A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", published in 1962, is a dark, dystopian morality tale, set in England, in unspecified future. Most everybody remembers Stanley Kubrick's movie adaptation of the novella, and I have always been curious how the original will compare to the great film that I saw about 40 years ago.
Then there is the famous last chapter controversy. Prior to 1986, in the United States, the book was published without its last, twenty-first chapter. The publishers claimed that the ending was not acceptable for U.S. audiences (presumably meaning that it will not sell well). I cannot understand why Mr. Burgess agreed to have his text butchered, but he did, and as the result, before 1986, the book had had quite a different message than the writer's original intent.
Fifteen year-old Alex is a boss of a gang of teenagers. The four "droogs" assault people, burglarize their houses, rape women and little girls. Some of their victims die. The boys do it just for fun and to escape the boredom. They are high on "milk plus" (milk enhanced with hallucinogens) served in the Korova Milkbar. Alex is set up by his droogs and the militiamen capture him. He is sentenced to serve a long time in prison. But then Alex is chosen for the "Lodovico's treatment", and the doctors condition him to abhor violence and sex. The authorities "reclaim" a criminal for the society's benefit.
Without the last chapter, the novella would just be about how losing the power of choice makes a human being a clockwork, an automaton that does what it is programmed to do. Pretty trivial, isn't it? The final chapter provides a richer and deeper conclusion that involves the natural phases of life - how we change without wanting to change and without doing anything about it. When young, we try to stay "far far far away from this wicked and real world", and then, suddenly, we become a part of it.
Mr. Burgess' writing is fabulously accomplished. Most of the dialogues are in "nadsat", a dialect supposedly used by the English teenagers, which is phonetically based on Russian words. For instance "life" is "jeezni", "good" is "horrorshow", and "word" is "slovo". This is absolutely fascinating for people like myself who have some knowledge of both English and Russian. I wonder, though, how hard the novella is to read for people who do not know Russian.
Yet, despite outstanding writing, despite the unforgettable phrase "What's it going to be then, eh?" that opens each of the three parts of the novella, and despite Korova Milkbar, I am unable to claim "A Clockwork Orange" is a masterpiece.
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