Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Author Who Was Brave Enough

I recently read Lloyd Fernando's Green is the Colour (which had been sitting on my shelves for some time) partly as my way of commemorating Lloyd's death and partly, because it seemed a particularly relevant book to read around the time of the election.

It is a very interesting novel of ideas, set in an almost dystopian Malaysia in the aftermath of the racial riots of May 13, 1969. The country is still scarred by violence, vigilante groups roam the countryside, religious extremists set up camp in the hinterland, there are still sporadic outbreaks of fighting in the city, and everyone, all the time, is conscious of being watched. It comes as some surprise to find that the story is actually a contemporary (and very clever) reworking of a an episode from the Misa Melayu, an 18th century classic written by Raja Chulan.

In this climate of unease, Fernando employs a multi-racial cast of characters. At the centre of the novel there's a core of four main characters, good (if idealistic) young people who cross the racial divide to become friends, and even fall in love.

There's Dahlan, a young lawyer and activist who invites trouble by making impassioned speech on the subject of religious intolerance on the steps of a Malacca church; his friend from university days, Yun Ming, a civil servant working for the Ministry of Unity who seeks justice by working from within the government.

The most fully realised character of the novel is Siti Sara, and much of the story is told from her viewpoint. A sociologist and academic, she's newly returned from studies in America where she found life much more straightforward, and trapped in a loveless marriage to Omar, a young man much influenced by the Iranian revolution who seeks purification by joining religious commune. The hungry passion between Yun Ming and Siti - almost bordering on violence at times and breaking both social and religious taboos - is very well depicted. (Dahlan falls in love with Gita, Sara's friend and colleague, and by the end of the novel has made an honest woman of her.)

Like the others, Sara is struggling to make sense of events :
Nobody could get may sixty-nine right, she thought. It was hopeless to pretend you could be objective about it. speaking even to someone close to you, you were careful for fear the person might unwittingly quote you to others. if a third person was present, it was worse, you spoke for the other person's benefit. If he was Mlay you spoke one way, Chinese another, Indian another. even if he wasn't listening. in the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened; the wound beneath continued to run pus.
Although the novel is narrated from a third person viewpoint, it is curious that just one chapter is narrated by Sara's father, one of the minor characters, an elderly village iman and a man of great compassion and insight. This shift in narration works so well that I'm surprised Fernando did not make wider use of it.

The novel has villain, of course, the unsavoury Pangalima, a senior officer in the Department of Unity and a man of uncertain racial lineage (he looks Malay, has adopted Malay culture, so of course, that's enough to make him kosher!). He has coveted Sara for years, and is determined to win her sexual favours at any cost.

The novel is not without significant weaknesses. It isn't exactly a rollicking read, and seems rather stilted - not least because there are just too many talking heads with much of the action taking place "offstage", including the rape at the end, which is really the climax of the whole novel.

If we're interested in Yun Ming, Dahlan and Omar it is because of the contradictory ideas they espouse, but in each case their arguments could have been explored in greater depth and the characters themselves have been more fully fleshed.

The plot of Green is the Colour never really holds together as well as it might but seems to be perpetually rushing off in new directions (as actually do the characters!) without fully exploring what is set up already. (I was particuarly disappointed that we don't get to spend more time with Omar in the commune.)

But the strengths of the novel more than makes up for these lapses.

There's been a lot of talk on this blog about local authors not being brave enough to write about the great mustn't-be-talked-abouts of race, religion and politics in Malaysian society. Here's one author who was brave enough to do just that. (And look, hey, the sky didn't cave in!)

Here's an author too who was able to think himself into the skin of people of different races - how many since have been able, or prepared, to make that imaginative leap?

Here too is an author who is able to convincingly evoke the landscape of Malaysia both urban and rural in carefully chosen details.

Above all, though, one feels that here is an author who says what needed to be said. Heck, what still needs to be said!

Here, he's using Dahlan as his mouthpiece, but the sentiments are clearly the author's own :
All of us must make amends. Each and every one of us has to make an individual effort. Words are not enough. We must show by individual actions that we will not tolerate bigotry and race hatred.
Reading this novel now, very many years after I should have, I feel even sadder that just as Lloyd was talking about writing a third novel, illness cut him down. We can only imagine how much further he might have gone.

Well worth reading on the novel is Wong Soak Koon's essay which forms the introduction to the Silverfish edition of the book, and also Peter Wicks paper entitled A Dream Shattered : Lloyd Fernando's Literary Vision of Malaysia which is downloadable as a PDF.

One question about the book which still puzzles me - what does the title refer to?


bex said...

Thanks for that review. Saw it in the campus book store yesterday and got very excited. Plan to read it after exams. :)

Yusuf/Martin said...

Green is the Colour.

To what does the title refer.....

