Columnist Umapagan Ampikaipakan asks a very interesting question in the Star today: where's the Great Malaysian Novel?
Such a novel would be, he says:
Epic in nature, but not in proportion, it would be universally regarded as required reading. It would be a source of inspiration, an ideal to strive towards.I'm not too sure what he means by "source of inspiration" and he doesn't elaborate ... the three books he picks out are all deeply critical about Malayan/Malaysian society as well as extremely well-written and entertaining. (Inspiring then, in a sense because authors shouldn't be afraid to be critical? I would say that this is a very good idea to strive towards!)
These books would be high on my own list of greatest reads about Malaysia too: Anthony Burgess The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy; Henri Faulconnier's Malaisie (translated into English as The Soul of Malaya), and a novel which isn't a novel but travel and social commentary, Rehman Rashid's A Malaysian Journey.
The idea of a Great (Fill in the Name of Your Country) Novel actually has it's origins in the US where it has become something of a national preoccupation. Remember the search for the Great American Novel in the New York Times last year? The Brits have, probably wisely, never given the notion of the Great British Novel much thought, although the Observer sportingly drew up a list of the best novels of the last 25 years. (In India Sashi Tharoor saved everyone the bother of even thinking of another one!)So what would the Great American Novel look like? (Then by extention we might be able to identify its Malaysian cousin.) Critic A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times (article now archived on the International Herald Tribune site):
The hippogriff, a monstrous hybrid of griffin and horse, is often taken as the very symbol of fantastical impossibility, a unicorn's unicorn. But the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster. It is a creature that quite a few people - not all of them certifiably crazy - claim to have seen.And he says, there were also American critics who didn't hold much with the idea of elevating one or two books over the rest and calling them the greatest:
There were those who sighed that they could not possibly select one book to place at the summit of an edifice with so many potential building blocks, and those who railed against the very idea of such a monument. More common was the worry that our innocent inquiry, by feeding the deplorable modern mania for ranking, would distract from the serious business of literature and, worse, subject it to damaging trivialization. To consecrate one work as the best would be to risk the implication that no one need bother with the rest. The determination of literary merit, it was suggested, should properly be a matter of reasoned judgment and persuasive argument, not mass opinionizing.But here's some food for thought when we talk about the literature we want and are hungry for. How supportive are we of the writers who are brave enough to put their words out there?
If you read Rehman's foreword to his latest edition of A Malaysian Journey, you will see how he was initially turned away by publisher after publisher who deemed his material too controversial. In the end he was forced to self-publish.
Burgess' Malayan Trilogy has endured decades of neglect in Malaysia, been sidelined by postcolonial literary types in academia who decried it an orientalist text, perpetuating myths about the country, and more recently became a "restricted" book thanks to some bureaucrat deciding that copies shouldn't be allowed into the country.
How many readers have read Faulconnier's book ... or even have heard of it's existence? (Hands up guys!) How many copies of it could you round up if you went around the bookshops? (Silverfish has it though, I bought a replacement copy the other day.)
As I've said before, it is time to pay more attention to Malaysia's literary heritage, much of which is out or print, hard to get copies of, or goes untranslated.
And I'd like to ask Mr Umapagan a question: why didn't your article didn't give a single mention to Malaysian authors who have won considerable recognition overseas and at home in the last few years? Have they slipped below your radar, or do you really think that they don't make the grade?
Because I reckon that however you measure it, the Great Malaysian Novel might not be as far away as you think.
Raman points out:
The Great Malaysian novel (or the great Malaysian anything) is going to happen when somebody does it, not when somebody talks about it ...