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?