Finding the Great Malaysian Novel

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 21 Aug 2007 

What an amazing setting Malaysia is; It has all the ingredients for a great novel and there are peoples from all cultures, castes and creeds. But just where is the Great Malaysian Novel and why does Malaysia feature so little in literature? 

OVER the last eight months we have – through numerous interviews, endless polls, and little excerpts of history – tried to ascertain everything that is, could be, and ever was, Malaysian.  

We’ve written about our people, our places and, most importantly, our food.  

We haven’t however written very much about writing. And this got me thinking about literature. Not about Malaysian books per se, but rather about Malaysia, in books.  

In my opinion, there are a mere three books that make the grade, of which Anthony Burgess’ The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy and Henri Fauconnier’s Malaisie (translated into English as The Soul of Malaya) make the top two.  

Obvious choices, I agree. And even though they may be exactly what Edward Said was talking about in his thesis on Orientalism, they nevertheless successfully capture the essence of their subject matter and of their time.  

In so doing, these books provide us with a greater understanding, if not of who we were, then at least of how we were perceived to be. If the function of literature is to add to our history and further enlighten us about ourselves, then these two books do not disappoint. 

The third on my list however, is a little more unorthodox. 

I have always wanted to write the Great Malaysian Novel, that seminal effort that most perfectly embodies the spirit of life in this country of ours.  

Epic in nature, but not in proportion, it would be universally regarded as required reading. It would be a source of inspiration, an ideal to strive towards.  

Both scholars and critics would unanimously agree upon its worth. They may even teach it in our schools. Ambitious? Yes, quite possibly even delusional. But we all need goals. 

Imagine my dismay when I suddenly remembered one Sunday afternoon that Rehman Rashid already had.  

Now the only thing that lets me sleep soundly is the fact that, strictly speaking, Rehman's A Malaysian Journey isn’t fiction, which by definition, a novel should be. It is however almost flawlessly representative of everything else that would make it both great, and Malaysian.  

Since its publication in 1993, I think I have purchased no fewer than 15 copies, as it seemed to suffer the same fate as quite a few books in my collection. I would lend it to friends and family, insisting they read it, insisting they enjoy it, and that was usually the last I’d see of it.  

I had loaned out my last copy towards the end of last year, not to find one again until January. The book had been reprinted – a final edition, much to my horror – and I began stocking up.  

The first time I read it, I was only 13. Too young to understand the finer nuances (and even some of the words) of Rehman's commentary, I was nevertheless left with both a feeling of nostalgia for something I never knew, and a sense of longing for the future I was about to have. It had captured the essence of its time.  

Reading it again recently, I was struck by something else completely. It was something that I had overlooked, and something that I had read past.  

Essential to the telling of any story is its setting. Regardless of how intricately woven a plot, it would not be in the least bit compelling without the little fragments of distinction that only a time or a place can provide.  

Reading A Malaysian Journey again, I realised what an amazing setting Malaysia is. It has all the ingredients for a great novel. There are peoples from all cultures, castes, and creeds.  

There is a colourful history, replete with heroes and villains. There was Tuah and there was Jebat. There are duplicitous politicians and wise old statesmen. There are scandals and there are scandals.  

There is the constant debate about religion and secularism and about freedom and democracy. And all of this across 329,847 square kilometres, under a sky that’s occasionally punctured by crescent moons, and crucifixes, and temple towers. 

We reside in such an incredible setting that I can’t help but wonder why it features so little in literature. Where is the Great Malaysian Novel?  

Maybe Malaysia is a little too incredible for fiction. Maybe the reality is so much more unbelievable than anything we can ever come up with. I don’t know.  

I do know however, that it's only 10 days now, and I sure hope that in the 50 years to come, there will be more than just three books on my list. 

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