Summer read: Devil of a state


I read this book, published in 1961 by Anthony Burgess, in 1975 when I was 15 years old and living in New Hampshire.  Burgess is famous for A Clockwork Orange, but he wrote many other books that didn’t get made into splashy movies.  This is one of them.  He specializes in dystopian satire.  This book is set in fictional state called Dunia, a British protectorate, modelled after Brunei, in Southeast Asia, which didn’t gain its independence from Britain until 1984, 23 years later.

The central character is a thrice-married passport officer who has children with a local woman and is an alcoholic, and about his interactions with his peers and ex-wife.  It drags a little bit.  The characters are mostly in their 40’s, which is portrayed as being an old age.  I re-read it now, in 2016, age 57.  I see nothing old about 40!  So I had to go back and look up how old Burgess was when he wrote this book.  Sure enough, he was 44 years old when the book went to press.

Not a bad read, a bit draggy and sophomoric.  Burgess has a tendency to render the speech patterns of foreigners speaking English in a relatively funny-haha but unfunny and tedious way.  For example, the book features an Italian marble cutter:

“I buy a you good a book”, said Nando Tasca.  “Very old a book.  Why you not look in a book?  I not teach a you all a the time.  I an old a man.  Get very a tired”.

I get it, right. Italians put “a” after every word.  Here’s another one:

“A Loman Catholic”, said Carruthers Chung, “and a velly flivolous man.  For that leason I did not invite him to come and play with us.”

OK, I get that one too.  The Chinese have a problem with “r” versus “l”.

This kind of asininity aside, Burgess does give a good ground-up picture of British Colonial life in Southeast Asia.  He earned his street cred on this topic working as a teacher in Malaya and Brunei from 1954 to 1959.  He appears to have been a bit of a behavior problem, with a brief and difficult prior Army career and unpopularity among his peers in the British Colonial Service.  No doubt his detailed depictions of office politics come from these experiences.  Out of a failed civil service career, a writer was born.  We don’t mind!  We are luckier to have him as a writer.


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