Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bonus Review: "1819" by Isa Kamari

I'm back in Singapore! And it's high time to get moving on what I was asked to do a couple of months ago: review Isa Kamari's translated novels. I spoke about Song of the Wind two months ago, but in the past few days, I've neglected Scottish literature in favour of 1819, originally published in Malay in 2011 under the title Duka Tuan Betakhta (Your Sorrow Reigns). ("Tuan" can mean either "lord" or "you" in a super-polite way, so I'm iffy about that translation.)

This one's another historical novel, centred around the British colonization of Singapore in said year and its later effects. Every Singaporean kid studies this: how Sir Stamford Raffles arrives in the land with a heroic vision to develop it as a free port, and how he succeeds in his aim by double-crossing the Malay princes into giving him rights to the land. It's all presented in a rather dispassionate way - it's clear as day that he was doing some dirty dealing, but we're not inspired to patriotic fury over it.

I've seen a number of artistic interpretations of this story - children's books, Asiapac comics, Robert Yeo's play The Eye of History and Haresh Sharma's play Singapore, even a TV serial/movie I remember seeing as a kid. I've been party to this too - I wrote a play called The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles, rebelling against the "civilising", "ordering" forces that the Brits sought to impose on us. A lot of my research actually relied on The Golden Sword by Nina Epton, a 1969 British novel about Raffles's life.

1819 gives us something new. It's a dramatisation of those times from a thoroughly Malay perspective: that is, it's drawing its historical materials primarily from Malay resources.  This means that alongside  British East India Company colleagues Colonel William Farquhar and Dr John Crawfurd, as well as colonial stooge sellouts like the Temenggong Abdul Rahman, Sultan Hussein and the scribe Munsyi Abdullah, we've got the Muslim saint Habib Noh, the silat warrior Wak Cantuk and the treacherous, queen-shagging royal advisor Abdul Kadir. These are figures who do not appear *at all* in our mainstream textbooks - whom even well-meaning non-Malay Singaporean history buffs like myself are ignorant of.

(That being said, I found out a bunch about Habib Noh and his miracles at a walking tour to his tomb, organised by the NUS Museum a few years ago. You should totally go there.)

I'd urge all Singaporeans to read this book, because the stories in here are incredibly important. They challenge the platitude that Singapore was "a sleepy fishing village" before colonisation, as well as the idea that the Malays were unified or led by noble Sultans (the nobles are opium-addled obese fools and the Malays of the Johor-Riau Empire are in a clandestine war with the Bugis). And we should learn about the miracles of Habib Noh and the murderous amok spree of Wak Cantuk, because they paint a picture of the strangeness and fractiousness that happens when societies go through rapid cultural changes, just like what we're experiencing today.

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that this is a wonderfully readable book - it's not, again due to cultural and aesthetic translation gaps. There's a ridiculous amount of historical *telling* that happens, especially in the first few chapters, as Isa is super-anxious to divulge all the details of history that he's gleaned. Even when it's plopped into dialogue, it's really heavy-handed. The Brits are cartoon villains who cackle at their nefarious plots, and the "common man" is represented by this buffoonish trio of kampung kids named Sudin, Ajis and Ramli, who gossip and piss in their sarongs in that silly distracting way that foolish peasants do in Shakespearean plays. Doesn't work, really - the average joe ends up looking dumb when he has the capacity for nobility.

And if we're gonna impose political agendas on this - and why shouldn't we? - I've also gotta point out that the constant name-calling of Abdul Kadir as a "half-breed bastard" because he's half-Indian is never challenged, not even by Munsyi Abdullah, who was 100% Tamil himself. (Abdullah seems to be a stand-in for the author himself - an intellectual who knows he has the brains to lead the Malay community, only he's been co-opted to the institutions, and only wants to be known as a writer anyway.)

Plus, there's way too little herstory in here - there's only passing reference to the wives of the players, and no acknowledgment that they too had influence on the development/devolution of Singapore: Sophia Raffles, Farquhar's half-Malay half-French concubine Nonio Clement, and the adulterous queen Tengku Perabu (okay, she does get a bit more screen time, because she's instrumental to the downfall of the Sultanate, but very little agency's portrayed). No appearance of that great independent businesswoman Hajjah Fatimah, either, even though she fits right into the time period. But I can't ask an author to be feminist, can I, especially after I've criticised his portrayals of women in his other books.

And the truth is, the imperfections of this book frustrate me to the degree that I want the right to adapt or expand the book to incorporate my own perspectives and historical tidbits - maybe this doesn't belong in a book, really; it should be its own TV serial on Suria or Channel Five, when Mediacorp actually grows a pair.

You see, the stories in this book - tales of betrayal, magic, revenge, cultural genocide - deserve a place in the wider collective imagination. There's only a limited number of eyeballs it can reach in print form, especially with this particular translation. What we need is a transcreation, that adapts with the aim of creating a work of art that stands by itself...

And I suppose I should volunteer to do such a thing, if only I'd the time. What I'll be up to instead is stealing a whole bunch of historical details from this for my own fiction.

Thanks, Isa! Will get round to reading that last book, Rawa, soon - just after my Scottish book. :D

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