Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bonus review: "A Song of the Wind" by Isa Kamari

Hey folks! Somehow I neglected to mention on this blog that I was dropping by Singapore for a weekend, to watch a closed-door reading of my new play SHEARES (and to be bombarded by constructive criticisms during a Q&A afterwards).

Of course, while I was there I took care to stock up on books:

Top row: Tse Hao Guang's Hyperlinkage, Amanda Lee Koe's The Ministry of Moral Panic, Jason Erik Lundberg's Lontar #01: Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, Theophilus Kwek's Circle Line.
Middle row: Gwee Li Sui's The Myth of the Stone, 24 Flavours: Dolphin Meat, Best New Singaporean Short Stories (I'm in this!!!)
Bottom row: Cyril Wong's The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza, Gregory Nalpon's The Wayang at Eight Milestone and Other Stories, Isa Kamari's The Tower.

A fair handful, I know. But today I'd like to focus on another book: a novel that was pressed into my hands shortly before my first departure from Singapore - A Song of the Wind (originally Memeluk Gerhana) by the stellar Malay-language poet, playwright, songwriter and fictionist Isa Kamari.

I've been following Isa's work for some time now: reading the novels he's had translated, trying to read his poems in Malay, watching his plays (okay, it was one play). Always, I've been intrigued by his perspectives, but also frustrated by his authorial decisions, the style he chooses for narration, the quality of his translations, and of course the pervasiveness of Islam in his works - not in a transcendental form but manifesting in the form of a structure of rules that often prevents his characters from doing and thinking truly interesting things.

These problems are here again in A Song of the Wind, but we'll focus on the positives first. Basically, this conveys more intimately than any other text I've read what it was like to grow up in a kampung in Singapore. It follows the story of Ilham, a kid who moves into Kampung Tawakal in 1967, playing war in the jungle with his friends, collecting spiders in matchboxes, building go-carts from shopkeepers' leftover crates, stealing chickens, peeping at the neighbour's wife in the bath hut. It's also fortuitous that the kampung in question is on Bukit Brown, the site of the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, now threatened by development. (The Malaysian translator, alas, has mistakenly translated this as simply "Brown Hill").

But this isn't just a record of a vanished community. It's also a memoir of the political climate of the late '60s and '70s. Ilham listens in on discussions of current events: the moon landing, the Vietnam War, Nixon's impeachment. There's not much explicit related about the PAP, but there's National Service in army and the police, and there's also the resentment of some Malays, some of who wish they'd taken up Malaysia's 1965 offer of farmland in return for changing citizenship. Plus, *SPOILER ALERT!!!!* there's a clash between Ilham's religious study group and the ISA which happens in the last section of the book, which ultimately ruins his chances of advancing in society as a smart young Malay man.*SPOILERS END* There's definitely a degree of testimony going on here - Isa wants us to remember that all this happened.

Then there's the romance stuff. Sure, I get it, sexual/romantic feelings are going to be a major part of almost any boy's adolescence. There's a place for that in a book like this. What I don't understand is why it has to be such a huge part - why on earth does he end up with three different girls from different eras of his life by the time he's doing his A-Levels in Raffles Institution? There's an ideological reason why, I suppose - each one represents a different facet of his destiny - and inevitably there's the bad Muslim girl who refuses to wear her tudung (I don't think many girls did in the '70s anyway!) and (shock, horror) kisses another boy in public. Seriously, though, these girls do not come across as three-dimensional, independent characters with lives of their own. Also, having three suitoresses does not endear us to Iham - we're alienated 'cos that sure didn't happen to us, and anyway he's a namby-pamby goody-two-shoes who can't actually do good by any of them.

The real flaw of A Song of the Wind, however, is that it's trying to do too much. Perhaps this is all stuff that actually happened to Isa (don't think the spoiler bits above did, though). Very well: then he can write a memoir about it. Otherwise, the rise and fall of the kampung is one story; the romance is another; the downfall of a promising young Malay boy is (possibly) another. The whole does not cohere.

There are probably different standards in Malay literature that render these flaws inconsequential. But in the Anglophone tradition, the book's problematic. It's only fun to read for a while before you stop caring much about the characters.

Mind you, I'm glad I read the book. It's just that I'd be more inclined to recommend it for academic purposes than for entertainment ones. That's not a good thing.

I've also got Isa's other two recently-translated books, Rawa and 1819, to review - that is, unless the publisher stops me. In case you're still stoked, he's having a launch for them on 10 November, 11:30am at the Singapore Writers Festival, Festival Green. More on the SWF here.

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