A banda of bazoomy malchiks roam the streets high on moloko looking for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Razrezzing a starry vesh’s books from the local biblio is just the beginning. The boots on their nogas are perfectly suited for kicking, so when a vesh is down, they kick him in the gulliver. These chellovecks take what they want and do what they want, with hardly a thought of an a polly loggy.
Confused? What you’ve just read is a bit of nadsat, the teenage slang used throughout Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange. (If you want a translation, check out this nadsat dictionary.)
A Clockwork Orange is set sometime in the near future. The central character and first-person narrator, Alex, is a teenager with no interests in life except violence, sex (usually violent sex), and classical music. He and his gang of droogs roam about the city streets at night, beating people up, breaking into homes, robbing people, raping women, and pretty much anything else they can think of that’s vile. Alex has been in trouble with the law in the past, but he’s making no attempt to clean up his act.
Eventually, Alex’s antisocial behavior catches up with him, and he is sent to prison for murder where he eventually undergoes experimental psychological treatments meant to make him a productive member of society. But is the cure really a cure at all? Can a human being be conditioned to behave a certain way? And if goodness comes entirely through conditioning and not through free choice, is it really goodness at all?
Alex tells his whole story in nadsat. Sometimes almost entire sentences are made up of nadsat words. Because of the language, this seems like exactly the wrong kind of book to attempt on audio. I was skeptical myself, but I figured I may as well try, as this is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. If I found it incomprehensible, I’d just go for print later.
I was astonished to find that much of the time I could pony (understand) Alex’s meaning from context. The meaning of some words was pretty obvious, but others I never quite figured out. However, there’s no need to figure out the meaning of every single word. If it’s important, it’s clear in context. In fact, I think the audio enhanced the experience because I didn’t have the time to obsess over each individual word. I had to roll with it. It probably did help that I’ve seen the movie and knew the basic storyline, but still, I just didn’t find it that difficult to get the gist of what was happening. Only the gist sometimes, but that was fine.
Not only did I understand much of the golosh, I enjoyed it. It felt like word play a lot of the time. I could often pick up on meanings by thinking of derivations (viddy–>video–>see), and the sound of the language is wonderful, real horrorshow. The audiobook reader, Tom Hollander, gets a lot of credit for making the language sound so smooth and natural, even if his pronunciations aren’t always the same as Burgess’s, as I learned from listening to Burgess’s reading of the first chapters on a bonus disc that came with the set.
The nadsat also serves a useful purpose in that it gives the reader some distance from the shocking nature of Alex’s crimes. The film is tough to watch because you see the brutal acts, and seeing these acts makes it difficult to care about Alex’s later difficulties. The fanciful golosh lets readers in on exactly what Alex has done without shocking us into complete disgust. That’s not to say that his acts aren’t disgusting, but my reaction to hearing about flowing krovvy was less visceral than it would have been to have heard about flowing blood.
Burgess is taking on some weighty ideas in this book, and I found much here to think about. In his introduction, he talks about the nature of original sin and the possibility of human goodness, and as it happens, he believes in both. Most of all, though, he believes in free will. If Alex behaves like a good man because he’s been conditioned to, is he really good at all? And if he’s not, are we ok with that, as long as he behaves? I think Burgess’s view is clear, perhaps too clear. Hearing the story from Alex’s victims would give a totally different spin on things.
Alex isn’t just manipulated by his behavioral therapy, he’s also manipulated by the people who want to use his story for their own ends. This aspect of the story was fascinating, particularly coming on the heels of what seemed to be an especially poignant encounter between Alex and a previous victim of his crime. How often do we see politicians use stories of down-trodden people to make a point? Do we know what those people think of their message? And what happens to those people when the point has been made?
The audiobook that I listened to was the complete version, including the final chapter, which wasn’t originally published in the U.S. and isn’t part of the notorious Kubrick film. Having listened to it, I have to say that this is a totally different book without it. The message is completely different. Instead of skewing in one direction regarding free well and the battle between good and evil, it skews in precisely the opposite direction.
I don’t know which ending makes for better literature, but I strongly prefer the world view of Burgess’s original. I believe most U.S. versions have that final chapter now, but if you decide to read it, be sure to get the complete version. That’s what Burgess wrote and what most of the world got.