ONLY in Malaysia will you find brown-skinned neo-Nazis.
This curious phenomenon, a subset within the local skinhead subculture, may be news to the Malaysian mainstream although it is well-documented among punk enthusiasts.
With this in mind, I was excited to learn about Nazi Goreng, a novel featuring two such skinheads as protagonists.
Written by punk-rock guitarist and travel writer Marco Ferrarese, Nazi Goreng appears to offer an exploration of the scene and an exposé of Malaysia’s racial tensions as seen by an outsider.
The book opens with Asrul in his hometown of Alor Star, kicking it with his friend and mentor Malik.
As their conversation of making it big out of the “backwater river town filled with mosques” plays out against a backdrop of the Muslim call to prayer, the opening chapters perfectly set the scene for a coming-of-age novel of disenfranchised youth using corrupted punk ideology for some semblance of empowerment.
Sadly, this is not what the novel turns out to be.
Having enjoyed Ferrarese’s blog on his jaunts around the South-East Asian punk scene, I was expecting more prose on the subculture, the bands, the venues, and of course, the music.
Aside from a few details on gigs and discussions of bands, though, the description of what it means to be a skinhead seems to be relegated to superficial observations of what the characters look like.
Soon after Asrul and Malik move to Penang to have a shot at the “Malaysian dream”, they are caught up in the illegal drug trade.
As things spiral out of control, Asrul grapples with his religious convictions and Malik’s penchant for beating up non-Malay “immigrants”.
This is a respectable enough storyline for a pulp thriller, with a sufficient number of twists and turns in the plot to keep the reader interested.
Where Nazi Goreng really shines is in its portrayal of the bond between Asrul and Malik, with the latter being the poster boy for the Nazi-influenced brand of “Kuasa Melayu” (Malay power).
With the charismatic Malik leading the way, Asrul’s fall from innocence is convincing, and readers will be sympathetic to his attempts at reconciling his moral convictions with his misguided sense of entitlement.
And Malik’s character offers a peek into the force that is Kuasa Melayu within the skinhead subculture, and the myriad of contradictory thoughts that the ideology has cobbled together.
At one point in the novel, Malik even expresses his desire to go to London to join a white power group because he identifies with their mission of ridding the city of “immigrant scum” – all the while oblivious to fact that he himself would be seen as such scum there.
With the notable exception of the two main protagonists, however, many of the other characters in the novel appear as hastily drawn stereotypes.
There’s the shady Iranian drug lord, the racist low-level cops, the femme fatale of a drug mule from China, and even burly trigger-happy Nigerian gangsters.
Anyone who keeps up with the news on the underbelly of Malaysian life will recognise these characters – and it is true that all stereotypes begin with a germ of truth.
It is just a missed opportunity, however, when these characters do not rise above the stereotypical in the least.
Even when Ferrarese tries to write his immigrant characters with some humanity by offering the reader some insight into their hopes and dreams, they still do not appear to be more than plot devices – like convenient punching bags for Malik’s character to tell us that racism is wrong.
Ferrarese’s writing, though, is mostly tight and straight-forward enough to keep the pot boiling, especially in his descriptions of familiar local surroundings.
While I was greatly amused by the witty wordplay of the title itself (Nazi Goreng translates directly as “fried Nazi”, or more accurately as “mixed Nazi”), this cleverness is sometimes stretched a bit too thin in the novel: “Mister Porthaksh had a grave expression on his face: as if a spirit had come to him with a staple gun and had pinned a grim mask on top of his face, shrouding him out of reality.”
And I sometimes found the images conjured up just bizarre: “The moon peeped in through the window, like the iris-less white eye of a giant pervert, to watch what passed between those two bodies.
“The crossing of arms and legs and the pounding of muscles against meat and bones developed like a silent movie before the Cyclop’s (sic) creepy eye.”
While one can easily ignore such transgressions, they are jarring at crucial plot points – in a climactic scene, when things are really starting to hit the fan, the suspense was spoilt for me when I had to grapple with a character “crawling in the shadow and dust like a tapeworm that had just emerged from a dead anus”.
Malaysians who have no prior knowledge of our cities’ seedier sides or are completely ignorant of local punk subcultures may find some insight in the blunt honesty of Nazi Goreng. Personally, though, I’d rather just go to a gig and see the reality for myself.