Tag Archives: nadsat

As Queer as a Clockwork Orange

Here is my review of A Clockwork Orange, a book by Anthony Burgess. I read the book a couple of years ago. I was (and still am) a member of a library called Indian Institute of World Culture. It is probably a very underrated, under-visited library in Bangalore. And all I could see when I used to go there was old people reading newspapers and fortnightly journals. But there were thousands of varied books. I once requested The Satanic Verses, to which the librarian told me it was banned and I could not get it! Now I realize it is rightly so because Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was an absolute bore. But what I could find was this book by Burgess. There was actually a seal on the first blank page saying ‘WITHDRAWN,’ which made me want it even more. Luckily, the librarian didn’t notice it, and so I took it home. So here’s the review.

A Clockwork Orange is the queerest of books. It is written in an argot called nadsat most of whose words no English-speaking person can understand. Apparently, it’s a mixture of Russian, cockney slang and who knows what else. Burgess probably made up the words as he went along, like Shakespeare did. The novella itself is about a posse of 4 who goes around doing random acts of “ultraviolence.” That word, by itself, sounds very unsettling, bringing into one’s mind pictures Burgess wanted you to picture when you read his book. Formally, there are 3 acts in the book, the delinquency bit, the indictment and reform bit, and the aftermath bit. There is a sort of character growth one sees in the protagonist. But for me, this flow was against my will. I wanted the protagonist (Alex) to continue doing what he did in the first act; pillaging, demolishing, fighting, and venturing all the way into the most heinous of crimes. But I guess an author does want a book to show an all round development of the main character and the reformation provides that. In spite of all these formalities, I loved this book. I read it at an early age for a book of this sort; in my mid-teens. This was when I could not understand criminality of the highest order, which Alex and his “droogs” perform so… symphonically. I especially liked all the funny words used in the book to describe everything from common things to actions to emotions. It sounded very funny when Alex used those words, but probably to describe something very gruesome.


You’ll find less mellow book covers when you search for them!

Now, coming to the words used in the book. At the first reading (or even up to the fifth), you can not make out what it means. Sometimes, I used to get scared that I would not read a just-read word again in the rest of the book and I would lose it forever! But as you read along, you somehow end up guessing the meanings of the words.Take the word ‘glazzies.’ Alex says something like, “It hurt my glazzies” when a corrections doctor flicks his nose during his controversial reformation process. Now, what could it mean? Look at the word. Glazzies. Sounds like glass. Spectacles? You wear it on your eyes. So glazzies could mean ‘eyes!’ So this is how I figured out the meanings of some of the words. For the others, I gave up and actually consulted the Internet to provide me with a translation from Russian or Cockney slang to English. And I enjoyed every bit of it!

But in recommending this book to others, I would enforce a strict age-limit. If you are smart but in your teens, I would say you wait till your twenties to read this book. As an adult fiction novel, I recommend you read it once (twice, if you don’t get the language). It is one of the most frequently challenged books for a reason!

And there’s a movie implementation too. This is probably what made the book even more famous. It was made in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick, a legendary filmmaker. But the movie, unlike the book, was very disconcerting as it translated what mostly could not be understood from the book into the easily understandable form of visual media. And the ending has had its own share of controversies because it is very different from the book. But hey, if you like Cinema of the Unsettling, go ahead and knock yourself out!


A lovely minimalist poster made much after the film.