Anthony Burgess was a literary critic, a composer, a translator and an author with dozens of books to his name. Yet his name will forever be associated with a grim sci-fi novel that he knocked out in a mere three weeks. Set in the near future, A Clockwork Orange describes a society that is overrun with juvenile delinquency and a government that is willing to go to great lengths to stop it. The story is narrated by Alex, a young, violent thug who, after a burglary gone wrong, finds himself involved in an experimental behavior modification program that robs him of his free will. He is physically unable to inflict “ultra-violence” on someone. It sounds like a great idea from the point of view of a government bureaucrat but the treatment renders him helpless against his numerous enemies.
Clockwork manages to become something more than a mere cautionary tale, however, thanks to Burgess’s use of language. He lards the text with Nadsat, an argot of Russian and Cockney slang designed to be opaque to outsiders. The book is filled with passages like this:
He was creeching out loud and waving his rookers and making real horrorshow with the slovos, only the odd blurp blurp coming from his keeshkas, like something was orbiting within, or like some very rude interrupting sort of a moodge making a shoom, so that this old veck kept sort of threatening it with his fists, shouting: “It’s no world for any old man any longer, and that means that I’m not one bit scared of you, my boyos, because I’m too drunk to feel the pain if you hit me, and if you kill me I’ll be glad to be dead.”
After reading several pages, you start to get that a “rooker” is a hand, taken from the Russian word rooka, and that “horrorshow,” from the Russian word khorosho, means good. But to really get the music of Burgess street slang, you need to hear it. Above you can hear an extended passage of the book read by the author himself. You can also find the clips in a streaming format here.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.