Book Review: The Soul of Malaya

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

ISBN: 981-4068-48-9

Price: RM39.90 (Borders, The Curve)

28 thoughts on “Book Review: The Soul of Malaya

  1. beautiful! your commentaries are already good enough for anyone wishing to rediscover Malaya, have reason to read this book. thank you

    Ariff Sabri

    I must insist, sir, that the pleasure was all mine.

  2. Any books on Old Malaya by a Mat Salleh (no matter what colour his passport) must have a chapter with an SPG scene.

    It’s so compulsory, that it’s like a law …

    So tell me, bro – was there anything like this in Monsieur Fauconnier’s tome?

    Sir Cipan

    How absolutely right you are. In this case, SPG stands for Saree (instead of sarong) Party Girl

  3. Sounds like a great read. I’m a big historical fiction fan, but have not run across many books on British colonial Malaysia. I’ve always been interested in the area, so this looks perfect. I agree however, you can’t know the soul without knowing the people.


    Here are some other suggestions

    Rimba Raya by Oliver Hartley
    A Company of Planters by John Dodd

  4. Should be a good read. Maybe we could learn the evolution of the Malay mind from the book. As for me I’m more inclined to research about the ‘lost’ Malays or as they are now known – the Filipinos. I read somewhere that the Filipinos are Christian Malays – the result of the Spanish invasion way back in the 17th century (if I’m not wrong). The Filipino language is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian group and if you’re familiar with Tagalog, you’d find a lot of common words. Maybe DBP should re-define their definition of the Malay race…given the current definition, I may not be classified as a Malay 🙂

    The Last Gig

    Some common words I know (between Tagalog and Malay) include ‘susu’, ‘pisau’ and even ‘tetek’. They mean the same in both languages. Given the current definition, I doubt if I qualify as a Malay either! Or could I could be thinking of the Constitution’s definition of Bumiputra? I get very easily confused anyway. 🙂

  5. You know Bangkai, among the many things that I have always wanted to do is to review books. Having said that, I know my limitations – I am just not able to make a decent job out of it .. hehehe. You are on the roll there, Bangkai; I’m so glad to have found this niche of yours.

    Have a good day.

    Puteri Kamaliah

    Ma’am, in reviewing books, I am blessed with ignorance: I know not what I am incapable of and thus do it anyway! So far, I have been fortunate enough to have gotten away with it.

  6. Mamak,

    Shall ke have a visit an aging The First FELDA manager in Malaysia at Kemendor,Jasin in Raya?

    He an ole’ converted English gentelman.He and my Papa could related to you all the stories you want about the glory estates days an absolute truth about life in the estate.Count this one on me.

    Did you know the is an Estate in Kuala Kerian,Kelantan where one has to take the local KTM and sampan to reach there?
    I saw my first refrigerator at Bahau Estate.It was run on Kerosene.

    Shall we call it a date?


    Bahau and Kemendore looks OK. But Kuala Kerian seems dodgy to me

  7. can’t wait for malayan trilogy. oh and there’s a book (which i have yet to read) called your face like chicken backside, written by one mat salleh about his experience here during ww2.

    i like the title of the book very much.


    I’ll be at Borders today trying to locate Malayan Trilogy. At least, I hope to be.

    Really? A book called “Your Face Like Chicken Backside”? You’re yanking my chain, right?

    If its true, I like that title, too!

    P/S Your yanking my chain, right?

  8. Mamak,

    With permission,

    Scout old boy,from my sixth sense,that is a typical coloniser intimidation of us the local people!We slog while they were having their ‘setengah’ in blazing sun.
    However,I leave it to the benefit of the doubt coz’ I havent read the book.

  9. Doesn’t it sound like you local call trying to “Chelok’?
    Sorry ole boy,I’ m used for the old abja of e sekang sort of more apt.spelling and noun.

    Concern Citizen

    Huh? Maybe someday I’ll understand…

  10. there really is such a book – “A Face Like A Chicken Backside.” i’ve seen it, i’ve bought it but i haven’t read it though.


    ROTFL. This must be the most creative title for a book I have come across in my life

  11. what does a chicken backside look like? puckered? I have never really peered into one before… (just wondering). Tapi, kalau betul there is such a title, I wouldn’t mind owning a copy just for the heck of it.

    Puteri Kamaliah

    Now that you have raised the issue, I too, am curious as to how the backside of a chicken looks like.

