Sunday, 29 August 2010

Old-School Writing

This review, my suggestion for a pre-Merdeka thing, was a bit hard to write because I had quite a bit to say about each book, and I was mentally doing the trimming, before getting it on paper. It was also the first time I've done anything like this. I'm glad it all worked out.

I bought a copy for archiving, of course. So, who wants a cut-out coupon?

Old-school writing
These three books set before Merdeka are still relevant to today's Malaysia

first published in The Star, 29 August 2010

AS the 53rd anniversary of our independence approaches, I wonder, given how technological advances have forced drastic changes in our reading and writing habits, if Malaysia will see the death of books by Aug 31, 2020.

What brought this question to mind was the rather serendipitous discovery of several books written by foreigners, set in the Malay Peninsula before Merdeka, all re-issued or published by Singapore's Monsoon Books.

Monsoon's Merdeka reads:The Golden Chersonese, And The Rain
My Drink
and The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney

The first one to catch my eye was The Golden Chersonese: A 19th-Century Englishwoman's Travels in Singapore and The Malay Peninsula by Isabella Bird, the renowned British travel writer.

The name "Golden Chersonese", or Aurea Chersonesus, was bequeathed by Roman-Egyptian mathematician and scientist Ptolemy and alluded to the wealth in gold thought to be found on the Malay Peninsula in ancient times. (Either Ptolemy was just being dramatic or some rapacious pirate back then took all that gold away, leaving us to depend on Petronas' dwindling annual profits.)

The book records Bird's travels in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tanah Melayu (an early version of 1Malaysia) in 1879, and like most of her works, was written as a bunch of letters to her sister back in Britain.

Unusually for a woman of her time and place, her case of wanderlust was said to be so severe that she would get sick if she stayed home. Her travel writing made her famous, and in 1892, she became the first female member of Britain's venerable Royal Geographical Society.

Her very scholarly, emotionally distant writing is accompanied by her own finely-detailed sketches. Of course, she's not without her conceits. She abhors, for instance the use of "pidjun English" by the Chinese she encounters in Hong Kong. Most of the time, though, she tells it like it is, as she attests in the preface.

One can feel the cockles of one's heart warm with familiarity at her mention of local delicacies, landmarks and people, even though she describes the Peninsula as "very hot, and much infested by things that bite and sting".

Eighty years after Ms Bird's departure from the Not-So-Golden-Anymore Chersonese – now called Malaya – the Emergency (the Communist insurgency that lasted from 1948 to 1960) descends on a more developed and cosmopolitan Peninsula.

Author Han Suyin was a Chinese doctor from Henan who practised in Malaya during the Emergency. The title of her book, And the Rain My Drink, comes from an old Chinese ballad and refers to what the Communists were willing to endure do create their idea of a just country.

This book features a large cast (all conveniently listed at the beginning of the book). Among the Malays, Indians and gwailos are many Chinese: tycoons and their scions, Communist insurgents and sympathisers, and innocent bystanders who get caught up in the mess.

The focus of the story shifts among the various dramas being played out among these people, though one common thread is a girl, a Communist-turned-informer, who survives through betrayal.

The prose is vivid, almost poetic, and meanders like the long strokes by a Chinese calligrapher's brush, but that feeling tapers off towards the end of the tale. Except for one chapter, taken out of a hardened, jungle-dwelling insurgent's diary, the whole thing has the feel of a classic Chinese painting, which takes time and a poetic soul to appreciate. Tweeting, iPad-carrying Gen-Y-ers might not get this one.

One character who could very well have appeared in Han's timeline would be Frederick Lees' protagonist in The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney. Known as Ferdie to his friends, the protagonist is a young Anglo-Irish fellow who, like the author, left Britain to serve in the British Colonial Service in Malaya in 1950.

Even before the boat leaves Britain, we get the idea that O'Haney is a flawed character. Opinionated, self-righteous, over-analytical though honest to a fault, he nevertheless tries his best at whatever he's given – when he's not, among other things, banging other people's wives and sisters-in-law, rolling in the hay with young local men (yes, you read right), getting mixed up with Communists and spies, and telling us how well-read he is. He also becomes the "postman" for peace talks between Communist insurgents and British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney, with terrible results.

After Bird's genteel jottings and Han's lyrical pen-strokes, Lees' journalistic, in-your-face style jars the senses like an air-raid alarm. Though realistic and colourful, the narrative is a little long in some places.

The author's attempt, I think, to blend autobiography with fiction has resulted in a collision: the soliloquies tend to get in the way of an entertaining story. But fans of cranky, opinionated, grizzled veterans of their profession will find reason to like it, quite apart from the juicy bits and conspiracy theories.

These books are clearly products of their authors' lives and times, to be read and enjoyed the way books were back then. Though I must say that the social commentary in the two Emergency-era novels, parroted by the authors' alter-egos, is still relevant today, and still being echoed by ... virtually everyone.

Narratives that don't walk on eggshells make refreshing reads, but I also worry: For instance, will Bird's use of the word "kling" (in reference to Indians, now considered derogatory), and the stereotypes in these books, kick these books off the shelves? Will people talk about them instead of sitting down to enjoy three good stories?

Ah, well, I'll leave the debates to others. Myself, I'm curling up with this lovely set of reads for a long Merdeka weekend. Better hurry before paper books and old-school writing go out of fashion.

The Golden Chersonese
A 19th-century Englishwoman's Travels in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula

Isabella Bird
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
352 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-4484-4

And The Rain My Drink
Han Suyin
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
260 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-4485-1

The Malayan Life of Ferdach O'Haney
Frederick Lees
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
572 pages
ISBN: 978-981-08-2382-5


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