Wednesday, 15 April 2009
Malaysian murder mystery
ECHOES OF SILENCE by Chuat Guat Eng (1994 (reissued 2009), Holograms, 343 pages)
I attended the launch of this novel way back in 1994. It was officiated by Rafidah Aziz (should I have written “none other than” before her name?). She gave a most unusual speech, because she said she hadn’t had time to read the novel, or in fact any “make-believe” story, but the book nonetheless lay on her bedside table.
I spent the rest of the event wondering what Rafidah Aziz’s bedside table looked like. Would it have frills or be sturdy and practical? Her words must have also made a deep impression, for I never actually read Echoes of Silence, even though I went on to read perhaps hundreds of novels in the ensuing years. (I was never a Cabinet Minister, lucky me.)
That event also taught me to never get a VIP to launch any of the books I have published: you never know when their darndest words could backfire on you.
I also tried very hard to not have any conversations with the author Chuah Guat Eng after that. You know, just in case she would allude to a section of the book, which she might presume I had read (after all, I was at the launch, and I write about books!) and I’d have to lie: “Oh yes, that bit! Yes yes yes. Loved it. Loooved it.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth: that everytime I contemplated reading it, I would get distracted by thoughts of Rafidah Aziz’s beside table. (Does she still keep the book there? Surely not. But what has it been replaced by? Now that she’s not in the Cabinet, does she have the time to read it?)
Anyway, Holograms recently re-issued the novel. And I finally read it over the weekend, and this is my report.
The narrator, Ai Lian, left Malaysia as a consequence of the 1969 riots. We are told this right at the beginning of Chapter One, but the riots themselves aren’t an explicit part of the book. She comes back to Malaysia with a rich ang moh boyfriend a few years later; he, too, had grown up in Malaysia, because his family owned a plantation.
The fun starts when a beautiful woman is found murdered in a gruesome way out in the woods. The discovery gets people all caught up in conspiracy theories. There are doubts as to whether the right people will be brought to justice. (Sounds familiar? But it was published in 1994!)
Chuah has fun with the oxymoronic title. It has to do with the gaps in our personal, and therefore political, histories. If, say, a parent isn’t completely forthcoming about his actions during a turbulent period, this willful reticence can amount to mendacious betrayal. Worse, the ‘silence’ then ‘echoes’ in the lives of the next generation, who are left not only clueless but psychologically impoverished. Despite the tease in the opening, we get more about communists and World War 2 than 1969…but the same principle applies.
There are a few reviews on the back-cover that call this novel ‘post-modern’, but we can safely dismiss those silly academic types for having the need to be taken seriously: the novel doesn’t radically critique its form.
It’s a murder mystery, but more languid than those of Ruth Rendell or our very own Shamini Flint. The writing is careful and sometimes witty, but there’s something overburdened about the plot. The many back-stories end up making us lose interest in finding the killer.
But Echoes of Silence wants to be more than just a ‘mere’ mystery, as can be seen in its subtitle: A Malaysian Novel. The genre is merely a vehicle to explore the idea of ‘belonging’ in (or to) Malaysia. One of the characters is even known by three names (one Chinese, one Christian, and one Malay), depending on who’s talking about her. That alone says much about how culture is inscribed, not to mention the role of gender and power relations.
And this makes me wonder what Rafidah Aziz would make of it.
(Malay Mail, 15 April)