  12. have you figured out what Concern Citizen is trying to say? I spent the whole afternoon trying to decipher that cryptic message. It’s distressing not to be able to comprehend the mumblings.

    Puteri Kamaliah

    No, ma’am, I haven’t. But I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. I think he’ll come around and make himself understood one of these days…

  13. Brilliant expose of the above classical literary annals…and many thanks for igniting my passion to read books on Malaya, especially those written by outsiders, Europeans (Colonial masters), etc… Wonder how many of those were written. If you have read History of the Malays by R.O. Windstedt, pl do the same since I still dont have the opportunity/privilege to do so yet, except stumbled on some snippets on the Malay psyche as perceived by the author . Best regards from Taipei. Benjamin Ashburn


    You are too kind, sir. I feel honoured that you think I have moved you to start reading book about Malaya (pre-independence Malaysia). No, I have not read Windstedt’s work but now I fully intend to. I will attempt a review if I think I have a chance of doing justice to the book.

    It was good of you to visit.

  14. mamak,

    waktu dulu-dulukan,
    how do we spell Emak?
    Ada sengkangkan pada huruf ‘e’

    ayer = air
    ciplak does not exist waktu zaman Munysi Abdullahkan?

    I reckon that was the message given by the
    CC “Chief Clerk’ Dunlop Estate Batu Enam,Bukit Serampang Tangkak .

    well jes my 2 cents.

    Pak Tuo

    Ah… what you are saying is becoming clearer now. It wasn’t that apparent in your original message as Concern Citizen

  15. Mr B,

    Am honoured that you visited me and duly embarassed that my abode is nothing but ramblings of a mindless mom of 4!

    But yours…reading your review makes me want to go to MPH now! Although i normally only read “chick-lits”!!


    Not at all. It was a pleasure visiting your blog.

    I read chic-lit, too (occasionaly). Clair Calman (Sunday Father, Love is a Four Letter Word) is deliciously funny

  16. Mat,

    You do write like a man possessed now. And I am just lounging here at my library staring at empty moleskine page for the past two hours!

    What is the secret, my friend?

    p/s: Mumsie,

    MPH does not have a copy, Times at One Utama has a few left. I am sure, however, Borders at Curve/Berjaya Times Square/Garden Midvalley have copies of the same. Happy reading!


    Ah… blame it on the muse; that lovely, enchanting, adorable muse.

    In any case, there will be moments when it is you who will write like a woman possessed while I languish in the doldrums…

    No need to feel bad. Just hunker down and write…

  17. dear pak tuo (pak bogart, may i?)

    scout finch is a six year old girl (the narrator) in to kill a mockingbird. :D.

    and that chicken backside book, well, from the blurb that i’d read, it was a story about this mat salleh british who was here in malaya during the emergency and did stuff which angered his superiors or something. it seems that likening someone’s face to a chicken’s backside is the utmost insult one can give to another person in chinese.

    that’s what i learnt from the blurb.

  18. Thank you for visiting, sir. It’s an honor to have someone like you to my blog.


    I have heard so many good things about you that I just had to pay my respects. My only regret, sir, is that I haven’t done it sooner

  19. ahaaaaaaaaaaaa……me Scout?

    Thanks.Sorry for my ignorance.

    Me sort of like Charlie Watts when asked how he feels after playing with ‘The Rolling Stones for 25 years,
    his answer was “……Idon’t know really….it is sort of like working for a year and playing for 24 years”

  20. haha elviza..goes to show i never read these serious mind boggling literatures! I’ll stick to sophie kinsella lah!

    i’ll make do with Mr B’s reviews….

  21. My concern is rather intentional or not, the tone and replies strike me as a desire to steer as clear away from rape as possible when the issue of rape and the consequences of are are central. ,


    Huh? Rape? What rape?

  22. Hi, I would love to get my hands on the 2 books that you suggested in one of your comments:

    1.) Rimba Raya by Oliver Hartley
    2.) A Company of Planters by John Dodd

    Any ideas on where I might get them?

  23. Beautiful poetic prose and imagery that gives the Malayan jungle breath and a life of its own. Truly, the soul of Malaya is its people. There’s a sense of nostalgia as I read and immerse myself in an old Malayan world that no longer exists. Today’s Malaysia is a troubled country both politically and racially ruled by the Malays. There are no more colonial masters after Malaysia achieved its independence.

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