Wednesday 17 September 2008

City of mud

Mat Som by Lat (Berita Publishing, 2004 (original edition 1989), 189 pages)

Last week, we looked at A Samad Ismail’s short stories. He was more than just a short-story writer, of course. Rather topically, he was a detainee of the notorious Internal Security Act!

But since we don’t have to be topical, let’s instead check out this book where he makes an appearance. He plays the titular guy’s boss, a crusty but benign newspaper editor.

Unlike his earlier hits Kampung Boy and Town Boy, Lat does not make this story explicitly autobiographical. Mat Som wants to write, not draw. But in some ways it can be seen as a continuation of the earlier two books. The shy but studiously observant narrator is getting used to his surroundings, which have grown from a small village to town (Ipoh) and now KL.

Mat Som (the person) could stand in for any number of young men in Kuala Lumpur with uncertain employment and romantic prospects. And the Kuala Lumpur we see is very much a time-capsule of the 1980s: replete with minibuses, and cameos from the poets and artists who were then active.

Mat Som (the book) is popular but has not become as canonical as the first two books. Is this because people prefer autobiography?

Mat Som struggles to survive as a freelance writer. His father wants him to marry his village play-mate Faridah, whom he has not seen in years. Although chafing at how old-fashioned the idea of an arranged marriage is, he nevertheless agrees to meet her. In the meantime, he is also mildly flirting with his comely neighbour Yam.

Set during the course of only a few days, the book is beefed out with flashbacks to Mat Som’s village boyhood. The trigger for the memories always seems to be water, whether it’s a mad downpour or a decadent swimming-pool. Perhaps looking at the clearness of water is a way to escape from the mud of city life.

To the uninitiated, it might seem odd that Mat Som’s circle of friends is much more mono-racial than what Lat represented in Town Boy. Was Ipoh in the 1960s a more culturally diverse place than KL in the 80s?

Then again, Lat’s work is here is descriptive rather then prescriptive. Politically, Mat Som can be reminded that he is a ‘prince of the land.’ In all other respects, this does not hold true; his visit to his father’s depressing workplace confirms this.

One of the loveliest images here is of him and Yam having late-night sup kambing at a stall, under a makeshift awning of an old Hindi movie poster painted on cloth. The movie is Hamraaz (1967), a glamorous murder mystery set among the rich and famous. The two people under the cloth are being temporarily sheltered by this fantasy world.

He’s indignant when Tanjung Malim, in some ways the birthplace of the Malay intelligentsia, is casually insulted by big-city kids on a train-stop. But what are his other political views? He existed at a time when there did not seem to be much choice, as the BN establishment was so entrenched. Oppositional discourse didn’t yet find a way to include the many people like him. But if this were set just a decade later, I wonder if he would have attended reformasi demonstrations, and why.

In him, the values of the village and the city struggle to reconcile. We see this most explicitly in the closing scene. He has just served as best man at a friend’s wedding, and is still in formal baju Melayu. Yam, who is in jeans, takes him along to an unknown destination.

It turns out to be a rock concert. The rockers in their skin-tight gear snigger at his incongruous attire. But he learns to enjoy it, by standing in the wings with Yam. The fact that he’s in the wings is as significant as the urban-rural juxtaposition he visually represents. He is, in a sense, waiting for his turn to get on stage.

When reviewing this book in 1989, Kee Thuan Chye was disappointed that it was not a tougher social critique. He thought the ending promised something more, and expected a sequel. Lat has not come up with one and I don’t know if he intends to.

But in the meantime, thousands of Mat Soms are walking and dreaming around you today. Only the mat rempit among them get their stories told easily. But the rest will have their say.

(Malay Mail, 17 September 2008)

1 comment:

Ted Mahsun said...

I never thought of Mat Som as a spiritual sequel to Town Boy and Kampung Boy. That's an interesting notion and will have to reread Mat Som in light of this revelation.

Life Lessons Learned from Mat Som: Never wear a sarong while chasing a cat that's stolen your fried fish.

It has helped me a lot all these years!