Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book 99, Maldives: "A Hero In Time" by Royston Ellis

So I'm back from Makassar, and am illuminated by the glory of Eastern Indonesian culture. (Honestly, we always talk about Java and Bali, sometimes Sumatra or Borneo or even West Papua, but never Sulawesi.) Hopefully I'll find some time to divulge what I learned about bissus and lontaras and the epic of La Galigo. But not now: I'm flying off in another few hours to attend my friend's wedding in Long Island. Yessir, I'm a travellin' man, island to island to island, that's me.

On the topic of island nations: the UK and Maldives! I've finished this historical novel by a lesser-known British beat poet, published in Singapore, chronicling the life and adventures of Mohamed Thakurufaanu, the 16th century Maldivian nobleman who fought off an eight-year Portuguese occupation of the islands and founded the Utheem Dynasty.

Frankly, it's not a must-read. Nothing distinctive about the prose, nothing profound about the ideas, nor anything terribly captivating about the characters, who're portrayed as mostly paragons of virtue or black-hearted villains. But Ellis claims his narrative is based on the oral traditions regarding this 400 year-old national hero: methinks he wants to translate the spirit of these little-known legends rather than modernise or subvert them.

(It is of course interesting to observe the slippages between our ideas of virtue and Mohamed's. There's this whole bigamous romance going on, with his courtship of Princess Sitti Mava to be his second wife, but Ellis makes his first wife an active force in fostering this union so we won't feel she's being oppressed. Then there's Mohamed's desire to rid the entire land of infidels, slitting the throats of anyone dares to drink wine or who doesn't speak Dhivehi. Author puts a lot of effort into making us side with a genocidal fundamentalist freedom fighter, fo' sho'.)

There's very little Maldivian history on the Internet; you'd think their proximity to India and their tourist dollars would've given them the resources to pour out their souls online. So I can't actually tell how much Ellis has made up and how much is genuine legend: did the widow queen Kamba Aisha really strike the fatal blow that killed the would-be-usurper Tuffashana? Googling the names only turns up a review of this novel, here.

Okey-dokey, enough blabbering. Must pack. Ah, but if only someone chronicled Singapore's pre-colonial/colonial history this way! Methinks Isa Kamari did so in Malay, but his Infopedia article doesn't say much.

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Representative quote:  Kamba Aisha grabbed the sword from his hand and pulled him off balance as he tried to turn. He stumbled; she raised the sword and drove it between his shoulder blades. Pushing on it with all her might, she forced him down on his face until the sword was buried in his back, up to its hilt. He died skewered to the sand.

I could not die at the hands of a traitor," she said to his body. "I have saved our country and our innocent people from you."

She turned as a Portuguese soldier burst into the room, his sword drawn. "Ah," she said, a smile spreading over her face. "I die at the infidel's hand. God is great."

 Next book: Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, from Sri Lanka.


Anonymous said...

Calling a national hero Genocidal maniac?
To make such horrible statements with a little understanding under the horrors of portugese occupation of maldives in the 16th century is ridiculous.
And the whole "massacring anyone who drunk wine" again taken extremely out of context, because that specifically referred to the occupying Portuguese troops who had massacred, tortured and forcefully given them alcohol as an insult were the people attacked. Because it was a war and an occupation.

And a team of 5-7 people systematically oc-ordinating resistance and winning against portugal (which was a world power in the 16th century) is uninspiring?
Its all relative I guess

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

I didn't say he was a maniac. And I do note he was a freedom fighter.

But if you want to cleanse a nation of everyone but the people who speak your language and abstain from alcohol, that is pretty much tantamount to genocide. Again the morals of this are relative, but it's still freaking scary.

Regarding your last point: it's the writing that's not very inspiring. I think in someone else's hands this story could have been amazing.