This statement of integrity is outlined in his swaggeringly confident introduction to Sasterawan Pulau Cinta, a collection of ten stories. Not only that, the phrase “Bahasa Malaysia” is spelled in large caps whenever it happens to occur in the stories.
He was willing to sacrifice greater commercial success for this principle, but I am pleased to report that the stories in here, all previously published in places like Mingguan Malaysia and Dewan Sastera, aren’t hectoring lessons in political correctness. I don’t mind hectoring, but Uthaya’s particular gifts lie in his narrative skill and playful deconstructions of the story form. He easily ranks among the finest writers in this country because his seriousness of purpose is wedded to an admirable lightness of touch. He has fun with the stories, and the fun is infectious.
There are several masterpieces here. I have loved “Yang Aneh-Aneh” (1996) ever since I came across it years ago. It’s got one of the most amazing openings ever:
Benar-benar di luar dugaan saya, wanita itu meluru ke arah tingkap lalu melompat keluar. Tingkap yang terbuka telah memungkinkannya berbuat begitu dengan mudah. Jika tidak, tentu tubuhnya tercalar oleh kaca yang pecah.
This comic-absurdist tale goes on to describe how the male narrator has to detach his leg as compensation to the GRO (guest relations officer) of the intro, a fallen, broken woman in more than one sense. It also has a train that will reverse back into the station if you just stand on the platform and whistle for it, since it thinks it’s being called by its lover. It’s a deadpan and raucous tour de force of detachable body parts, anthromorphic objects, and a caustic subtext to do with environmental depletion and corruption.
Another highlight is “Datuk Datang ke Kampung Kami,” a satirical account of a certain Malaysian Indian politician who gives a long-winded speech on a subject he knows nothing about – in this case, literature. Rather than groan in protest, the enraptured audience periodically interrupts his banal musings with sycophantic applause, tidak ubah seperti budak-budak darjah satu di sekolah Tamil yang gembira mendengar cerita karut daripada guru mereka.[Read more HERE]
The contemporary race-based politics and intellectual poverty delineated in this story serve as excellent backdrops for Uthaya’s wry narrative, which builds into a crescendo of absurdity all the more horrifying for being so very familiar. Culture and language aside, this satirical gem has more in common with the Hikayat of Abdullah Munsyi, the Malayan Trilogy of Anthony Burgess, and even the revues of Instant Cafe Theatre than the bulk of the slogan-ridden, sentiment-sloshed cerpen regularly given prominence on our two National Language broadsheets.
A story that showcases Uthaya’s flair for universalising the particular and making magic the seemingly mundane is “0”. With three brothers named Jamal, Kamal and Zamal, it’s a pointed modern fable about the shifting wheel of fortune, where the landed gentry can turn overnight into beggars. Rather than simply preach obvious virtues, Uthaya takes us into a complex social dynamic that involves shifting allegiances, vested interests, and the ease with which good intentions can turn into hypocrisy. In its unsentimentality and colour, it could have come from an unexpurgated edition of the Arabian Nights.
There isn’t a single unworthy story, although I wish he had begun the collection with something other than the alter-ego, pen-name mystery “SB”, whose self-referential intertextuality (think Stephen King’s The Dark Half) renders it one of the less accessible entries. And the story “... dan” seems like a conventional dakwah (it was even published in Dakwah magazine) tale that is chiefly of interest to see how he handles this sub-genre.
“Karma II”, a sequel to an earlier story not in this book, has a doppelganger theme out of Poe and Nabokov which goes very well with Uthaya’s interest in literary smoke and mirrors, and its profuse litany of Psychology text titles strikes you as deliberately campy rather than pretentious.
“Liar” takes its premise from, ahem, a Jim Carrey movie, but achieves quiet pathos as the narrator thinks about his son: Kini saya tidak berani menatap matanya. Saya bimbang bahawa mata saya akan turut berbohong kepada Jonathan. Lalu akan hilang satu-satunya deria pada tubuh saya yang tidak pernah berbohong kepada Jonathan.
The title story, “Sasterawan Pulau Cinta” ends this small but perfectly informed book with a mock-apocalyptic vision of how a natural disaster, a landslide, turns into a national alert against all litterateurs and independent thinkers. It’s perhaps the most explicitly political story here, but it still speaks in terms of allegory rather than name the bodies that have been buried, and the bodies that did the burying. He’s not Shahnon Ahmad but thankfully, he is a better proofreader!
Uthaya Sankar SB knows how to bait and hook, lure and jab, refine and condense. Long may he reign even as he so wisely chooses not to compromise his gifts for the sake of convenience, conformity and filthy lucre.
(Amir Muhammad, “Uthaya’s Good Sense”, New Straits Times, 13 February 2002)