Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shahriza Hussein Passes Away

I just received the sad news from his daughter, Narissa, that Legacy author Shahriza Hussein passed away on the 23rd January following a fall. He was admitted into ICU under sedation and then passed away two days later. Narissa says that the ultimate cause of his death was attributed to heart failure, and he passed away peacefully.

Shahriza had been unwell for some time, and those of you who came to Readings@Seksan in June 2008 will remember how frail he was then and how his friend, Yew Lie, read for him.  (Mind you, he was chain smoking in the background.)

My love and condolence goes to his family. I had not known him or his wife Sermsuk long, but they became immediate friends when I went to the house to collect a copy of his novel. I liked his slight curmudgeonliness (which reminded me of my own grouchy, but funny, other half), his keen intelligence, and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

Legacy remains HIS legacy, and it is a local novel well worth reading.

The plot is set in motion by the killing of Birch, and his pocket watch falling into the hands of Mastura, a member of the Perak royal family, who vows to return it to the rightful owners. It follows Mastura and her descendants through 80 tumultuous years of Malaysian history, culminating in Independence. 

One of the great pleasures of the book is the way it brings alive real historical characters and pivotal scenes from Malaysia's past - here's Birch marooned on a sandbank in the Perak River,  here's Swettenham at Carcosa, here's a meeting about the drainage problems of Kampong Baru.  The novel is meticulously researched and he quite effortlessly opens a door and lets you slip back in time. I learned such a lot and am deeply grateful. 

But it is no stuffy historical tome, and there is plenty of dramatic incident to keep the plot rolling nicely. There's also a very pleasing old school correctness about the prose - the author cared deeply about his craft and for the English language.  (Incidentally,  was also an educationalist and wrote the 322 Communicative English language syllabus that was used in all secondary schools.)

If there is a problem with the book it is that the plot is rather tugged along, because of the authors desire to cover all significant historical events. My own feeling is that it really should have been published as two books and more time and space given to fleshing out the characters. "Pare back, and deepen" is what I would have said to Shahriza if I'd been sitting on the other side of the editor's desk. Sometimes too the book doesn't wear its historical didacticism very well - there are substantial chunks of background at the beginnings of each chapter which are a bit indigestible.

But I do think that this is one of the most important locally written books of the past few years, and I hope that in the long term it wins the recognition that it deserves.

You can find an extract here and Amir Muhammad wrote an excellent review of the novel.

I still have some copies of the book to sell, the money goes to Sermsuk, and I will bring them to readings on 30th January.


rajan said...

Remember him quite well from the reading session, and at the time I was impressed by his immense skill and energy to have conceived and delivered such an ambitious project. Earmarked to read the book at a later time, but now I can't wait to get started. Big loss, and condolence to the family.


saras said...

My deepest condolences to Sermsuk and family. I remember meeting him and Sermsuk that day at Seksan. They were lovely and warm. We promised to look them up and drop by for Sermsuk's delicious food - unfortunately we never did. I wish we had.