Saturday, August 25, 2012

Book 104, Brunei: "Modern ASEAN Plays: Brunei Darussalam"

Thus the second circuit of my Round-the-World voyage begins! For those of you not in the know, Brunei is a fabulously rich petrokingdom right next door to Singapore and Malaysia (surrounded by Malaysia, really). It’s not known for its literature, although it did inspire Anthony Burgess’s Devil of a State, Dale Brown’s Dreamland: Armageddon and Some Girls, a tell-all experience of former harem girl Jillian Lauren.

Thank god for the National Library’s Lee Kong Chian Reference Section then, which boasts poetry in translation, war memoirs, biographies of Sultans, caricatures and cartoons, Chinese fiction and English poetry from our neighbouring Sultanate. (Sadly, they don’t’ seem to have the Syair Awang Simawn, which is the national epic of the country, but we’ve had our fill of epics recently anyway.)

What to choose? I selected the most official-sounding of the writers: a certain Arif Karkhi Abudkhudairi, professor of Comparative Literature and Arabic, with various awards in English. I read his book The Abode of Peace, and mused over his style, which kinder critics might call “deceptively simple”; mostly love poems with a dash of praise poems for Sultan Bolkiah and his family.

Rushed back to the library today to write it up properly. And good lord, where’s the book gone? Not on the shelves. Would anyone else be reading it? What a mystery.

So I’m talking about drama instead. It’s been a while since I looked at a multi-authored play anthology: this one’s published in 1994, but it has no details on why the six plays within are considered canonical, nor when they were performed. (The Singapore version seems to be better annotated, and is actually mostly uploaded online.)

To be honest, the collection’s not very strong. Two plays are historical pantomimes: Haji Abdul Latif Chuchu’s The National Poet is a static dialogue between 19th century ministers in Sarawak over whether to give up a portion of the land to the white Raja James Brooke (the murder of the politician-poet Pengiran Shahbandar takes place offstage); Shukri Zain’s Seri Begawan I is a straightforward chronicle of old Bruneian history, from Marco Polo and Song Dynasty traders to the Venetian explorer Pifagetta and the Spanish conquistadores of the Philippines (no actual drama; there’s even a dry narrator character. Yawn).

There’s a moan-and-groan angsty I’m-rich-but-my-soul-is-fallen-into-moral-decay play, Haji Mahmud Haji Makyr’s The Chaffed [sic] Sky the Cracked Earth. There’s an amusing little drawing room drama, Haji Masri Haji Akip’s Guests, in which the rediscovery of a piece of pound sterling jewelry reunites lovers and mends community bonds between rich and poor, with only the moneyfaced father Kassim left grumpy in the end. Both of these are one-acts, over before you know it.

Then there are two plays which are actually of substance: both full-length, multi-act social realist dramas. Pengiran Haji Aji Pengiran Haji Tahir’s Ray of Hope tells of a starving, wife-beating fisherman named Dullah who refuses to join the fishermen’s cooperative; Haji Abdul Rahman Yusof’s Eye is about a blind man, Ardi, who receives an eye transplant in the days following independence, though this only opens his eyes to the injustices that persist in his nation and his family in the wake of merdeka.

Oddly enough, both of these feature Chinese men as the bad guys. They’re moneylenders, whose punitive interest rates are the ruin of the protagonists. But there’s some ambiguity here – there’s a long-term relationship of trust that’s allowed the interest rates to pile up, and while Ray of Hope paints the Chinamen as willfully encouraging destructive loans, Eye actually gives us a lender who’s cancelled loads of debts before finally insisting that this last mortgage be paid in full.

And both of them end with deus ex machinae – Dullah is saved by his wife (who’s been selling kuih and saving money) and the collective (that loves him so much that they’ll pay off the debts). Ardi is visited by a rich blind man, who wants to buy his eye for a million dollars – and he’s willing to give it up, so the rich guy can see all the shit around him that needs fixing, and can solve that shit.

Given that term’s begun and I’m telling my students to be inspired as writers by all they read, maybe I should take away this nugget of wisdom: however hackneyed and Ibsenite they might seem, social realist dramas have an epic power that you don’t get in lots of modern theatre. Pile up the debts of your hero, make him suffer, then rescue him.

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Representative quote:
AYU: (Half screaming) Brother. The eye is the only present for you. Do you realise that if it is transferred to the wealthy Umardin, your vision will again be gone?

ARDI: I am disappointed to see the world. I do not wish to see destruction.

