Saturday, February 13, 2016

Barbarians Among Barbarians

Bryan & Ralph in a 2014 production of Michael Wall's play staged in Brighton
Imagine a proudly patriotic Malaysian adrift in London’s West End. He is piously clad in white baju (loose Malay shirt) and pants and wears a black songkok (Malay cap). He blunders into a bookshop. There he is, a bit lost amidst all the bewildering excess of books, books, books. He begins to browse. The title of a book catches his eye: Amongst Barbarians. It stirs something vaguely unpleasant in his memory. The writer, he notes, is English. He glances up at the blurb and learns that the book is a play based on a case of two English drug traffickers who were sentenced to death and subsequently hanged in Penang a few years ago.
Amongst Barbarians? Barbarians? Our patriotic browser is deeply proud of what our country has achieved since Merdeka (independence). And, inspired by our Prime Minister, he has become acutely alert to any signs of presumptuousness and arrogance in the attitude of Westerners towards us. Who are they to be so high and mighty and self-righteous about how our country is run? They should mind their own backyard and stop playing the moral watchdog of the world. Amongst Barbarians? The “barbarians” here, he hoarsely whispers to himself, must be us, of course. Didn’t the Australian media call us “barbarians” when those two Aussie drug traffickers were hanged in Penang a few years ago? And the British Press – didn’t it also call us “barbarians” when those Brits were hanged for the same offence? The very case that has been exploited by this play? And he recalls that Australian film Turtle Beach. Didn’t it picture us as blood-thirsty “barbarians” who enjoyed slaughtering helpless Vietnamese refugees trying to land on our beach? And for something even more recent, he recalls the terrible things the Australian media hacks said about the heroic escapades of Raja Bahrin; that model father who kidnapped his beloved children from out of the jaws of infideldom in the form of his former Australian wife. With all this in the mind of our patriotic browser, he must feel perfectly justified in dismissing this play with such an insultingly provocative title as a piece of neo-imperial dung.
He casts another glance over the blurb. Something else now catches his selectively alert eye. This play, says the blurb is a winner of “Britain’s richest drama award” (The Mobil Playwriting Competition). He immediately puts two and two together and comes up with the brilliant conclusion that this play is a part of a Western capitalist conspiracy.  A conspiracy against assertive developing nations such as our Malaysia which want their rightful share of the big capitalist cake. His patriotic fingers quickly turn over the pages. Sure enough, his patriotic eyes immediately spot dozens of insulting lines in he dialogue: “ … sentenced by a bunch of savages”... “were amongst barbarians…” “these f—ing Pakis!”
Barbarians! They are the barbarians, he snorts. This insulting tahi babi (pigshit) of a play is the work of a Western barbarian! What barbaric arrogance to call us barbarians! He’s so livid he can’t help muttering all this aloud to himself. These other customers in the bookshop must think he’s mad. I’d like to make a humble suggestion to our patriotic friend: Shouldn’t you read the play first before you fume and make a bar … bar ... (sorry) bloody fool of yourself? Barks our patriot back to me: Read the play? Why waste my time? I’m sure it’s no different from all those biased and self-righteous newspaper reports. The fact that this one pretends to be art only makes it worse, more dangerous. Want to know what I really think? I think this book should be banned, not read! I say: It’s a pity you chose to have such a bar … bar … (sorry) blatantly unfair attitude to the play. If only you would suspend your judgement and take the trouble to read it, you’d discover something interesting; in fact educational. That is assuming you know how to read a play, and have heard of a literary device called irony.
You’d discover that the play is not what you assume it is; that the “barbarians” of the title is actually ironic – ironic at the expense of ignorant and pathetically arrogant Whites, not us “natives.” You might also discover that when it comes to the treatment of contemporary events or issues there is a huge difference between the serious writing of a responsible playwright or novelist and the scribbling of a media hack. A writer of serious fictional works is usually free from the kind of pressures or motives that compel a journalist to sensationalize a news report or write a biased commentary. Neither is he subject to the box-office considerations that can make a film-maker trivialize or sensationalize the subject of the film. (Compare, for example, the novel Turtle Beach and the film based on it.) It is not uncommon for the mass media of any country to sensationalize or distort the social, cultural and political realities of another country. Do not think that our own media is an exception. It’s different with serious literature – if it’s any good as literature, that is. A good novel or play is written with a sense of moral and artistic integrity. It’s this integrity that ensures objectivity in the writing, especially when it depicts something topical and controversial about another society, another culture.
