Sunday, August 22

Book Review: Without Anchovies

I found this anthology by Chua Kok Yee beside Clutch, Brake, Sellerator and Other Stories the other day at Kinokuniya. Truthfully, I am partial to book covers. Contrary to what the saying goes, I believe that book covers play an important role in presenting a first impression. The cover has to be interesting enough for people to pick the book up. I found this book's cover drab and uninspiring with a dull background of dried flowers, and a cheap title font. I don't care if the author himself designed the cover; there are certain things a publisher needs to look out for (like potential book sales, for one). The only reason I paid the RM30 price tag is because I collect Malaysian-English anthologies. With that in mind, I picked up the book prepared not to be impressed. Read enough Malaysian-English short stories, and you'll discover that a majority of them have trick or hanging endings, as well as deus ex machina (god of the machine, aka WTF?!) plot where something totally new and unrelated with the story so far is introduced toward the end to create an unexpected ending. I don't know if it's something inherently Malaysian, but Malaysian editors and publishers seem to accept such stories as publishable materials. Try this with even small-press publishers outside Malaysia, you'll be given a prompt form rejection slip. Back to this particular book. Bad cover aside, the paper quality is what I've come to expect from Silverfish Books. Smooth, high grade paper, and a clean layout. So that's a plus. But the book could have benefited from a more thorough editing process. The table of contents shows an impressive list of 22 stories, but seeing how thin the book is (171 pages), I knew from the start to expect flash fiction inside. I have to clearly state that the first story, Sambal Without Anchovies, took me by surprise. It's a simple tale about a father-son relationship, and a nasi lemak (coconut milk rice) stall, but nothing is simple about the storytelling. Maybe the dialogue could use a little work to bring out the characters, but the story is beautiful as it is. I was duly impressed when I finished reading it. Maybe Chua Kok Yee is a different breed of Malaysian-English author, after all, I thought. Unfortunately, the rest of the book falls flat. Most of the flash fictions are vignettes and not full stories (Dinner, Embracing Your Shadow, Cruel Mother, and Monthly Winners, to name a few). Some, like Smoking Can Kill, feel like a public service advertisement, with the author being distant and heavy-handed. The concept is there, but Chua could have invested more in personalizing the characters, and making the message subtler. And despite having Malaysian names, a lot of the characters and stories have Western sensibilities. Armed robberies in Malaysia involve plenty of parang (machetes) and other melee weapons, but seldom pistols and shotguns due to the fact that such things are almost bloody impossible to get here. You may be able to smuggle guns, but what happens when the ammo runs out? Even police officers nowadays are trigger-happy, just to show how seldom they get to use their issued-guns. Die Like a Dog, interesting as the story is, feels more American than Malaysian because of this. Armed robberies aside, the way some of the characters talk and act echoes stories set in Western countries. Since I'm all about character-driven stories, quite a significant number of stories in this anthology disappointed me. A story is not Malaysian just because you slap local names on the characters. A story is not Malaysian just because the characters eat nasi lemak, roti canai, murtabak, or whatnot. A story is certainly not Malaysian just because the characters use Manglish (but it certainly colors the story, when used correctly). We are a people steeped in culture and Eastern sensibilities. No matter how modern you are, people raised in Malaysia retain a certain amount of these sensibilities. Reading some of these stories reminded me of the stories I wrote when I was much younger. I had difficulty accepting Malaysian characters using English, so I wrote stories with vaguely Western settings. Then I tried using local names, but the stories didn't feel right, didn't feel local. Now, having Westerners loving my stories partly because of the exotic settings and values, I think I'm doing all right. Sorry. Enough about me. I found that some of the stories, such as Saviours in the Night and The Wall Dragons tread dangerously close to having a typical Malaysian-English story device (mentioned above). While there are interesting moments, like A Cemetery Story, Moving Home and Thieving Daughter, lackluster characterization and underdeveloped descriptive writing hampered them from reaching their full potential. Still, despite my disappointment in other stories in this book, Sambal Without Anchovies shows me the potential Chua has in becoming a brilliant writer. If he can write something like that, he certainly can reproduce the same quality and success in other stories, if not better. With more experience, I am quite certain Chua will be a much better writer. I will certainly look out for more from him. So is this book worth RM30? While not impressive, it's not bad, either. The author shows promise, and even though I would have appreciated more descriptions and deeper characterization, the writing is in general clean. Should this book go into reprint, however, the cover needs a major revamp.