To the Burgess, to be present at the 2013 Burgess lecture, given by the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, author of The Harmony Silk Factory, A Map of the Invisible World, and, most recently, the Booker-nominated Five Star Billionaire. Aw was an inspired choice to deliver the lecture, as it turns out he was a great fan of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy as a boy. His talk was a fascinating account of his response to Burgess’s representation of the Malaya of the fifties, a time he (born in 1971) cannot remember, but which his family lived through. As a boy, he was thrilled to discover an English novelist had set his story in the unfashionable part of Malaysia where he lived. He illustrated his talk with some family photos from the fifties.
The lecture was an astute mixture of personal reminiscence, close reading, and well-informed revaluation of Burgess’s reputation. The event was introduced by John Mcleod, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Leeds, and, as he was quick to point out, a Mancunian himself. His introduction and some of his later questions, teased out the tensions in Burgess’s stance: on the one hand, unlike, say, Somerset Maugham, Burgess gave equal prominence in his novels to the indigenous population, making them major actors rather than local colour. On the other, he invented place names that were obscenities in Malay, and thus offensive in a rather puerile way. I suggested afterwards to Tash Aw that perhaps Burgess was evoking the spirit of Dylan Thomas, whose Under Milk Wood is set in the fictional Welsh village of Llaregyb, or “bugger-all” backwards.
The lecture was very well-received by the small but select audience, featuring some of the usual suspects, and also some new faces to me.
Tash Aw aligned himself with Burgess, as a writer dealing with the marginal and the marginalised, outsiders even when apparently “inside,” and his latest novels, both featuring Malaysians displaced in other countries, confirms that notion. It’s pleasing to see the connection between Burgess and such a talented contemporary novelist, and it’s to be hoped that Tash Aw’s career will go from strength to strength. The Harmony Silk Factory is now on my to be re-read list, as he confessed to some resonances between it and Earthly Powers, which I certainly didn’t notice when I read it.
Tash Aw by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.