The Soul of Malaya (TSoM) left me at a loss; not because it was not a good book – it was: TSoM was a masterful piece of work by the French author, planter and adventurer, Henri Fauconnier. Indeed, TSoM won the Prix Goncourt; the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
My sense of loss, however, was due to the fact that the best book ever written on British Malaya, as I discovered, was actually written by a Frenchman! A rude awakening for an incorrigible Anglophile notwithstanding, the intricate beauty and felicitous relevance of TSoM quickly cleansed my tongue of any bitter taste left there by the irony. And before long, reading TSoM felt not unlike soaring on the honeyed thermals of some ancient and glorious cliff.
Setting and Central Characters
TSoM is set in British Malay of the 1920s, in a plantation located on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula. This was during the very early and heady days of the great rubber plantations, immigrant workers and the European ‘Tuans'; a pioneering and exciting time which would eventually become the crucible for the Malaysian psyche as we know it now.
Roulain – a World War 1 veteran turned rubber planter with an unconventional outlook toward life; unconventional, at least, from the Western point of view
Lescale – the story’s narrator who is intrigued with Roulain’s philosophies
Smail – Roulain’s servant. Smail is quiet, gentle, and faithful to a fault. He is also gifted in the art of ‘pantuns’, and in this novel, is the epitome of all things Malay.
Ngah – Lescale’s servant. Also Smail’s younger brother.
The premise of TSoM is that the soul of the country cannot be known simply by describing what one sees during a whirlwind tour of the country. To truly know a country – its soul – one must get to know and surround oneself with the people that the country produces; in this case, the Malays.
A telling line from the novel was:
“You can never know a country well except from the people it produces. In Malaya you must surround yourself with the Malays.”
Another gem that emerges from Fauconnier’s work was:
“No, you are wrong. I never weigh the pros and cons. I let them settle their differences behind the scenes and take as long as they like; and in the end, the conqueror emerges.”
Yet another pearl was:
“I have yet to learn that a true Malay will sooner die than live with the memory of even an imagined affront.”
Lescale meets up again with Rolain, in Malaya, after their brief encounter in the trenches of World War 1, and become firm friends. Lescale promptly gains employment as the manager of Roulain’s rubber plantation. He uses this time to learn and to try to understand Roulain’s seemingly intriguing and cavalier ways.
On a lark, Lescale and Roulain – with their faithful servants (Smail and Ngah) in tow – embark on a trip to the sea where they soon re-discover, and savour the life and ways of the Malays. They also partake in the festivities celebrating the circumcision of local headman’s son.
Smail is smitten with the headman’s daughter but his romantic interest in her is rebuked by the father. Crestfallen, Smail returns with his party to their plantation; never to be the same again. After a nasty bout of demonic possession by a ‘badi’, Smail recovers with the help of a healer, Pa’ Dawoud.
Soon after his recovery, Smail disappears. He goes to the village where he was rebuked and goes on a murderous rampage (amok) and kills the father of his love interest. In a botched attempt to rescue Smail from the clutches of the law, however, Roulain kills Smail.
Caveat: This book ought to be read with the understanding that the plot plays but a minor role in the greater scheme of things.
Though obviously written from a Westerner’s point of view, TSoM beautifully captures the gentleness, sensitivities, and mindset of the Malays. Though, taken at face value, some of the words may seem derogatory, at a deeper level, TSoM is a celebration of the tolerance and freedom that lies in the Malay heart.
TSoM belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is even remotely interested in the Malays and in Malaysia. It deserves to be re-visited time and again.
Title: The Soul of Malaya
Author: Henri Fauconnier
Translator: Eric Sutton
Publisher: Archipelago Press
Price: RM39.90 (Borders, The Curve)