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.

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