Sunday, 18 May 2008

One East-West Train Wreck

To my frustration, I could say nothing nice about this book - nor could I say anything bad about it. It's a depressing read that the Internal Security Ministry would pass; everybody depicted here more or less fits the more popular stereotypes. The British are degenerate, amoral snobs; the Communist Chinese are bloodthirsty and ruthless, their sympathisers untrustworthy and cunning; and all Opposition party members are firestarters.

When the past and present collide...

first published in The Star, 18 May 2008

One year ago, this book might not have reached the shelves. Contents include British colonialists, Communist insurgents, May 13 rioteers and the DAP. Who would've thought so much could happen in 365 days?

But is it a ghost story, or not? While "ghost" is in the title, the ambiguity of The Orientalist and the Ghost is guaranteed to titillate, or irritate.

Here, Susan Barker delivers a Lemony-Snicketish tale of a dysfunctional British-Chinese family forged in the fires of the Malayan Emergency that crumbles as time marches on.

Young Christopher Milnar is an adventurous and somewhat naïve scholar enamoured with all things Chinese who gets shipped to insurgent-era Malaya as an assistant administrator of a Chinese relocation settlement in Yong Peng, Johore. Translated, Yong Peng means "Everlasting Peace"; he would later find out that the British aren't the only ones with a sardonic sense of humour. He gets no welcome from the locals, especially the resentful Chinese who have been separated from relatives and loved ones under the Communist insurgents.

As the harsh reality whittles down his romanticism, love and hate come in the emaciated form of Evangeline Lim, an older half-Chinese woman with whom Chris has a May-December fling. Evangeline unwillingly betrays Chris' trust in her and ends up in court where she is sentenced to death, but not before leaving behind a daughter. Chris takes it upon himself to look after the child, named Frances, but the "Yong Peng Irony" continues as Frances becomes estranged from her "foreign devil" father and commits suicide years later, saddling Chris with her children, Adam and Julia. Like mother, like daughter.

However, this tale of woe begins with an ageing Chris being visited by phantoms of his past: his superior officer, colleagues and other memorable individuals from those heady Malayan days. The narration suggests that it's more hallucination than haunting. I don't blame him. He's counting his days, and his grandchildren have inherited that psychological Great Wall of China from their grandmother's side of the family. Plus, he's no Jamie Oliver.

It's not long before Chris himself crosses over, and suddenly, the grandchildren are adults. While Adam becomes a lab technician, Julia falls in with the wrong crowd and ends up a heroine junkie, too stoned to care when a letter from her mother's old school-friend arrives, asking for a meeting. As Adam sets off to meet the sender, the rest of the Milnars' sad tale unfolds.

I'm not a fan of non-linear plotlines, even though some stories read well when written this way. I didn't like the way The Orientalist leaps back and forth between the present and the tumultuous Malayan days. The aged Chris Milnar narrates the beginning, but then someone else tells us that he's dead, and Adam has the keys to his flat. A couple of chapters later, it’s good old Chris prattling on again, as if he never left. All that bouncing around gave me motion sickness.

Another gripe I had with it was the (perceived) interactivity. OK, there are plenty of clues as to why Frances became estranged from her father, but I had to dig. Surely it wasn't simply because of her conviction that her dad betrayed her mum? What really happened when she went searching for the teacher she had a crush on in the riot-racked city? Who really was the assailant that drove a rift between Chris and Evangeline? It's supposed to be literary fiction. If I wanted intellectual stimulation, I'd have done a Sudoku puzzle.

Storywise, it's pretty authentic. The sounds, emotions and atmosphere of those bygone times are captured very well. In Chris' narration, there are flashes of Shakespearean melodrama and the famous British wit; too bad his performance couldn't save this sad tale. And the only ghosts in the book are probably in Chris Milnar's head all along.

Should I feel cheated, or not?

The Orientalist and The Ghost
Susan Barker
346 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-60980-7


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