Friday, 7 January 2011

Tough Times

What a way to start the new year: my first published book review for 2011. Writing it was like walking a tightrope. Who am I, a weekend book person, to call this novel "wordy"?

The online version is, oddly, titled "Recollections of an amnesiac".

Tough times
This tale of an amnesiac paints Malaysia's own story with almost lyrical prose

first published in The Star, 07 January 2011

I decided to read this book after a Malaysia Day panel discussion at which local author Chuah Guat Eng noted the average Malaysian's apparent inability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. For instance, in her latest novel, Days of Change, her realistic portrayal of a middle-aged Malay man led to speculation that she must have known such a character intimately.

I became curious.

By now, I'm almost afraid of books advertised as "Malaysian novels". A lot of books out there attempt to narrate our country's past; some resort to romanticism, presumably to better shift copies.

It was with a different kind of fear when I opened Chuah's Malaysian novel. "Days of Change is a sequel to Echoes Of Silence," began the author's note, and my heart sank. Will I be able to get the story without referring to the previous volume?

I needn't have worried. The events in Echoes Of Silence took place decades before Days of Change. The narrator in the former, one Lim Ai Lian, returns as one of the main characters in the new book. Though written as a sequel, Days of Change is good enough to be read on its own.

The chaotic, rambling recollections of one Abdul Hafiz bin Dato' Yusuf is the record of the "days of change" the man experiences after tumbling down a ravine and waking up in hospital with amnesia. After an unsuccessful attempt to consult a psychiatrist, he consults the I Ching, the famous Chinese "book of changes", to make sense of his jumbled memories.

What follows are pages and pages of a recovering amnesiac's recollections and ruminations.

Lush, descriptive writing lends poignancy to his recovered memories, some of which, perhaps, he would rather forget.

Though a wealthy property developer, Hafiz is unlucky in love and marriage. His life is also marred by a couple of tragedies at home: two mysterious murders, details of which he attempts to uncover. And why is he so repulsed by his lovely young wife? To top it off, another property developer has plans for a Disneyland-style theme park in Hafiz' (fictional) hometown of Ulu Banir, which also involves the bungalow at Jock's Hill, where he spent his childhood.

The way I see it, Chuah tells Malaysia's story through the goings-on at Ulu Banir, where much of Days of Change takes place, and through Hafiz's inner struggles and mission to fend off the land barons. We all know the ingredients: religion, politics, socio-economic policies, independence, communists, and race riots on May 13, 1969.

But Chuah's almost lyrical prose and deft juxtaposition of people, places and history make this book about more than just a bunch of "Malaysian" characters parroting the usual socio-political tirades you would find in, say, the local blogosphere.

However, it's the kind of writing that made me wish the story would move faster. One word: "wordy". Case in point would be the author's note: "... In both novels the Banir River, the district of Ulu Banir, the ancient fortress town of Kota Banir, the Malay village of Kampung Banir Hilir and the Chinese fishing village of Bagan China exist only in my imagination, as do all the characters. References to actual people, institutions, and events serve purely to create the illusion of reality from which this type of fiction draws its vitality."

Then again, perhaps the wordiness is in keeping with Hafiz's character as he struggles to make sense of the gaps in his memories and deal with his current problems. The stress and emotional turmoil is evident in his recollections. This is not light, easy material for impatient readers.

Impatience aside, I guess I do kind of get what Chuah is trying to do with Days of Change. The Malaysian story, it seems, is akin to Hafiz's journey of recovery after his near-fatal fall – often turbulent, sometimes tranquil, with dark mysterious gaps awaiting illumination, and some hope for a better future. Kind of like our current days of change.

Days of Change
Chuah Guat Eng
Holograms/Chuah Guat Eng
277 pages
ISBN: 978-983-43778-1-6


  1. I read that as "first published book for 2011". Was scratching my head and in awe at how you managed to keep something as big as a book under wraps for so long.

    Happy new year!

  2. Well, you never know. Things happen all the time.

    Happy new year!


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