I realise now, after reading the book, that there's a certain irony to all this - for Fatimah's Kampong is the story about how a landscape changes as the city encroaches, and how what is best about a place will be sacrificed to commercial interest.
In the introduction to the book Buchanan talks about how the book came to be written. He says he came to Malaysia first to teach shortly after Independence and that he took away with him a memory of the landscape which became part of him.
He continued to teach geography in a university in the East Midlands, and one day he had a call from one of his former students, Maznoor, now a college lecturer herself, coming to the UK to do a diploma in TEFL. They later married and Buchanan found himself part of a :
... large, lively, and very loving Malaysian family ..But revisiting the landscape he had fallen in love with, he found that there was good reason to mourn :
... there was painted concrete, dead laterite and a gaudy brittle sameness ...After taking early retirement, and wanting to communicate the ideas that he has lectured on in a way that was more vivid and exciting to young people, he began work on Fatimah's Kampung, a labour of love which took him eight years to complete, while Maznoor went out to work in a British factory to pay the bills. It was a true labour of love.
The book tells the story of a girl growing up in Kampong Hidayah. The family home was built by her great-grandfather with materials taken from the forest. When most of the other kampungs disappeared because of the expansion of the city it was allowed to remain untouched by the Sultan who owned the land.
Fatimah grows up amidst fruit trees, and forest (where she believes Pak Belang the tiger still might be hiding), and near to the frangipani filled graveyard where her relatives were laid to rest, and the keramat once home to a holy man who knew the ways of the forest in the way no others did.
The rhythms of kampong life of are recorded - her grandmother gathering herbs to cure ailments, the children's games, the visits by hawkers, Ramadan and the bustle of Hari Raya at the end of it, the monsoon floods.
But then the bulldozers move in and Fatimah and her family are forced to relocate to a high rise near by where they can see the final destruction of their kampung, and the forest around it.
There is one small mercy - the kampong house itself is to be saved and taken to be part of a new theme park which Fatimah gets the chance to visit.
Labelling books can sometimes do them a disservice, and whilst the book will undoubtedly appeal to older children (many of whom may have lived the story!), it will strike a chord with every Malaysian who cares about the environment and heritage, regardless of age, and will probably travel very well beyond these shores as the issues it raises are universal ones. I'm not ashamed to say that the story moved me to tears - especially the part where Fatimah finally does come face to face with her tiger.
But it is the stunning illustrations, with every detail of tree and leaf and kampung lovingly recorded, which make this book an absolute joy to own. (I have had to pries my copy out of the hands of visitors to the house who haven't wanted to put it down and talk to me!)
I wonder if Fatimah's Kampung might not be better described as a graphic novel and one that could easily become a classic of the genre?
The book is published by the Consumers Association of Penang, and this surprises on two counts. First of all, the organisation is known for its pamphlets on consumer and environmental issues and they have not, to my knowledge, ever undertaken a project like this before. Secondly, that they have made such a great job of it - this is a beautifully produced book that you could put beside any produced overseas and feel proud of.
Have I raved? Sorry. But I sincerely mean every word of praise I have heaped on this book.
But why not see for yourself? Iain will be appearing at Readings@Seksan this coming Saturday and a limited number of his books will be on sale.