This doesn’t mean of course the novelist or playwright cannot be critical of another society. He has as much right to be critical, and as critical as he likes, of another country as he has his own. And the country that is depicted critically in his work must be civilized, i.e. unbarbaric, enough to recognize his right to do so. Some distortion of facts or surface reality can creep even into a work of high moral and artistic integrity. But such distortions are usually not intentional; if they are, it must be because of artistic considerations such as the urge to depict some deeper truth or other. Now, take this play that my imagined Malaysian has so rashly dismissed as an insult to our national honour. I think the writer, Michael Wall (yes, he is real and so is the play, which was published in 1989), has done something to make our Malay writers think a bit; in particular about the business of writing on controversial topical issues involving a foreign country. Imagine a situation in which the writer and the subject here are reversed. Imagine Michael Wall a Malaysian sasterawan (writer) and the subject of the play is two Malaysian drug traffickers facing a death sentence in a British prison. I wonder how many of those sasterawans who are defensively sensitive to and hypercritical of what Western writers say about us can be as objective as Wall is in Amongst Barbarians.
Wall’s play is a detached study of human nature caught in a crisis; it makes no judgement about the allegedly “barbaric” law that precipitated the crisis, or the country or society that produced that law. The irony in the “barbarians” of the title is dramatically (i.e. objectively) enacted in terms of nicely controlled characterization and pointedly witty play who ritualistically mouth about “bloody barbarians” and all that; and about ungrateful and treacherous natives (“We give ‘em everything, their f—ing legal system and all, then they go and turn on us”). But these characters are critically placed by the playwright; their ignorant and pathetic arrogance (“They can’t hang a f—ing Englishman!”), their moral and spiritual emptiness – all this is brutally exposed by the play. The younger of the condemned men (Bryan) keeps butting his head hysterically against the hard reality of the law they have broke. “There ought to be a f—ing law against such laws,” he moans. His more honest mate (Ralph) tells him to shut up about the law. “If the law’s an ass,” he says to the poor boy, “you’re the shit that comes out of it.” What kind of a “shit” Bryan is and why he is such a “shit” we can gather from the kind of family that “shat” him.
The play is not only about two pathetically inadequate souls facing the rope; it is also about a family or families that lack the spiritual and moral resources needed to cope with the tragedy in the family. Bryan’s working-class parents (to whom the unhappy trip to Penang is like a trip to another planet inhabited by “Pakis” – all brownies being “Pakis” to them) and his frustrated bitch of a sister bicker with each other in their Penang hotel room while in his cell Bryan moans and curses, curses and moans. It’s some family, Bryan’s is: the bitch daughter can say to her own father, “Shut up you f—ing crawler”! Meanwhile in another room, Ralph’s playgirl mother, though more humanly attractive than Bryan’s mother or sister, and not all racially self-righteous or arrogant, could only deal with her estranged son’s fate by sniffing cocaine all day long – that, and sex at siesta with the gorgeous-bottomed Malay bartender.
In the final scene of this “tragic comedy,” the two families are shown drinking themselves into a stupor in their hotel room, while in the prison Ralph and Bryan are being executed. The execution is enacted in two brief “cutaway” scenes that have the effect of a horrible counterpoint against the seemingly endless barbaric orgy of drinking and bickering. Amongst Barbarians is in a sense about the potential “barbarians” in all of us. And it is worth recalling the word “barbarian” is from the Greek barbaros meaning “foreigner” (apparently because the talk of a foreigner sounded bar bar – i.e. “Greek” – to the Greeks). We are all, as members of the human race, “barbarians” to each other, aren’t we? “Barbarians” amongst “barbarians” – that’s what we all are indeed. 

14 April 1993

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