Of Russian Spies & Kenching

I’ve just finished reading a few books and by books I mean, fiction. In any given week, I’ll be plowing through a bunch of books (online and offline) but these days I read a lot of business and marketing and social psychology books.

To me, fiction is a respite from the business stuff, though I must say these days, some business books can be hilariously good.

I’ve been reading 2 books – one was loaned to me by Lerks and the other I dug up from god knows where.

The first book – my introduction to Anthony Burgess – is called The Malayan Trilogy. I have never read Burgess. I had no idea what sort of writer he was.

The only thing I knew was he wrote that magnificently famous Clockwork Orange which was turned into a movie (which I have not watched) and he used to live in Malaya.

Some googling brought me to this a local blog which said that Burgess’ book was supposedly banned in Malaysia.

Ah!

Nothing like a banned book status to whet the reading appetite.

As a trilogy, there are 3 parts to the book and each part is a seamless continuation of the adventures of Victor Crabbe in 1950s Malaya. Burgess knew his Malay all right – he happily named his towns Lanchap and Kenching; there’s a Tahi Panas Road somewhere and he gets all of the local habits and nuances right.

It’s odd to know that these stories were written pre-Merdeka and even then, the British sensed that it wasn’t going to be easy putting the Malays, Chinese and Indians together. Reading the stories today, one would say that it smacked of racist undertones albeit honest and funny ones but the same “history” seems to be repeating.

I can see why the book is banned. Burgess does not mince his words when describing the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

But that’s satire, isn’t it?  Today, it would be deemed “insensitive”. What is “insensitive”? Don’t all art (and books) mirror society, good, bad and ridiculous? Couldn’t we all have a good laugh? Must everything be so serious?

Underlying the 3 books is somehow a deep melancholy about how Malaya would fare once the British start leaving. It’s as if the British worried sensibly like any father would about his children – the three major races – and how they’d cope with their newfound freedom.

Burgess would find that things have not changed much, if he were still alive today and came back for a visit. He would find the same idiosyncratic behaviours, the same craziness 50 plus years later.

The other book I read was Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary. I first developed a liking for Christie as a curious 11 year old, plucking her book “Death on the Nile” off my uncle’s bookshelf. My not-so-sophisticated self then fancied her plots and felt a world of exciting adventures just opening up.

I haven’t read Christie in years. I thought it would be fabulous to read her again; after all her book was easy reading and the characters, uncomplicated.

I’d forgotten I have been living on a diet of CSI and spoiled with plots so devious that I was quite disappointed with the Dame’s book.

Agatha Christie wrote about a simpler world, where Russians still fought the rest of the world. Where espionage meant some secret enemy was at work and it involved searching for a girl who had in her possession a secret that could change the world.

Basically, it was the kind of adventure that you and I know would be too naive today.

Sigh. I read and finished her book in two days.

What it tells me is this: I shall not try to recapture the emotions of my 11-year old self because I cannot read her books now with the sophisticated cynicism that I now possess!

Even Nic remarked that the book was rather thin. (He knows my propensity for reading books like Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – both super tomes and can kill any cat if flung like shot putts!)

Two books, two totally different reactions.

When one grows up, even books can be read differently!

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