Dave Anthony’s second novel, The Red Bicycle, is a companion to his previous book, Love And Struggle: Beyond The Rubber Estates (Gerakbudaya, 2012).
I have not read Love And Struggle – a 2013 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards nominee – as acquiring it in local bookshops appears to be quite the feat. However, if it’s anything like The Red Bicycle, then one would expect it to be a page-turner of a historical novel that excavates some of the hidden histories of this nation’s radical politics and labour struggles among the poorest, most disenfranchised workers.
The Red Bicycle tells a story with interweaving narrative strands about a series of episodes that led, in particular, to the weakening of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) as well as the deterioration of Malayan leftist and labour struggles more generally.
The book opens in August 1942 with a meeting underway in Batu Caves among the CPM’s high-ranking and second-tier leaders. In the midst of World War II, Malaya is under Japanese occupation and the CPM has an uneasy alliance with the British colonial government to topple Japanese rule.
The brutalities of the Japanese occupation are known to most Malaysians and so it comes as no surprise when the secret meeting is besieged by the Imperial Japanese Army military police corps, also known as the Kempeitai.
The Malayan communists are executed en masse.
The Batu Caves massacre was an actual historical event that wiped out a significant number of the MCP leadership as well as key members of its Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, and the book proceeds to lay out the treacherous work of an informer within the CPM that led to the killings.
Raise your hand if none of this was taught in your Sejarah class....
In tracing the roots of the Batu Caves massacre, and weaving into the story the fractured narrative of the rise of one triple-agent (who spied for and worked against the CPM after rising through its ranks, and then betrayed it to both the Japanese and the British), Anthony has made a serious effort at shedding light on the communist struggle of Malayans.
If the knowledge of the history of radical politics in the anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggle is erased from Malaysian history, or presented through the lens of liberal and conservative propaganda about the evils of communism, then the work of writers like Anthony is invaluable. It depicts what the actual political struggle was about, while humanising it through the imaginative act of retelling a story through the lives of its fighters and survivors.
Anthony’s melding of fact and fiction follows several storylines through the interracial love story of two fictional CPM members who escaped during the Batu Caves massacre: Kuppu, an Indian man who honed his politics as an estate worker fighting for worker’s rights, and Chin Leng, a Chinese woman who witnessed first-hand the violence of Japanese occupation and lost her mother to it.
On reading The Red Bicycle, it occurred to me that Kuppu and Chin Leng’s story should be common enough. Or rather, it occurred to me that there must be a number of people walking around who have these stories to tell. How many of our anti-imperialist fighters who fought alongside the CPM because of their belief in the principles of communism – an egalitarian society regardless of one’s class, caste, race, and social position – have now dissolved into society, their stories and histories made invisible?
Anthony’s novel would be an eye-opener to the casual reader for two things: presenting CPM members as, first and foremost, poor and marginalised workers fighting for an egalitarian Malaya that did not protect or prioritise a certain race or class of citizens above the rest; and presenting the CPM as a thoughtful, politically-engaged group of people who were not content to simply take orders from Russia or China.
The Red Bicycle attempts a sensitive exploration of the racial make-up of CPM members and the process by which ordinary workers like miners, peasants and rubber tappers from different racial backgrounds, used by the British as cheap labour in Malaya, the “jewel of its empire”, were brought together to demand a better life.
The story of the triple agent and his betrayal of the CPM is fascinating enough, but much of the fictionalised aspect of the story is also based on conjecture due to the lack of available archival resources. Due to the breadth and scope of Anthony’s political and social milieu, the story sometimes takes a backseat to pages of exposition as Anthony sets up the historical framework to provide the necessary context.
Some readers might quibble with having to learn something from their books, preferring instead a fast-paced narrative that compels them to turn the pages.
But Anthony’s ability to weave historical lessons into the fictional narrative is an imaginative attempt to play with the form of the novel. It’s a postcolonial experiment and a necessary one, and Gerakbudaya should once again be commended for publishing books like this one.
I dream of this book being included in our national secondary school syllabus to set right our collective skewed notion of history. But I’ve learned not to have too much hope. It would be comfort enough if Malaysians would attempt to read this extraordinary book and learn for themselves about the so-called bad guys of our history.
The Red Bicycle
Author: Dave Anthony
Publisher: Gerakbudaya Enterprise, historical fiction