Wednesday 9 July 2008

Blue shoes and happiness

KASUT BIRU RUBINA: Koleksi Fiksyen Pop Untuk Jiwa2 Hadhari Vol 1 by Sufian Abas (Sang Freud Press, 2008, 76 pages).

Had enough of politics? Oh, all right then. Let it never be said that this column ever bucks a trend, so this week’s book has nothing to do with politics at all.

Oh wait. The subtitle contains the word ‘hadhari.’ Does this imply some sort of veiled critique of our Prime Minister’s Islamic civilisational efforts? Not necessarily so.

Kasut Biru Rubina is a collection of shorts stories. It is slim, just like a ransom note. Many of the stories are barely a page long.

In an interview, the author says that he was inspired by the ‘disposable fiction’ of Jewish writer Hermann Broch. How naughty of this Malay writer to admit to a Jewish influence! Not content with that, he throws in another reference: Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

I have not read either of those gentlemen, not due to any anti-Semetic leanings, but simply because I am not as well-read as Sufian is, or claims to be. But his fiction does remind me of the work of Saharil Hasrin Sanin, as collected in the book Lagi Cerpen-Cerpen Underground (2002).

Saharil had some great stories that were only a paragraph long; he called them certot, which is a combination of the words cerpen (short story) and kontot (stunted). So I am sure Sufian was inspired by this book as well, although he is too shy to admit it.

Kasut Biru Rubina
juxtaposes, with studious glee, the pop-inflected banality of contemporary life with inspired surrealism. Some of the stories are melancholy but most are either macabre or misanthropic; the best combine all three.

Ponder the fate of Melah, for example. She wants to get to university, but isn’t sure her SPM grades are that good. She starts to fantasise about university life, replete with a TV drama-inspired romance with a rich but idealistic young guy with a penchant for big bikes. This fantasy is richly detailed – you can just hear the muzak – right up to its tragic denouement, which gets all confused in Melah’s mind with the arrival of an actual letter from the university folks.

Another story has a different (or the same but older?) Melah who wakes up without a body, while her husband is missing his head. They have a conversation to try resolve this dilemma, and the ending is as twisted but sweet as any Tim Burton tale.

Sufian’s sardonic sense of humour, and his keen eye for the ridiculous and hypocritical, actually reminds me of another Jewish bloke, the American filmmaker Todd Solondz, whose film Happiness was such an entertaining parade of – you guessed it – misery. Perhaps someone can write a thesis on the unexpected commonalities between Malay and Jewish humour? A form of persecution complex might lie at the heart of both.

One of the stories is set on Valentine’s Day, so you know it’s not going to be happy. Suraya finds a Coca-Cola bottle floating in the Klang river. The macho bottle asks to be rescued, and so Suraya thinks she’s got a hot date. Little does she know that this bottle turns out to be a beer-guzzling cheat.

Kasut Biru Rubina successfully fashions a bouncy idiom that parodies contemporary ephemera: the language of chat-shows, flirty TV serials, hyperbolic commercials, pseudo-pious exhortations and, yes, political sloganeering. Even the Introduction reads like those Nigerian email scams we’ve all received.

But it isn’t all jokes; there is some unexpected pathos amidst the manic grins, a pathos that derives from the loneliness and unfulfilled hopes of its characters, who just want to get by but are frequently mocked by the symbols of success around them. But there’s not much danger of sentimentality, since something blackly grotesque is bound to happen on the next page.

This slim, handsome paperback is ideal for reading on the LRT. And if, in the crush, you happen to accidentally leave the book on the seat with your frayed umbrella (even though you remembered your take-away nasi lemak), well, you can always chalk it up to experience. Perhaps another soul will pick it up and start reading it, which might mark the start of another surreal adventure. I envy the person who finds it!

(Malay Mail, 9 July 2008).


an--ew said...

Dahuang's website said "apa khabar orang kampung" is not available in Malaysia. Does it mean you cant ship it to a Malaysian address or...?
Am asking a friend to bring it to Aus for me actually. Should i bother you or them? Sama orang kan?

Amir Muhammad said...

Here's a tip: Get your friend to order it from a Malaysian adress anyway; the results might be surprising :-)

Sufian said...

Hermann Broch ler dude... :)


zubin said...

Interesting comment about Kasut Biru. Must find this book. Thx.