Whenever you read a book that has become infamous not only because of a film version but because of its violent content then you are going to struggle to come to it with an open mind. The other problem is that the message from Anthony Burgess’s book gets lost a little bit in a film that is remembered more for its costumes, fight scenes and having eyes pinned back by those trying to brainwash criminality out of the lead character Alex.
I am sure that I read somewhere that Burgess did not like the film and it is possible to see why because the endings are different. It is not until the end of the book that there is any real sign of hope for Alex.
As a reader you go from fearing the main character to hating him and then having not only sympathy but at the end even a hint of admiration for the stage he has reached on his journey of discovery.
But a constant challenge for the reader is the language and because Alex and his friends speak in a teenage slang of their own it acts not only to divide them from the adults but also make it clear that this is not someone the average reader can easily identify with. The combination of a classical music loving fifteen year old who is also capable of robbery and rape is something that is meant to be disturbing. To some extent it feels as if the examples of the violence are being laid on too deep with Alex and company moving from terrorising a library visitor, a store owner and then the rape and beating of an author. But the reasons for the various set pieces of violence becomes clear after Alex is released from prison.
But Burgess is not just making a comment here about the violence and alienation of youth but is also damming the prison system that seems to be unable to cope with offenders and has no real answer for straightening them out and sending them back into society.
Alex goes from one extreme to the other after he is brainwashed into being meek rather than violent and the cure seems to be at the expense of the ability to choose how to act in certain situations.
Understandably because he is the first to go through the treatment Alex becomes a political football but the end result is that no one has the answer and he can only be made into ultra violent or ultra meek. In the end he cures himself of his extremes by maturing out of his violence.
There is also another theme running through the book with Burgess tackling the thorny issue of parental obligation and the consequences of a breakdown of the relationship between parent and child and the consequential absence of love. The idea that Alex might be a victim all along is hinted at and becomes clear after his parents abandon his memory after he goes to prison.
This book is a challenge to read because of the language but well worth persevering with because it speaks about the alienation of teenagers, the inability of both parents and the state to cope with that and how most official responses are inappropriate. In an age when anti social behaviour orders are being handed out left right and centre this book has a message that is incredibly relevant for the here and now.
Version read – Penguin paperback