I ask those who think about society, who love life, whose blood has reached a temperature that makes them indignant about [these] injustices, to become a bit more zealous… Because if no one budges at all, then the authorities will be in no hurry to do anything, and every time it must respond, the government will once again respond in the way that it always responds to us: ‘The Annamese people still lack the capacity.’ wrote Vu Trong Phung at the end of Lục xì (Dispensary), one of his most well-known reportages, in which he explores the industry of prostitution in early 20th century Hanoi with questions about colonial patriarchal society and the course of its development.
I accidentally bumped into The gift of rain, which was lying dusted on the bookshelf when I first arrived at the apartment in P. almost nine months ago. Its author, Tan Twan Eng, one of the most well-known contemporary Malaysian writers, was longlisted and shortlisted for Man Booker and went on to win Man Asia Literary Prize, which made him known to me though I don’t usually read a book just because it is awarded some prize. I started to read, and was captivated right from the first sentence although, contrary to common expectations, it took me nearly two weeks to finish. (I’m a really slow reader, much to the extent that sometimes I think I have dyslexia).
Tan Twan Eng led me to another well-known Malaysian writer, Tash Aw. Both spent their childhood in their native Malaysia, Tan in Penang and Aw in Kuala Lumpur; were educated at prestigious institutions in Britain: Tan at University of London, Aw at Cambridge, Warwick and East Anglia and whose works were recognised with Man Booker’s tags more or less. I was also curious about Aw after watching his hour-long interview with Edouard Louis about the latter’s book En finir avec Eddy Bellegeule (English: The End of Eddy), about which I was also curious but it was until much recently did I finish, at London Review bookshop, so much so that I read all interviews with Aw available online and also enjoyed his essay Look East, look to the future in Granta.
It was six weeks left before I leave Saigon when I (accidentally) saw Aw’s books in the bookshop that I frequented, those that I bought without second thoughts although I was trying not to buy more books because I already couldn’t manage to bring all of them with me, or to sell them off, or to give them away. I read Map of Invisible World, which is beautifully written with a clear plotline, a product of the MFA in Creative Writing at East Anglia I think, as it is the case with John Boyne’s writings. (The famous school even gets more attention and eye-rolling after its alumnus Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize). What the novel lacks is the chemistry between characters for it seems to me a pre-destined fairy tale which the author tried to weave to no avail. The knots are unfastened way too easily and quickly towards the end of the story.
To make it worse, all the characters are one-sided in the sense that all Asians are superficial, irrational, too sentimental and can’t even think for themselves while almost (not all at least, sweet Jesus) Westerners are good-willed, rational, beautiful in their own way, educated at Ivy school, interested and knowledgable in arts, well-travelled and seem to be the only ones who know what they are doing, flawless and impeccable. I was really distressed and annoyed when the nurse who worked at the hospital where Margaret came to ask about Karl was mentioned again and again as “the nurse called Cantik”. Why did he not just call her Cantik or the nurse? Why “the nurse called Cantik”? Moreover, while Z (Zubiddah) spoke English without an accent, the fact was treated with sarcasm, Margaret spoke Javanese before the audience who stood in awe of her non-accented speech? I wonder why. And it was the Asians who would do everything crazy and wait for the rational Westerners come to succour them.
Adam is busy finding his adoptive Dutch father, Karl, and sometimes thinks about his brother, who is playing around in Malaysia, withdrawn from his wealthy adoptive family and sometimes thinks about the former with the guilt of leaving him behind and the memories of their orphanage where they spent their childhood. In the intervals are the love story between Karl and Margaret, an American who was raised in the farthest possible island of Indonesia and her visits to this and that influential person to ask about Karl amid the flare of students’ protests in Jakarta. Adam is caught into a plot to assassinate the then president of the newly born Indonesia but helped to get out of it by a girl he met before who happens to be there at the incident and who happens to be the daughter of a very influential man who happens to be the president’s friend and supporter who, in the end, helps to find Karl and brings him back to Adam before all of them are helped by Margaret’s influential friends to flee the country before a crisis breaks out.
Sadly, beautiful writing and (disguided) homoeroticism (which I am uncannily drawn to) are no substitute for skepticism and racism that are not to be ignored.
And I prefer The gift of rain because, among many other things, it has better balance in the portrayal of Asian characters. It has to be noted that both books have settings in Malaysia and Indonesia sometime before and after Second World War and both have to resort to deus machina as a way to end the stories (in The gift of rain it’s the incarnation and the self-sacrifice of Philip’s father). In Tan’s novel, Philip Hutton, the protagonist, is half English half Chinese young man who has around him a lot of other impressive Asian casts including his best friend Kon, Kon’s father and Philip’s maternal grandfather whose story about his tenure as a private tutor for a Qing prince is arresting.
I was reading Map of Invisible World while the Internet was all crazy about Crazy Rich Asians in its debut week. It is true that the class of le nouveau riche in Asia (but not all) has much arrogance, flamboyance and cliches with them but it cannot be true if it seems as though the West were never rich, or the West is destined to be rich, so much so that it cannot be deemed crazy at all. And among very rare negative opinions about the film, I found this eloquent and unapologetic.
As a Singaporean and as someone who loves this city, Crazy Rich Asians is a painful revelation for me of how hungry we are for external validation. Pooja Nansi said.
It is more than half a century since most Asian countries gained independence from Western colonist empires, it is more timely than ever to ask why many, Asians themselves, still consider Asian race as inferior to its counterpart in the West.
Do Asians still lack the capacity? I wonder, nearly eighty years since the death of Vu Trong Phung.