Friday, December 03, 2004

Reply To Susan Abrahams

Oh dear. My graceless reply to Susan Abrahams re. The Rice Mother provoked a great long angry reply posted on an e-group (which has bumped me off to boot and I don't really blame them) and another great deluge of justification via the same e-group of why the Rani Manicka is the best thing since sliced bread (or should that be "roti canai"?). Susan lists all the conferences Rani's been invited to, the translations, the piles of books in shops everywhere, the fact that it is sold at airports. Pretty impressive stuff. I don't knock commercial success and I'm glad that a Malaysian is commercially successful at writing, just as I'm glad that Jimmy Choo makes shoes in London, and Michelle Yeo king-fu's her way into Hollywood films. (I actually do identify with Malaysia more strongly than my own country for all that Susan finds my attitude "colonial" - I've lived here nesrly half a lifetime.

Okay, it's a popular novel that should be viewed as such, and the application of any kind of literary yardstick to the book is superfluous.

But I read critically. Can't help it. I don't read to tear apart. In this case I was actually gung-ho about supporting a Malaysian writer - and then greatly disappointed when the book didn't measure up. And absolutely open mouthed that a book so flawed and so poorly edited should garner such praise.

I was gobsmacked by the obvious inaccuracies in the book, galring evn to this Mat salleh who never formallys tudied Malaysian history. Perhaps someone reading this would like to tell me if I'm right or not.

In Chapter 1, the journey from Penang to Kuantan (in 1930) by road is surprisingly fast. Lakshmi and her husband arrive after daybreak and reach Kuantan before darkness falls on the same day and Lakshmi has time to clean up her new house before dark. (I believe that the journey from Temerloh to Kuantan used to take a whole day even in the 1950's - maybe someone can enlighten me?)

Strangely enough Lakshmi seems to notice nothing about the journey but some dulang washers along the road and a Chinese woman with bound feet selling eggs by the roadside. (I thought only very upper class Chinese women would have their feet bound ... certainly not itinerant egg-sellers)

P31 "In a daze I handed over the twenty ringgit note ..." (This is in 1930. I thought the unit of currency was the Straits Dollar?)

The salary for a clerk in 1930 is quoted as 220 ringgit (still ringgit!) per month. (I don't know if this is right or not but it sounds a lot.)

P26 Writing about a wooden bench: "Not knowing that that piece of furniture would survive me ..." (How can a person know the fate of a piece of furniture after their death???? Is she writing this in her afterlife? Why on earth didn't an editor spot this???)

P27 She hears "... a lemur scratching in the rambutan tree". (Malaysia doesn't have lemurs at all. They are native only to Madagascar. She might mean a culogo, but they would not be found in rambutan trees. Also, it begs the question, how did she know from the sound of scratching alone that it was this particular animal? Particularly as she is new to the country?) Later on there is a reference to swimming monkeys, a species I haven't come across despite being an ardent nature lover and long-time member of MNS - though there are fishing monkeys off PD but they don't actually swim.

P40 About the durian "I loved even its astonishingly unique smell that I am told prompted an English novelist to describe it eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory." (For me this begs several questions. first, is Lakshmi the kind of character who would read a novel let at alone one published in English and not translated - she is uneducated and doesn't, as far as I can remember, speak any English. Would a woman like this be at all bothered what a novelist says? Secondly, how would she have a clue what a blancmange was or what a raspberry tasted like? The quote is from Anthony Burgess in the first part of "The Malayan Trilogy" (1956). So the earliest she would have heard the quote would have been 26 years or so after she ate that durian! Just wonder how she or the folks she chatted about durians to, got hold of a copy?

p122 "Weeks before the Japanese invaded Malaysia .." (Classic!!!)

p206 "two boys played conkers" Conkers are the fruit of the horse chestnut tree, not found here. (Does she mean congkat?)

Okay, okay, I stop there. A certain amount of artistic license is permissable. Writers are free to create their own realities. But I find such glaring actual inaccuracies insulting to readers and the mark of extremely poor editing. An overseas reader wouldn't notice these things, but I know Malaysians would. Who is the book aimed at?

There's more I could say about the book, but for the moment won't because it would mean actually rereading chunks of the book. Might take the task on later and construct an academic paper. Do I feel a PhD coming on???

1 comment:

Chet said...

>> Just wonder how she or the folks she chatted about durians to, got hold of a copy?

They got a preview copy?

>> A certain amount of artistic license is permissable. Writers are free to create their own realities.

All artists, too, I think.

I remember years ago there was a movie called Paper Tiger starring the late David Niven and shot in Malaysia. When it was shown here, a group of schoolmates and I went to watch it and were totally bemused that the two main characters, being pursued on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, were suddenly shown in Melaka! Is that the filmmaker's artistic licence at play?