Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Nearly Fulfilled Prophecy

“There shall come a day when a prince of my line shall possess this treasure, and it is that prince who shall make all lands below the wind subject to him.”

So promises Malik al-Mansur, the last king of Beruas, to anyone who finds the hoard of riches and artefacts he'd assembled and hidden after the Portuguese invaders sacked his kingdom. This is the premise of Iskandar Al-Bakri's debut, The Beruas Prophecy, published by Silverfish Books.

No vampires, zombies, child wizards or sentient jewellery here. This piquant package features a legendary treasure trove, villainous orang putih, Malay secret societies and unlikely heroes. We also get magic and an appearance by Taming Sari, the keris once wielded by the legendary warrior Hang Tuah.

Months before the Pangkor Treaty is to be signed, a promising silat student is shot dead by a bullying British officer. Said officer is part of a plot to destabilise Perak through the use of pirates, so that the Brits can "intervene" and set up shop in the state. But this officer and his cohorts are also looking for the fabled hoard of Malik al-Mansur, who ruled Beruas around the twilight of the Malaccan Sultanate.

Searching for the treasure, these Brits also get tangled up with two Malay secret societies. Indera Sakti, founded after the fall of Malacca, has become a nest of vipers who seeks the fulfilment of Malik al-Mansur's prophecy by one of their own. Darul Kubra, at odds with Indera Sakti, wants to keep the treasure a secret. A power struggle between two Indera Sakti factions adds to the excitement.

While causing trouble at the British's behest, pirate king and Indera Sakti bigwig Sabu sacks the village of Kuala Sepetang, the home of village elder and silat grandmaster SiTumi. Burning with vengeance, the old man and several other villagers join members of Darul Kubra who are out to foil Indera Sakti's latest schemes. Clashes of swords, silat and sorcery would follow.

If this book were a dish, it has all the ingredients - albeit with a little English mustard - for an exciting, gripping made-in-Malaysia senjata dan sihir epic with lip-smacking local flavours. It's also aesthetically pleasing: nice cover, nice typeface, and a comfortable layout. Reading about Malay traditions and jampi (incantations) in English feels like a sunny burst of citrus. Even Hang Tuah's origins and significance are explored briefly. No apparent romance sub-plots, but no problem.

...except the overly detailed "tell instead of show" narrative - from the first paragraph of page one.

Balik Pulau, 1823. Friday evening just after eight. Yaakob lives with his wife and three daughters in a village in the west of Penang Island. His house is a modest, timber one that has just two rooms. Yaakob built it with the help of his neighbours a week before his wedding, many years ago. His wife has planted vegetables and tapioca in the front yard, and banana along the sides.

Everything else after the description of Yaakob's house is not critical to the storyline. Also, we probably don't need to know that one Sir Robert Fullerton "was born in 1773, the son of Reverend William Fullerton", etc etc.

These awkward little info dumps continue throughout the book, even for cameo characters such as SiTumi's daughter Minah. One page after she first appears, the fish salter and mother is killed with a head shot by pirates raiding Kuala Sepetang. Nowhere is she depicted salting fish. She doesn't even get to take out a pirate's eye with a well-thrown ikan kembung masin, which would have been awesome.

Instead of the compelling cinematic tale it could have been, we get a wayang kulit where the dalang moves the characters about and recites the story. Action scenes become formulaic, jokes fall flat and the mysticism and lore sound clinically curated. One casualty is The Dark Mambang; the spiritual patron of Indera Sakti is more Muppet than malevolent in its appearances.

I've not seen a pendekar Melayu (Malay warrior) novel in English that's written this well, and with such good material. If not for the staid, sporadically choppy storytelling, The Beruas Prophecy would be a fine example for its genre.

The Beruas Prophecy
Iskandar Al-Bakri
Silverfish Books (2011)
233 pages
ISBN: 978-983-3221-34-9


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