Thursday, February 18, 2016

Introduction to 'As I Please' by Margaret Drabble

Dame Margaret Drabble CBE (portrait by Ruth Corney)
Anybody who wants to understand cultural politics today should read this book. Anybody who wants to understand Malaysia today should read this book. And anybody who wants an insight into confrontations of East and West, of Islam and the secular or Christian world, should read this book.

Salleh Ben Joned, poet and journalist, is an excellent guide through the minefields of misunderstanding that await the traveller at home or abroad. The articles and essays cover a wide range of issues, from the question of the National Language (and National Literature) of Malaysia to the death of Lorca, from the soporific dullness of hot Sunday afternoons in Kuala Lumpur to the Rushdie Affair, from erotic verse to the implications of the Fall of Granada in 1492.  Salleh is a joker and a satirist, and he can make one laugh aloud, but beneath the wit and invective is a courageous seriousness. Ridenten dicere verum quid vetat?  As Horace said – or “Who says I can’t joke while telling the truth?” - Salleh’s jokes are often very near the bone, as are those of the best jesters, and he probably annoys his friends as often as his critics.

He writes in a political climate which is, to say the least, challenging. Malaysia should be grateful to him for communicating to outsiders so clearly and enjoyable its condition as it approaches the Millennium – though I suppose gratitude is what it always feels. After reading these essays, one has much more understanding of what is actually happening in a country whose relationship with Britain has recently been very vexed.

One can even pick up, from this volume, a few words of the language – it was Salleh himself in Kuala Lumpur who taught me the provenance of the word “amok”, and from these essays I have now learned that in Malay, breasts are tetek, a word which he lovingly describes as completely expressive of itself, and more evocative than any English version, literary or vulgar. His translations of Malayan pantuns, sayings and terms of abuse also make one long to know of the language. It is clearly a fine tongue for invective.

Born in Malacca, Salleh had a Western education in Australia and Tasmania, and is now widely travelled, but he remains a Malaysian and a Muslim. He is uniquely well placed to explore what has recently become a dominant cultural conflict of our time. Like Rushdie, he has lived, day by day, and tried to make sense of it.  His responses are instant, off the cuff, sometimes hasty – and that is one of the virtues of this volume of occasional pieces. It has a great immediacy. The debate is with society, and he shows us a mind unable to censor itself. He explores the Quran and the Hadith, finding there mercy and compassion: he challenges the dictators of religious orthodoxy on their ground, pleading for a tolerance which he assures us has scriptural authority.

This is a brave agenda. The word “blasphemy” and “sacrilege” and apostasy understandably haunt him, and he says that his typewriter has a curious habit of producing the word “scared” instead of “sacred.” His courage in trying to interpret one side of his heritage to the other, and hence to us, is exhilarating. 

Salleh is bilingual, and writes in English and Malay:  he supports strongly the right to write (and teach and be taught) in English, but he also has a strong feeling for Malay. His games with words in both tongues reveal his knowledge of James Joyce, of whom he here writes with admiration – making, incidentally some interesting comparisons between Irish nationalism and Malaysian nationalism. He is sensitive to the grey area where religion fades in which literature itself can be co-opted, abused and misinterpreted. He votes for multi-culturalism, but he also understands its dangers. 

Exhilarating, too, is the infectious enthusiasm with which he writes about writing. His friends and heroes, ranging from the Australian poet and trickster James McAuley to Octavio Paz, Ibsen, Chairil Anwar (“the first and probably the only true bohemian and rebel the Malay literary world has produced”) and journalist and novelist Isako San, are celebrated with generosity.

Above all, he arouses our curiosity. He makes us want to understand. For this alone Malaysia should give him a few medals. Who would have thought I would find myself reading an article on a Bumi writer’s dilemma with such interest? Until I came across Salleh Ben Joned, I never even knew what a Bumi writer was. This book challenges us all to find out

Margaret Drabble
May 1994

Margaret Drabble is a novelist and critic. Her first book A Summer Birdcage, was published in 1962 to be followed by several others, including The Garrick Year (1964) The Needle’s Eye (1972) and The Radiant Way (1987). Her book The Millstone (1966) won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. She is editor of The Genius of Thomas Hardy (1976) and the Fifth Edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985) and author of a critical biography of Angus Wilson. She was awarded a CBE in 1980.

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