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!

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

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.

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