Anthony Burgess on Malaysia

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess

Malaysia celebrated its 52nd independence anniversary recently. So how much has it changed since Anthony Burgess wrote about it in The Malayan Trilogy?

The book is based on his experiences as an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950s.

In his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, he writes: “The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.”

On the other side, says Burgess, were the “Chinese communist terrorists” who fought a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s.  “These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war (World War II) and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese,”  he says.

Here is his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, which is worth reading in full.

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Gold ain’t what it was in Goldfinger

Gold is no longer what it used to be when Ian Fleming wrote Goldfinger or Sean Connery starred in the film with Honor Blackman playing Pussy Galore in 1964.

Consider the plot: Goldfinger plans to steal the gold in Fort Knox.

What's at stake is the entire world economy.

For Fort Knox contains the American gold pile that underwrites the global monetary system.

That was really true back then.

The price of gold was fixed at $35 an ounce.

The US government was committed to converting dollars into gold at that price. That was part of the Bretton Woods international monetary system introduced at the end of the Second World War. There were fixed currency exchange rates pegged to the dollar and gold.

Goldfinger's plan to steal the gold from Fort Knox threatened to wreck the international monetary system. Of course, he was in league with the nefarious SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence agency.

Now the Russians along with the Chinese want the dollar replaced with a new global reserve currency.

But that's another story – for the dollar is no longer what it used to be, nor is the gold.

The Nixon revolution

The man who changed it all – President Richard Nixon.

He is now remembered for the Watergate scandal and pingpong diplomacy bringing America and China together.

But Nixon also changed the Bretton Woods international monetary system in 1971. He "decoupled" the dollar from the gold, abandoning the commitment to convert gold into dollars at $35 an ounce.

That affected the entire monetary system.

Why did Nixon do it?

Because US gold reserves were down and America was on the verge of running its first trade deficit in more than 75 years, says Wikipedia. The US dollar was overpriced and other currencies such as the Japanese yen undervalued. The fixed exchange rate did not reflect the strength of currencies such as Japan's which had flourished on trade with America.

The former Economist editor Bill Emmott describes the background – the Vietnam war, political friction between America and Japan on trade matters – that led to the change and its effect on Japan.

Bill Emmott writes in Rivals: How The Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, published last year:

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The Ascent of Money and Chiamerica

The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

Niall_Ferguson The next time anyone blames Wall Street and the US Federal Reserve for the global economic downturn, throw the book at him. Not just any book but Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money.

This excellent, immensely readable history of banking and finance published last year not only saw the crisis coming but was quick to pin the blame – not on America but on Chiamerica. Ferguson, an eminent British economic historian, describes how American consumers binged on cheap Chinese goods until the US economy went bust, dragging the rest of the world into a recession.

Here’s a televised part of the book dealing with Chiamerica.

Ferguson writes:

In effect, the People’s Republic of China has become banker to the United States of America.

At first sight, it may seem bizarre.Today the average American earns more than $34,000 a year… the average Chinese lives on less than $2,000. Why would the latter want to lend to the former?

The answer is that, until recently, the best way for China to employ its vast population was through exporting manufactures to the insatiably spendthrift US consumer.

To ensure that those exports were irresistibly cheap, China had to fight the tendency for the Chinese currency to strengthen against the dollar by buying literally billions of dollars on world markets…

From America’s point of view, meanwhile, the best way of keeping the good times rolling in recent years has been to import cheap Chinese goods. Moreover, by outsourcing manufacturing to China, US corporations have been able to reap the benefits of cheap labour too. And, crucially, by selling billions of dollars of bonds to the People’s Bank of China, the United States has been able to enjoy significantly lower rates of interest than would otherwise have been the case.

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Jhumpa Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth

jhumpa_lahiri_ Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.

What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.

Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.

But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:

Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.

But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:

It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.

As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:

I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.

Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:

I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.

The Indian connection is fading.

None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That's a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

Shakespeare and his women

Shakespeare It’s a pity Shakespeare (1564-1616) is no longer compulsory reading in Singapore schools. So many girls here have the perfect figure to play the boy-girl roles of Shakespeare’s comedies. No offence meant. It’s just that Shakespeare is taken so seriously it throws people off. Lighten up, please, Shakespeare wrote for entertainment. One may ask where’s the fun in King Lear or Hamlet. Well, for now, I will confine myself to the comedies only.

The choice may seem curious, particularly on this day which may or may not be his birthday but is certainly his death anniversary. But we all have our favourites and I prefer the comedies.

I just commented on the figures of the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies. Obviously they couldn’t be DD cups if they had to pass themselves off as young men, which they did so well that other women fell in love with them. Much of the fun in Shakespeare’s comedies comes from the sexual confusion of the characters in the plays. In Twelfth Night, Orsino woos Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, who is in love with Orsino. No, Olivia isn’t a lesbian, she sees Viola dressed as the youth, Cesario. Now there’s no way Viola could have passed off as a youth if she had DD cups. Rosalind, in As You Like It, couldn’t have had an hourglass figure either — or she wouldn’t have been able to dress up as the young man, Ganymede. Not even her father, the Duke, nor her lover, Orlando, can recognise her.

One wonders about the men in Shakespeare’s comedies. They are silly putty in the women’s hands! Excluding Prospero the magician in The Tempest, of course. That’s why I love the comedies. They get the sex thing so right! I know, being a married man myself. Not that my wife could have ever passed herself off as a young man. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have liked being fooled like Orlando!

But my wife has the same high spirits and vivacity as Rosalind. That’s what’s so attractive about the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies — their wit and vivacity and high spirits. I think that’s what Shakespeare prized most about women. He couldn’t have been one of those gentlemen who prefer blondes. The Dark Lady of his sonnets had to be a brunette. She could have even been black, according to the writer William Boyd. Shakespeare, of course, expressed mixed feelings about the Dark Lady. But the exotic appealed to him. Otherwise how could his most celebrated heroine be the Egyptian Cleopatra? He was alive to sexual attractions across colour lines and their tensions too, or he wouldn’t have written Othello. But I am straying from the comedies.

My wife prefers the tragedies. After all, she teaches Shakespeare in her college in Calcutta (Kolkata). But I prefer the high jinks of the comedies. And the fun doesn’t stop at cross-dressing. There are other complications too. Think of the shenanigans in the wood near Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Act II, Scene 2 and Act III, Scenes 1 and 2.

Shakespeare can be bawdy but not lascivious. I haven’t read Venus and Adonis and his Poems so I don’t really know, but I don’t think he wrote anything as explicit as some of the passages in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. 

My Shakespeare is far from perfect but I am grateful we had to do Shakespeare in school in India. So did my son for his Indian School Certificate examination before going to college in America last year. He and I both read Julius Caesar but he also had to read The Tempest.

By the way, yesterday was Lenin’s birthday.