the name Fatimah’ (فاطمة — destiny). So in the 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (pp. 17-21 of the 1982 Hamlyn edition), he included a sonnet he himself wrote ‘that acrosticised the name in full, backwards as well as forwards’:

Fair is as fair as fair itself allows,
And hiding in the dark is not less fair.
The married blackness of my mistress’ brows
Is thus fair’s home, for fair abideth there.
My love being black, her beauty may not shine
And light so foiled to heat alone may turn.
Heat is my heart, my hearth, all earth is mine;
Heaven do I scorn when in such hell I burn.
All other beauty’s light I lightly rate.
My love is as my love is, for the dark.
In night enthroned, I ask no better state
Than thus to range, nor seek a guiding spark.
And, childish, I am put to school of night
For to seek light beyond the reach of light.

FATIMAH — HAMITAF — ‘Roman and Semitic letter-orders,’ Burgess explained. ‘No critic noticed the acrostic, which was…meant to be a secret between myself and myself.’

Are there many acrostics — or other such ‘secrets between himself and himself’ — in Burgess’s work? There are bound to be many, but it will be a long and laborious task fishing them all out using the human eye alone. Information technology must come to our aid.

Served under you in the navy, sir

‘Tug Wilson, a Cockney stores functionary who had adopted a Buginese son (“I don’t fuck his arse, that’s what they all fucking think, but I fucking don’t”) said: “Served under you in the navy, sir. Jolly nice to see you again, sir. Keep the flag flying, sir.” [Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh] said: “Good show. Jolly good luck.” He then came up to the group which contained Lynne [Burgess’s first wife] and myself. Two New Zealand typists curtsied but Lynne looked grim. The Duke said: “Everything all right here? Everybody satisfied?” The typists said: “Oh yes, thank you, sir.” But Lynne said: “No everything is not bloody well all right. The housing is inadequate, they promise decent schooling for the kids of expatriates and provide nothing, and the whole administration is fucking inefficient.”‘ (from Little Wilson and Big God, Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess)

Magnificent failure

Anthony Burgess’s friend A.M. Azahari reminisces about the north Borneo rebellion.


Today we honour the memory of Anthony Burgess’s friend A.M. Azahari (Sheikh Azahari bin Sheikh Mahmud, 1928 or 1929 to 2002), standard-bearer for democracy and leader of the Brunei People’s Party (Parti Rakyat Brunei), which remains banned in the sultanate.