AYU: But, in the past you had expressed your keen desire to witness the auspicious moment of independence.

ARDI: The more the eye is opened wide, the more clear is the complexities and the shortcomings of mankind. It appears my desire to witness beauty is merely an imagination.

Next book: José Rizal's El Filibusterismo, from the Philippines.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book 103, Malaysia: "The Epic of Hang Tuah"

Yesssss!!! Full circle, after precisely two years and three months! And with a book that was 1) a true classic, 2) a 600-page feat to finish, and 3) a rather good read, too!

Folks who follow Malaysian politics will know that the hero Hang Tuah's been given a bad name: he's famous for his declaration, "Malays will never vanish from the face of the Earth," making him an icon of keris-waving ethnic chauvinists of Malaysia.

And you know what? He really is a bit of an arse. He's fantastically gifted at martial arts, dance, languages and magic (all of which he studiously learned from various gurus), and yet squanders his talents by being the unswervingly loyal servant of his unnamed Raja (probably Parameswara aka Iskandar Shah, the founder of the Melaka/Malacca city-state).

The most glaring case of his arsery is when the Raja banishes him based on the idle gossip of his advisors (the trope of jealous courtiers keeps on coming up ad nauseam in the text). Instead of running off far far away to pledge allegiance to the court of a less stupid ruler, or even setting up his own dominion as a man with his gifts should, he embarks on a crazy, hyper-manipulative plan to win back the favours of the crown.

He remembers that his Raja was originally in love with a lady called Tun Teja, the Princess of Inderapura. (Turns out that's the old name of Pahang.) So he goes over to Inderapura and starts charming his way into the heart of the princess's old Governess, a sweet old lady who lives with a retinue of servants, and who comes to view him as her own son.

He uses the Governess as a conduit to make Tun Teja fall in love with *him*. It doesn't go well at first: the Governess comes back with a bloody scalp from a royal beating. But then he applies his magic ilmu, and lo and behold, Tun Teja's so in love with him that she's willing to board his ship along with her forty maidservants, off to Melaka - where she's horribly betrayed by his revelation that she's being offered up as a bridge for the Raja instead.

But no problem - the Laksamana (that's Hang Tuah's title) exercises a bit of magic and now Tun Teja hates him, and is in love with the Raja instead! And everyone's happy: the Governor gets a splendid house, and Tun Teja eventually becomes bosom friends with the Raja's first wife (he has concubines too, incidentally), never wondering how the hell she got brainwashed so easily, must be those pesky female hormones again, teehee.

You'll notice I'm not blaming Hang Tuah much for his role in the killing of Hang Jebat, his former sworn brother who rose against the Raja in revenge for Tuah's supposed execution - this guy's the classic Malay antihero. Truth is, the actual text makes Jebat sound like a royal prick: when he finds out that his sworn brother is alive, he doesn't run out of the palace to joyfully embrace him, he warns him that he has to give his keris a ritual bath and then goes and murders all the 700 maids and concubines who chose to stay with him instead of fleeing with the Raja.

And then he runs amok and kills another ten thousand citizens or so. But you can't fault him for that. Everyone's running bloody amok in this book. It's probably only due to censorship that they don't have the women launching into latah.

But the alternative readings of Hikayat Hang Tuah also work, y'know: Farish Noor says the warrior can also be seen as a figure of cultural openness and sensitivity, since the hero spends the second part of the epic as an ambassador, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the great riches of the kings and merchants he meets in Kalinga (India), China, Egypt, Jeddah, Makkah and Rome (which is actually Istanbul for some reason). It's in stark contrast to the matter-of-fact way Melaka's rival territories are described: Singapura, Inderapura, Majapahit.

Truth is, this book is a wiki: it's a collation of various stories of Hang Tuah told in different voices, with very different political agendas. It's also changed over the years: the version I've got is based on an 1860 version, but there are versions going back to 1758 at the latest. There are bits and pieces of other stories I've heard leaking in - the swordfish attack on Singapore is now described as happening again in Inderapura, with a similar bloody end to the story. When the Raja visits Singapura - surprise! - he loses his crown, not unlike Sang Nila Utama.

And oddly enough, the story closes with the Raja's daughter on the throne, the Puteri Gunung Ledang (which probably isn't related to the story, since Gunung Ledang actually is in Melaka). She rules wisely for a few years before the Portuguese come and completely screw her over and blast the city to bits with cannonfire. Then the Dutch come, yadda yadda, and Hang Tuah is still alive out there, waiting for the day he has to return to protect his people.

