Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess by Ambit92


									Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess Hardback 1980 It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. … I retired twelve years ago from the profession of novelist. Nevertheless you will be constrained to consider, if you know my work at all and take the trouble now to reread that first sentence, that I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening.

Dinner party Ken Toomey John Ovington – British Council – host Ann Oviongton -hostess Sciberras Maltese poet Dawson Wignall Poet Laureate …a round, duckdownheaded, hamsterteethed children’s book illustration of a benign humanoid who held the office John Dryden had once held. “The Maltese got rid of the French,” Sciberas shouted. “When you got rid of them,” Wignall said, “did you perhaps arrange that they were got rid of at night? So you could say bon soir to them?” I was beginning to find Wignall tolerable. “It is bonne nuit we say. And in the daytime it is buon giorno. That is Italian.” “Go to bed French,” Wignall said, “and wake up Italian…”

My first impression is that the plot seems highly contrived and overblown but I love the writing style and use of words. I write book reviews for a couple of online groups and one real-life book group. I have to say I've never been comfortable reading passages with a strong emphasis on male homosexual behaviour. But maybe it is my advancing years and being obliged to edit short stories with gay themes more these days that I found it less disturbing than I thought. Also I believe Burgess was quite a philanderer but in a heterosexual way and that Earthly Powers was more a parody of the emerging blockbuster novels of the 70s and hence his deliberate exaggerations. For example most novels have young virile protagonists whereas in Earthly Powers, Ken Toomey is 81 and the book revisits the momentous occasions of those years in 81 chapters. I make notes as I read and for this book I accumulated a list 4 sides too long of words I had not before encountered. (not counting foreign terms and verbalising nouns and vice versa). I know he was a linguistic master but I wouldn't be surprised if he concocted a few lateral-thinking usages.

I realised that, like in his The Doctor is Sick, the work has autobiographical elements. Accordingly, I was intrigued if my wife and I could track down the house in Malta, he

describes his protagonist living in. He gives certain clues: Lija, Triq-il-Kbira, lack of a forecourt, opposite a police station, corner grocery owned by Borg. After finding the street we failed to find a police station and were told at the existing and so literary-authentic corner shop that the nearest was in Naxxar. But I accosted an elderly lady who confirmed the earlier existence of a cop shop near the St Joseph's statue corner of the Triq. I believe I located the correct house.

The house has a more intriguing interest because Burgess only refers to his Maltese occupation in the book on two occasions: in the first few chapters and at the end. In between, he launches the reader on a worldwide - though mainly Asian tour (again a reflection of his own career).In the book he fascinates the reader in his search for what is evil, the invidiousness of censure, and the philosophical ironies of twentieth century life – particularly in the interactions between the novelist in and so of the book as well as in the fictional brother-in-law, for whom he’d been asked to recollect evidence of sainthood after becoming an Italian Pope. At the end of the book the Maltese government say they are confiscating his house because of its long-term abandonment. I wondered if this was a fabrication. Sadly, none of the people I talked to in Triq-il-Kbir remembered Burgess (he lived there 1968-70). Also the young ones say no such law exists, but older Maltese say the previous Labour Government did have such a law but it was hardly ever used. One estate agent in Sliema told me that she knew of 'enemies of either Church or Government' would be pressurised to leave Malta in the 1970s - sometimes by confiscating their homes on various pretexts. One such would be an unpopular author of, say, the anti-Catholic Clockwork Orange (I didn't realise it was anti Catholic but…). I now know that Burgess did have his house confiscated in 1974 officially to compensate for unpaid taxes. This is quite ironic considering he moved to Malta in the first place to use it as a tax haven!

Burgess also mentions that the protagonist's books were blacklisted by official censors. He refers to scissor-wielding people at the airport. Intriguingly I can find none of his books in the book shops in Valetta although the manager of one (Sapienta?) says there is no list of banned books and any book they order always arrives. Nevertheless I persisted and pestered a minor aristocrat on the issue. We paid for a guided tour of the Casa Rocca Piccola in Valetta. Our guide was a young man - very elegant and eloquent. At the end I gave him a generous tip and we chatted about the banned book list. He said it was a Vatican instigated list and added to by Malta's Archbishop's office. It turned out the guide was the son of the residing family - he was home for Easter from a UK university. (and I tipped him!!)

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