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)


Ted Mahsun said...

Amir, did you notice that the recent editions of Kampung Boy has one page censored/changed?

In the original edition, after Mamat returns from the illegal dredging his father slaps Mamat so hard he falls down the stairs of his house.

In the recent editions that has changed although I forget what the new page shows. I discovered this while flipping through the US version. Had to check the local editions to see whether it was only the US version but even the local editions had been changed. The change in the art style is very noticeable.

Anyone knows why Lat removed that page? I think he shouldn't have done that.

Ted Mahsun said...

Oops, illegal panning, not dredging.

Amir Muhammad said...

Hmm. It now shows the kid trying to escape up a tree but getting grabbed by the ankle...

If I ever meet Lat, I will ask!

Anonymous said...

Lat's Kampung Boy / Budak Kampung - original vs present comparison

Anonymous said...

semasa kecil, i'm into ujang aku budak minang (eventhough i'm not one ;)

Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

dammit, this reminds me of the fucker who borrowed some of my Lat graphic novels, including Kampung Boy and Town Boy, and never returned them!!! and now i learn that the original is different from the new version! double damn!!

Anonymous said...

Amir, thank you for this wonderful review. Kampung Boy is a true Malaysian classic, and you've said everything about it that I've ever wanted to say, so now I can just direct people to this review when I want to talk about it! It is indeed a generous work, in every sense of the word. And now when you look back it, a sharp sense of loss tempers that "concrete and lively" nostalgia.

-- Preeta

Amir Muhammad said...

Thanks Khys for the detective work and Preeta for your comments :-)

Speaking of nostalgia: I went back today to a magazine shop that I had not visited since A-Levels. And the guy at the counter (who looks exactly the same) was reading the Malay Mail and showed me the column! It was like nothing had changed.

Jhebat, do a Buku Untuk Filem for me one day! Erm, maybe even Guo too – unless you have SB Toh's number?

Anonymous said...

ted, terbitan EDISI BARU "Budak Kampung" tempatan juga SUDAH DIUBAH. Gambar seakan nampak lari sedikit (kenapa perubahan?)

51 senarai dlm The Star tu paling mengarut pernah aku baca: The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, MD: THIS is one of the first of the self-help books, and it is unique - apa ke benda ni kena mengena dgn 51 thn merdeka?

Amir Muhammad said...

Fadz pun kena buat Buku Untuk Filem. Heh. Nak buat Histeria ke?

Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

apa la dah jadi ngan dunia ni ... sampai Guo jadi second choice! hahahaha.

OK, nanti aku SMS nombor SBT.

Bin Filem said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bin Filem said...

Buku Untuk Filem?

Unknown said...

Hi Amir, probably it is not politically correct these days to slap your son so hard he falls down the stairs. You'll be reported to teledera.

Another really cute bit is the little girl that appears in quite a few scenes. Nothing is ever said between them, but the girl always has her eyes on him. He doesn't seem to notice, except for the last scene when he is leaving his kampung and he looks up at her in farewell. Homage to a childhood romance, perhaps?

I love this book as well as Town Boy. I never tire of reading them. Wish I could have lived such a simple life.


Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

Lat's work is very cinematic, isn't it?