Monsters are not the stuff of fairy tales to frighten children into staying on the straight and narrow, they exist for real; they live inside of us, waiting patiently in the deep shadow lands of the psyche for the moment to break their chains and run for freedom. Sadoc, the humble scribbler in Anthony Burgess`s moral fable, The Kingdom of the Wicked, warns the sensitive reader of the horrors he is about to reveal about ` this beautiful and damnable world,` before he leaves it forever. Burgess lays it on thick; his title deriving from what the Jews called the Roman empire, that great Whore of Babylon which made the modern world in it`s image, as our morals and outlook on the good things in life haven`t so much stepped back in time, as met the past hurtling forwards into the 21st century. The Kingdom of the Wicked shows us where the life source of the modern world originated, and how it`s worldview has drip fed it`s way into our minds and turned the western world into the New Rome. Everything we imagine which is good or bad about our times has been done to death before in that eternal, infernal city: Burgess gives us intellectually subtle, cultured and eccentric monsters such as Tiberius and Nero, like two ravenous flies feasting on the entrails of the ancient world in pursuit of their bizarre amusements. Then there is Caligula; infamous for a mind unhinged by the realization that his absolute power was without limit, and as such, declared himself a living god, impregnated his sister, and then murdered her because he was afraid that she would give birth to a greater god than himself. He shared with the Christians a belief in one god; the important difference of opinion on the matter with them was that he absolutely knew that he was that god
The Christians are the spine which supports his book, with the soul change of Saul into apostle Paul the keystone upon all which follows hinges. While on the road to Damascus, Saul mistakes an epileptic seizure as a, ` Let my people go,` word of admonishment from the Big Man upstairs for his repression of the Christians, and is the subject of an immediate religious conversion. Magic and the rational co-mingle matter-of-factly, ` And how are the doubts today?`Jesus asks Thomas in a casual aside. Early Christian history is covered with great dexterity by the nimble, and fertile imagination of Burgess, who tells us that Jesus actually survived the crucifixion, recovered, and chilled out in the cave. The Lions versus the Christians big match in the arena by torchlight – with the Christians providing the illumination for the entertainment as human candles, covered in tar and set alight, is given his full attention, as if he`s commentating on a vitally important, winner takes all sporting event. The book has a jaunty, lurid and demonic style, as it jogs along at pace; giving us facts, insights, and obtuse oddities, as we are placed in the middle of the entertainment at one of the empress Messalina`s orgies, watching her pert buttocks gyrate and go with the sexual flow of the moment. Because of Burgess`s linguistic dexterity, you never quite feel sure whether you`re at the upmarket Temple of Apollo, or a seedy downtown vaudeville theatre with peeling wallpaper and broken electric fittings. Knowing Burgess, it`s probably deliberate; because he never appears to take anything absolutely seriously, nothing is quite as it seems.
There are big show stoppers galore: the burning of Rome while Nero looks on, his eyes welling up with fearful tears of ecstasy, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, who then proceeds to carry off the Ark of the Covenant back to his old Da, the emperor Vespasian, who then melts all the captured Jewish treasure down to pay for the construction of his `piece de resistance`…….. The coliseum. It`s not the last time a western military superpower thrusts it`s nose into Middle Eastern politics by waging war on those it considers an undesirable threat to it`s way of life: in modern times, it`s basically about oil and the settling of old scores, while for Rome it was eradicating an irritating political scab by settling old scores, and then followed by good old fashioned plunder of the local riches – instead of oil, read gold and property acquisitions. It`s just one dreadful and unsavory event after another which unfolds through the pages: people want to get away from it all to somewhere quieter , where they can chill out and recharge the batteries for a bit and top up the tan………..Nowhere better than Pompeii of course for the holiday season. Oh well, back to the grind stone. There were lots of worthy lives to reflect upon of course, but who wants to hear about how some one did a good deed, or had a cracking day at the office, and tipped a blind beggar on the way home just for the hell of feeling good about themselves? Much better to read up on how Caligula made his horse a Consul of Rome, was as mad as a hatter and had sex with his sister; or how Tiberius kept a library of porn and threw fishermen who strayed too close to his island retreat of Capri, off the cliffs to their deaths for a little light amusement; or Nero castrating his favourite young slave boy, so he could turn him into a girl and marry him. Happy days indeed. Are we really any different? Our world demands instant gratification of every conceivable kind; entertainment of the masses to keep them soporific and occupied is the main strategy of our political masters. It`s the modern Bread and Circuses, and saucy news and juicy scandals; to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, no one wants to hear the facts – just the legend.