Boy, I've ended up writing a lot. Still don't know how to classify this book, by the way. It's not poetry, it's not a religious text, it's not a novel, it's not non-fiction. A new category perhaps? Proto-fiction? Or legend?

Whatever. I'm tuckered out now; time to turn in and prepare for the second leg of this reading journey. Northern Hemisphere, here I come!

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Representative quote: The Laksamana asked, "Hai Si Jebat, do you have any regrets?"

Hang Jebat answered, "O Laksamana, I shall never regret my deeds nor shall I fear death, for I know my end shall be at your hands. How shall I avoid it? But, My Lord, look at Si Jebat, the traitor killing and for forty days thereafter Melakans will be busy clearing up the corpses so they do not have to endure their stench. Once embarked on an evil path never do it by halves, and I shall do it with all seriousness."

Next book: Arif Karkhi Abukhudari's The Abode of Peace, from Brunei.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Happy National Day!

Not only is 9 August Singapore's National Day - Indonesia's Independence Day is on 17 August and Malaysia's Hari Merdeka is on 31 August!  Hooray Nusantara! (Of course, Brunei had to be clever and hold their National Day on 1 January. :P)

Still reading the Hikayat Hang Tuah, but it's good (or at least bizarrely interesting) stuff. Should be done by next week. In the meantime, here's a cropped photo from awesome bookstore/publisher Select Books:

On their Facebook wall, they said: 

"We brought 600 books related to SE Asia published over the past 100 years to a studio and took a photo with a high-res camera suspended from the ceiling. This is a cropped version with the larger version on display at our retail store. How many do you recognise? Does this not make one realise how rich a publishing history we have?"

And almost all these are English language books too - just imagine the full range of books in Thai, Lao, Khmer, Burmese, Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, and the ridiculous panoply of languages the Philippines has.

The photo's also touching for me because there are so many books featured by people and institutions I know and love: Stella Kon, X'Ho, Dick Lee, Elangovan, Adrian Tan, Colin Goh, Richard Lord, Teo Soh Lung, the National Museum, the Singapore Art Museum. Why, there's even Haresh Sharma's Trilogy in the middle of the left-hand edge, the very book I began this blog with. 

My own book, GASPP, is slightly left of centre, upside-down. It's the one with the topless swimmer boy on the cover. :)

Haven't yet been to the shop to see the full shot. Expect it's even more amazing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Malaysia deserves better.

Was hoping to report on A. Samad Said's Hujan Pagi today, but I've gone and left my copy at BooksActually's design room. And of course, I was gonna rush back and retrieve it, but then I thought, why bother?

At first I was blaming my difficulties with the book on the translation by the Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia, and yes, honestly, the state of the English is awful (they call letters of the alphabet "alphabets"!). But then I realised the reason why I couldn't tell what the hell was going on was that nobody can tell what the hell's going on.

The story's half set in the 1980s (young multiracial Malaysians who can quote Marshall McLuhan!) and half in a minor character's hallucination of the 1930s (Hitler attacks! Fight British colonialism). Which of course could be as awesome as Cloud Atlas, but there's no damn movement in the piece - it's all these dunderheaded men and women talking to themselves about philosophy and archaeology and Puteri Gunung Ledang and Hang Tuah. And the women characters are ridiculous: beautiful and talented yet girlishly obsessed with finding boyfriends; hugging stuffed toys and smacking their beautiful flanks. Yeah, I don't get it either.

I was only about halfway through the book when I lost it, and I do intend to finish the tome at some point, because it is oddly informative Googling all the references it pointlessly makes to Malay history. I'll let you know if it's any better.

Still, I've decided that for this blog, Malaysia deserves better. If I'm gonna read something weird and badly translated and senseless, it's damn well going to be an ur-Text, something of unimpeachable canonicity.

That's why I'm going straight for the source material - I'm gonna read the Hikayat Hang Tuah. It's 600 pages, from the same lousy translation institute and only available from the furthest-flung of public libraries, like Bedok, Tampines and Woodlands. But goddammit, it'll be an essential supplement to my meagre knowledge of Southeast Asian lore.

(I did in fact finish Ballad of the Lost Map, a poetry collection by Samad. Soulful and more digestible than Hujan Pagi, but frankly, not great. I want something that ends my first circuit of the globe with a verifiable BANG.)