Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A Dream Undone

I found Golda Mowe's Iban Dream enjoyable - re-readable, even - and the story ended nicely. So I was surprised to learn of its sequel because I'm not sure if it needs one.

Though the storytelling still manages to breathe life into the verdant world of the Iban as we follow in the characters on their journey, I felt that the magic has waned. One does not expect novels in a series to sound exactly the same throughout, but the differences between the two are jarring.

Was it the apparent increase in the chunks of exposition, which now feel tediously encyclopaedic, albeit informative, in an academic way?

The meandering pace of the lulls in the storyline? The stilted dialogue, as if recited in front of a classroom, which was less of a problem in the prequel?

Or might it just be the protagonist?

A frustratingly fallible hero
The hero of the prequel, Bujang Maias, became a father and chief of his own longhouse. But a pirate attack on his homestead left many dead, and his wife was made pregnant by one of the raiders.

Against local taboos and his people's wishes, Bujang raised the child, Nuing, as his own. But father and son would learn that the curses of men are just as potent as those of gods.

Ostracised by almost everyone from Bujang's longhouse, Nuing eventually leaves with a friend, Gunggu, and establishes his own community with a group of "cursed" individuals like himself.

But in the process he incurs the wrath of some antu gerasi, a race of giant demon huntsmen. Certain of his victory, the leader of the demons gives Nuing and his people a few years' respite before he wipes them out.

Though a fairly competent warrior, Nuing's hunger for acceptance and validation drives him to take shortcuts in establishing his house and prepping himself and his brethren for the impending battle with the demons.

When things don't work out, the first thing he tends to do is either flee or beg the gods for help. His mortal failings, worsened by his low morale, grate on the gods and spirits who are striving to help him while toeing their own lines.

One or two gods - including Pulang Gana, the god of rice, who was a notably kind grandfatherly figure to Bujang - note just how anti-Bujang Nuing is, which doesn't help because it reminds the poor lad that he's not really his father's son.

More factbook than fable
Iban Journey, according to the author, "is a work of fantasy fiction based on the folklore and existing superstitions of the Ibans of Sarawak ... a journey into the customs and taboos of rainforest culture", much like its prequel.

In that vein, it is through folklore and superstitions that the Iban accumulate and store all they know of this culture. So there is a palpable fear of the loss of this culture as the old ways die out.

But I'm at a loss to explain how and why this work of fantasy fiction feels more factbook than fable, other than a pressing need to publish as soon as possible - perhaps before the last of those familiar with the old ways fade away.

Or is the author trying to inject more contemporary realism into this sequel by making the protagonist less of a "Disney prince" and more of a flesh-and-blood human being?

An element of haste pervades the text. It could have been more stringently edited, and its aspects - storytelling, exposition and dialogue - better stitched together. The threads holding the three are all-too visible, heightening one's focus on the other flaws and deepening the rift between the aspects.

I was also baffled by how the climactic battle was wrapped up - too neat and inexplicably convenient. Overall, the result looks like something cobbled together by someone too time-starved to polish the seams in the joinery.

A dream falls apart
Frustrated by all these, one can easily miss the noteworthy aspects of the novel.

From both books, it's implied that a mortal can overcome the curse of a deity, which is sometimes part of a test, and that the outcome of an endeavour might not be influenced solely by luck or the divine, but also by one's own efforts and the support from one's people - or a lack thereof. Ultimately, it is mortals who make their own luck.

Nuing's lack of self-confidence and backbone, plus the condemnation of mortal men, blind him to the aforementioned - as well as his own potential and that of his people. Watching him miss the cues he's been given is painful, but thankfully he gets better towards the end.

Sadly, I can't say the same about the novel. After the delight that was Iban Dream, Iban Journey came as a shock.

Iban Journey
Golda Mowe
Monsoon Books (2015)
263 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4625-21-0


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