How many readers of arts magazine Off The Edge suspected that that old codger Datuk Hamid, reminiscing about earlier and happier times in his monthly column, was actually Kam, giving voice to one of Malaysian literature's most engaging characters? I twigged quite early on because I'd heard Kam read extracts of a work in progress at our monthly gathering. And now finally, Confessions of an Old Boy: The Dato' Hamid Adventures is in our hands.
Kam writes in the foreword to the book that he feels as if he's known Datuk Hamid all his life, that it felt as if he needed to exist. And in an article which appeared in last month's Off The Edge he says:
I like to think Dato' Hamid is very real (even though I made him up) and that he encapsulates a breed of person that many of us know and most of us can recognise. He is of the old breed that has been airbrushed out of our history, bu who would sooner quote Shakespeare than wave a kris ... would be more a ease in a cocktail party than a kampong ...And being a friend to many MCKK old boys of my husband's generation and older, I feel that I've met Dato' Hamid many times over!
Dato' Hamid was born, we're told, somewhere between the 1920's and early 1930's, educated at Malay College (dubbed the Eton of the East and set up by the British to create a Malayan civil service) and then at university in the UK before returning home to take up a post in The Ministry. He's a charming old rascal - cultured, well travelled, hedonistic ... and also a little lazy and easily corruptible.
He narrates his memoirs in the book. (Dictates them to Kam as in the picture below?)
Dato' Hamid doesn't actually seem to like the present day and the direction Malaysia has taken very much, and expresses to some extent the Kam Raslan's own sense of alienation.
The author says in the Off the Edge piece.
Many of us gaze over the serried ranks at an UMNO general assembly and do not recognise ourselves or our aspirations in that crowd. These are the Malay masses and they deserve to be represented vigorously. But I'm not one of them. Where do we go if we're not one of them? In my own case I have gone back to the past. I wanted to find a voice in another outsider.Dato' Hamid's son, "the Ayatollah" represents a certain type of "new Malay" that's only too familiar (goatee-bearded, fanatical, politically ambitious and smugly self-righteous) and is a character I would have liked to see very much more of in the book, particularly because he gives rise to some inspired moments of social commentary.
I don't know where they came from and I don't know where they are taking us ...says Hamid, speaking I'm sure for many readers. (How many times have I been told that the country was a gentler, kinder, more tolerant place "back then"?)
Hamid finds that he has much more in common with The Grandson, a computer animator who makes good in Hollywood, despite his purple (and later green!) hair and the ring though his nose.
Confessions is a collection of stories, four of them short episodes, and three much more substantial pieces.
My favourite is Ariff and Capitalism, set between Kuala Lumpur and London in 1972 in which Hamid gets drawn into a get-rich-quick scam with hilarious results. (Below, Hamid, being seduced by the buxom "Edwina" at the Sheikh's dinner party in London.)
I also thoroughly enjoyed the rambunctiousness of Dato' in Love which involves among other things the seduction of a Swiss milkmaid and the theft of a diamond.
In The Beat Generation Hamid reminisces about the time in the 1950's when he was dragged along by his friend Nik to work in Paris and Algiers a drummer with a band. Kam writes in his Off the Edge article:
I wanted to show the Malay/Malaysian wanderlust ... Dato' Hamid came back after his adventure, but so many Malaysians have travelled and have never come back. ... What happened to that spirit of adventure? Who let complacency in?The longest story in the book is Murder in Parit Chindai, which gives a Malaysian twist to the traditional Agatha Christie type murder in the library at a country house with a cast of eccentric characters, any one of whom could have done the grisly deed. It's a very clever piece, and I appreciated the fact that Kam brought in characters of other races (which happens too rarely in fiction by Malaysian authors). But I felt that Hamid and the others seemed like pawns being moved around the chessboard of the necessarily complex plot of the whodunit, rather than initiating action themselves. (It felt in this story as if Kam were pulling the strings rather than taking dictation which for me made it less effective than the other stories.) (Below ... another body.)
The Malayans is set "Somewhere near Seremban - 2001" and is a conversation between a group of old friends, Malaysians of different races (a reminder that the ethnic divisions was not a feature of the landscape of the country in the past) following the death of one of their gang on the golf course. They mull over life, talk about their children and contemplate the principles and idealism on which the new country was founded at Independence and how it has lived up to them.
Would I recommend the book? Most definitely. It's hugely enjoyable, deeply relevant, and beautifully written. I read it with a huge smile on my face, often laughing out loud at the turn of a phrase.
I am left saying that I want more, much more of Dato' Hamid, his friends and family ... especially The Ayatollah!
A very nicely written review by Dzireena Mahadzir appeared last Sunday's Readsmonthly supplement of the Star.