Wednesday, 3 September 2008
It takes a village
THE KAMPUNG BOY by Lat (Berita Publishing, 1979, 144 pages)
Another newspaper (which certainly is not called The Moon) recently ran a sprawling piece in which its writers recommended 51 books to be read on the occasion of our 51st Merdeka Day. Seeing as how we were having a long weekend, I was looking forward to some recommendations myself.
So I started reading the capsule descriptions. But it didn’t take long to notice there was something funny about the list, in both senses of the word ‘funny.’ Every single one of the 51 books was foreign. And this was pumped as some kind of Merdeka special?
Lest I be mistaken for the kind of demagogue who’d want to ban an Avril Lavigne concert, let me say that I am a big fan of foreigners, the sexier the better. But for a whole bunch of presumably educated locals to not be able to recommend a single local book for an Independence spread is, to use that word again, funny.
So I’d like to talk about – and recommend – a much-loved Malaysian book. It’s so famous that it needs no introduction, but I am going to give it one anyway. This was the first book by a man who joined The New Straits Times initially as a crime reporter, before his talents were better-used in another capacity.
The Kampung Boy takes us back to the village where Lat grew up. The “graphic novel” (although the term was not used then) spills over with life and laughter. Even the shape of the Lat books (slightly shorter than a standard paperback but much longer) has a panoramic generosity.
Your eyes roam around the page at leisure, picking out details. It had been maybe two decades since I’d last read it, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the images have stayed with me: the religious teacher’s rattan cane, the father’s sarong slipping off after his Tarzan impersonation, the younger sibling being taxied in a pinang spathe.
There were others that I probably didn’t catch before, such the drunken man hiccupping next to the tea-stall (in front of the mosque, mind you!)
This is art that is transparent; nothing is shoved in your face. The adolescent terrors (irate parents, ‘monster’ tin dredges) and joys (food, camadarerie with the Meor brothers) are sculpted, as it were, out of light. He was only 28 when he published this, so the nostalgia isn’t of the fuzzy but concrete and lively variety.
And it isn’t all rosy, either. The book ends with the possibility of the boy’s promised ‘property’ being sold off so that the family can move to the town. The tin-mining company that wants to buy the land is also the same one that sent the police after the boys who illegally panned in the wake of the dredges.
One can write a paper with the words ‘Malay identity’, ‘modernity’ and ‘capitalism’ about this particular theme. But the final wordless image of this book can say just as much and cause a little heartbreak along the way: We are inside the bus as it pulls away on a journey to boarding school, the boy is waving (we don’t see his face so we don’t know if the excitement outweighs the sadness) and the father is counting money in his wallet. They are also sitting in the back rather than front of the bus, which can either denote lower social status or be a complete coincidence.
The foreground cast is not as ‘multi-racial’ as in the later urban cartoons, but this never makes the book parochial. Rather, it’s the intimate and culturally specific details, shared with such generosity and warmth, that make it a classic. Like Adibah Amin, Lat is so secure in his own identity that when he looks at others he does not see threats, only opportunities to observe and learn.
The tone of the narration is kept as clear as the kampung river must have been. But no river is tranquil for long, as there’s always a naked adolescent waiting to jump in. So, too, does Lat’s impish pen frequently open up satirical possibilities that he would exploit further in his work.
Decades before its international success (the Japanese, French and German translations; the TV series; the plug from Matt Groening), The Kampung Boy spoke first to us. And it will continue to do so for as long as we think of home.
(Malay Mail, 3 September 2008)