Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Birth of a nation

LEGACY by Shahriza Hussein (Editions Didier Millet, 359 pages, 2008).

Last week, we looked at how Kee Thuan Chye’s play We Could **** You Mr. Birch deconstructed Malaysian history by taking the infamous Perak Resident’s murder as its starting-point.

It seems that JWW Birch will not leave us alone, as this week’s novel Legacy has a lot to do with him, too. True, he kicks the bucket after page 18, but his spirit (sometimes quite literally) haunts the rest of the book. The novel, written in a more conventional style than the play, aspires to the ‘sweeping’, multi-generational scope of a saga like The Thorn Birds.

And what an entertaining read it is! I finished it in less than 48 hours, and I’m normally such a slow reader.

Shahriza Hussein is 65 but this is his debut novel. I hope we don’t have to wait long for his next one.

The main character, Mastura, was the young widow of Perak’s Sultan Jaafar. She also had a great fondness for Birch. Although the author is discreet about just how far this fondness went, she is greatly affected by his death. She comes into possession of his time-piece, and she vows to return it to its rightful place. This novel literally takes us right to the moment when this becomes possible, over eight decades later.

In the intervening years, Mastura took another husband (a commoner!) and presided as matriarch over the next two generations. The final vow is not actually fulfilled by her but a descendant.

I actually found the business of the time-piece to be one of the less interesting things in the novel; it is an unusually arbitrary McGuffin. But what really resonates in Legacy is the rich portrait of how a family progresses along with the nascent nation.

Mastura and her husband Mansur form the moral centre of the story. Enterprising and generous, they chafe at the restrictions of Malay feudalism, form alliances with Chinese tycoons, and regard the British as mostly benevolent protectors. Theirs is as essentially conservative worldview that has no time for the ‘radical’ and ‘impatient’ left-wing politics of the time.

What a main character posits is that the British made Malaya. Without the intervention of Birch and his like, people here would continue to be victims of petty conflicts between Royal or clan despots. The way the British eradicated Malay slavery within a decade is one example of progressive politics.

It’s not fashionable in Merdeka month to have a sentimental view of the colonials, but Legacy has a generosity of vision, at least when it comes to capturing the sympathies of this particular landed Malay family.

We get a real sense of the nation being physically built – being hacked out of the jungle, as it were: the roads, buildings, plantations and water systems all bring dramatic momentum. And of the attitudes being shaped, too: It’s wonderful to read of rich Malay families relaxing over port and sherry, and of Mastura’s daughter valiantly attempting to become the first local woman to drive a car in public.

The obvious historical landmarks would be the two World Wars and the Emergency, and we also get smaller but locally significant events like the sensational murder trial of Ethel Proudlock in 1911, the Touchang Riots of 1912 (where people were killed because of hair) and the devastating KL flood of 1926.

Actual historical personages walk in and out of the drama. Aside from Birch, you get to meet Frank Swettenham, Loke Yew, Chin Peng, counter-intelligence expert CC Too, as well as Victoria Institution’s first headmaster Bennett Shaw. Oh, and The Malay Mail is heavily featured, too.

I’ve said that this novel has a conventional style, but that’s not to discount something remarkable it does: It moves episodically, with each chapter separated by a few years. These ellipses mean that important events such as deaths always seem to happen off-screen, and we get only references in conversations later. I think this is what makes it so unputdownable: You‘re always trying to catch up.

That, and the fact that some of the characters are so wonderfully drawn that you miss them when they’re gone. Because they – with all their imperfections and ticks – have become family.

(Malay Mail, 27 August 2008)


savante said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog though I bet you didn't expect that when you googled lelaki komunis terakhir was it? :) BTW my friends saw Susuk and that started them talking about VPL. Don't ask me how.

Anonymous said...


In the spirit of Merdeka, would you like to write about my play "The Big Purge" in your Malay Mail column?


Diran said...

Oh god, I didnt notice it was Mr. Amir Muhammad who commented on my blog. You're the Amir. The one who made Susuk. The one who made the so called controversial 'The Last Communist'. Oh wow!!!You are good.The one and only!!!!Wow!Well i wish i could watch the The Last Communist. Not sure why the government was banging its head for when this movie came out. Oh well, they bang thier heads for any other movie then P.Ramlee's movie in Malaysia. Nothing surprising there. Anyhow, keep up the good work. If Malaysian Gods are going to be played, count me and and my geng of friends watching it. Luck!

Anonymous said...

Hey Amir, I very much enjoyed your review of We Could **** You, Mr. Birch and of this novel, which I now want to read! Will pick it up on my next visit home. I just had a short story called "Birch Memorial" published in a literary journal in the US. To be honest JWW plays a rather oblique role in my story, but it is an attempt to revisit certain questions about colonialism and power. I'll bring you a copy in October.