Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Yang Aneh-aneh: A Perfect Story

Amir Muhammad waxes lyrical over a somewhat strange tale at Kaki Seni on 12 February 2002. Here’s what he wrote:
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There are many short stories that I love greatly. Here are my two favourites: Vladimir Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols manages to be both ruthlessly clever and heartbreakingly humane, while Paul Bowles’ Pages From Cold Point is a masterpiece in which an unreliable narrator takes you on a psycho-sexual ride where seemingly nothing happens - but of course everything does. There are also at least a dozen by Anton Chekhov that have taken up permanent residence in my heart’s neighbourhood.
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Lest you take me for an unrepentant SPG, I can assure you that local literature hasn’t exactly been stingy in offering delights of this literary form. I would not describe any of the Malaysian novels I have read as great (I am not sure why this is so), but when the narrative is squeezed into the compact form of 20 pages or less, magic can and does happen.
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A Samad Ismail’s Ah Khaw Masuk Syurga is a brilliant take on Malay-Chinese relations as seen from the point of a naïve boy. Its closing paragraph alone has more pathos and wisdom than any number of those Petronas holiday-season ads designed to prop up the fortunes of our largest corporation. Usman Awang’s Matinya Seorang Perempuan is a socially conscious melodrama that is always a steely-eyed indictment of several Malaysian vices. And, most recently, there is Uthaya Sankar SB’s Yang Aneh-Aneh.
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How do I describe this story? Its title means can mean “Weird Things.” It begins with the unnamed male narrator watching as a woman runs to an open window and jumps out. He goes to the window and looks down, hoping to see her blood-splattered body. (They were on the fifth floor of a four-star hotel). The start is already like a pulp-noir story, the kind made famous by Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.
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The narrator gets excited when thinking of how he will be implicated in the woman’s death. He is thrilled at the thought of all the legal loopholes he will exploit in order to escape from punishment. But he is shocked - and disappointed - to see no body there.
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He rushes down but the receptionist stops him. She wants him to pay for the hotel room. He’s amazed that he will be charged for it - after all, the room was rented by the woman. The receptionist patiently explains that the blood-splattered woman had transferred the bill to him. He pays the bill, grumbling, and then bumps into that woman again. They have an argument. We discover that she is a GRO - which stands for Guest Relations Officer, popularly a euphemism for prostitute. She had been having an affair with the narrator’s boss. The narrator had been sent to tell her to back off.
She hobbles to him and demands compensation as her right leg had come off from the fall. He takes off his own right leg and gives it to her. She attaches it to herself and hobbles off again. The narrator adds a parenthesis: If you happen to meet or have relations with a GRO whose right leg alone is rather hairy, then you will know that this is the woman he is referring to.
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The best and worst stories will compel you to just keep quoting and quoting, but I will try to keep the plot precise to a minimum. This is only the beginning of the story; after this things get a little wilder. More body parts are detached. A public phone is abused. A factory emits illegal levels of smoke. A bribe is attempted and rebuffed. A train reverses back into the station when the narrator whistles for it (The train had mistakenly thought that its lover was calling). And the story even ends on a cliffhanger in the form of a question: Should he go back to Paloh to retrieve his missing ear?
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Why do I like this story so much? Yang Aneh-Aneh has pace, charm, suspense, humour, and even very serious subtexts to do with environmental pollution and corruption. It’s fearless and modern and does not overstay its welcome. Its surreal landscape effortlessly exploits many of the socio-cultural icons of Malaysian life. Its narrative reads like a comfortable pastiche of detective fiction. If Nikolai Gogol saw a lot of Hollywood thrillers and lived in Malaysia, he would perhaps come up with something like this.
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The narrator - someone who is upright but given to bouts of gleeful sadism, haughtiness and prissiness - is monstrously compelling. Perhaps he’s an anti-hero in the noir tradition – he’s not very nice, but you should see the people he has to hang out with!
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This story quite deservedly won a top literary prize back in 1996. It is published now in Uthaya’s new book Sasterewan Pulau Cinta. There are many other good stories in it, even some great ones, which is why I will recommend that you buy the whole book rather than read just this story in the bookshop before hauling your penny-pinching butt out of there.
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It is on sale at Silverfish Books or from the author’s own website. Take a chance or, in the parlance of the theatre, break a leg.

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Sila gunakan Bahasa Malaysia atau Bahasa Inggeris yang betul apabila mengemukakan komen. Hanya komen yang menggunakan bahasa yang betul dari segi ejaan, tanda baca dan struktur ayat akan dilayan. Pencemaran bahasa diharamkan!