Supposing that Lloyd Fernando was not a big Pink Floyd fan (Green is the Colour is one of their tracks on the album More, curiously made in 1969), and it was not a reinvention of How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (1939)its source must lay in Misa Melayu by Raja Chulan.

In my edition - Landmark Books 1993, page 192 the narrator says " The colour of the leaves differed from bush to tree, and from tree to tree, in dazzling shades of green after the rain."...

bibliobibuli said...

bex - glad. hope you enjoy it.

yusof martin - that's a great piece of detective work - the third theory is the one i'd go for and makes sense in terms of the theme of the book

rajan said...

Thanks for the writeup... Because there are so many books out there, local fiction, exspecially written in the 70s and 80s are not on my list, I get the feel that they are overly didactic...

Reading this piece, I realise its a prejudice that I have to get rid...

Amir said...

The title comes in a song, right after the line "Grease is the word".

bibliobibuli said...

amir - yeah ok .. but why choose that? what's the connection? i mean i think the england footbal squad had a song which went "blue is the colour, football is the game" which seems equally as likely.

rajan - it's a short and easy read though yes, a bit didactic. but still well worth a look.

bibliobibuli said...

amir - reconsidering, maybe he was a pink floyd fan? their "green is the colour" was released in 1969. but what does that have to do with the novel??

bibliobibuli said...

unless it implies 'green is the colour of money" ... but that doesn't really fir the theme of the book and malaysian money isn't green (apart from RM5 notes)

or is it green for inexperience?

Rob Spence said...

The title, I think, would be more likely to refer to the idiomatic phrase "green is the colour of hope"
- because green is associated with spring, renewal etc.

bibliobibuli said...

it is indeed, but it's still a tenuous link with what happens in the novel ...

there's an extract from a review by an australian academic on the first page of the book which refers to a lorca poem "green is the colour that kills". i think she means "romance sonambulo" but i think the reviewer is reading things into the poem that aren't there. plus ... would you name a novel for a poem most people here wouldn't know?

maybe the pink floyd lyrics are what's referred to? esp the last lines :
Envy is the bond between
The hopeful and the damned

Anonymous said...

This may be a fanciful stretch but could the green in the title be a reference to W.B. Yeats's poem "Easter 1916," about another cataclysm in another country's history? I wonder if Lloyd Fernando meant somehow to connect the two events or to link May 13th to the idea of "a terrible beauty" being born. Here's the last stanza of Yeats's poem, which seems particularly fitting:

"Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."

The whole poem may be found here:

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

nice poem! maybe it is a good idea to have a title that is a bit ambiguous so that readers have to argue about it

Yusuf/Martin said...

Following on from my previous themes re Green is the colour.

1. The Pink Floyd theory - the song is from the album More which was a film set in Ibiza about addiction and drug taking. The song refers to hallucinations and how senses mis-interpret data due to chemical interaction - in the song deception is the main theme.

2. The line I quoted from the book - At the moment I re-read this quote I had the notion that the author was referring to all Malaysians, maybe all people as being green, but different shades of green. Why green - it belongs to nature, it is an easily recognisable metaphor within a country formerly mostly comprised of jungle/tropical rain forest.

On the socio/political level different politics, different religions, different ethnic groups - all green but different shades of green.

The rain left the air clear so that the reality of perception could be witnessed, green could not only be seen as green, but all the different shades, hues of green could be distinguished one from another, all equal in their own right, but eventually all being green.

Doesn't that relate back to the interracial conflict.

Yusuf/Martin said...

It would seem that the green referred to in the Lorca poem is the green of death - the girl of the poem dies and is seen in green - green flesh, green hair.

Probably not the right connection to Green is the Colour - I instinctively feel that the answer to the question why that title must be in the book itself.

Yusuf/Martin said...

One more interjection
Donovan - British folk singer in 1965 sang the song Colours -part of those lyrics are.....

Green's the colour of the sparklin' corn
In the mornin' when we rise,
In the mornin' when we rise.
in the mornin' when we rise.
That's the time, that's the time
I love the best.

But I guess you don't see a lot of corn in Malaysia.

Yusuf/Martin said...

Donovan Leitch 1965

Yellow is the colour of my true love's hair
In the mornin' when we rise,
In the mornin' when we rise,
That's the time, that's the time,
I love the best.
Blue's the colour of the sky
In the mornin' when we rise,
In the mornin' when we rise.
in the mornin' when we rise.
That's the time, that's the time
I love the best.
Green's the colour of the sparklin' corn
In the mornin' when we rise,
In the mornin' when we rise.
in the mornin' when we rise.
That's the time, that's the time
I love the best.
Mellow is the feeling that I get
when I see her, mm hmm,
when I see her, uh huh.
That's the time, that's the time
I love the best.
Freedom is a word I rarely use
Without thinkin', mm hmm,
Without thinkin', mm hmm,
Of the time, of the time
When I've been loved.