Monday, February 15, 2016

Brother Henri, Honorary Malay (1991)

Henri Fauconnier (1879-1973)
Recently a 1930 classic, set in old Malaya and written by a Frenchman, was reprinted by Oxford University Press. It is called Malaisie (English translation: The Soul of Malaya), and the author is Henri Fauconnier. I used to think it’s the best book ever written by a European about the Malays. I still think it is, but my feelings about it today are a bit more complicated than they were when I first read it almost thirty years ago.
Fauconnier was a rubber planter in Selangor in the early 20th century. His book, first published in 1930, is a semi-autobiographical novel. It paints an interesting, at times rather comical, picture of life on a plantation during that period; and the clubby British planters are treated with wry irony. It is a good book with some historical value, but to me its main interest lies in its insight into the Malay psyche and sensibility. The story has only a loose plot in the conventional novelistic sense, and this plot is really developed and acquires some elements of excitement only in the last third of the novel than when the main Malay character runs amok. There is a lot of extended ruminations and conversations about the meaning of life, the nature of the Malays, the uniqueness of the Malay language, and the aesthetics of the pantuns and so on. The story is really about the education of the narrator, a young untested planter named Lescalles, who acquires a deeper knowledge of life and of the Malays through his friendship with a mysterious recluse, Rolain, whose plantation he manages.
A reader familiar with Edward Said’s brilliant assault on Orientalism, and who is wised up to the romantic “imperial” perversions in Western imaginative writings about the East will no doubt find certain things quite repugnant in The Soul of Malaya. This is how the narrator describes his mistress, Palatiai, wife of his Tamil gardener: “She let herself be stroked like a docile filly, and looked up at me with great deep empty eyes… A woman is no more than a delicacy, sweet or sour… The choice of sweetmeat that Malaya offered me, on behalf of India, resembled one of those chocolates wrapped in variegated paper and filled with sugary liqueur.” One can argue, of course, that this is the perception of a character whose head is stuffed with Orientalist clichés about the East, and is not necessarily endorsed by the author. Rolain, who often seems to speak on behalf of Fauconnier, appears to be cynical at his protégé’s expense. He says to the latter, “You? For them (Palatiai and her apparent pimp of a husband) you do not count. You are beyond caste.” But Rolain goes on, “Palatiai brings you merely a propitiatory offering, and Karuppan (the husband) troubles himself no more than men of ancient days who gladly gave their wives to a god with a taste for mortal women.”
Fauconnier as a plantation boss
Despite the touch of irony there, the analogy of the “god with a taste for mortal women” is revealing of what Said would call latent Orientalism in this book. And the Palatiai episode is by no means an isolated case in this. Yet, I would hesitate to dismiss the book as hopelessly contaminated by “Orientalism.” Fauconnier is clearly a child in European romanticism, and that inevitably colours his perception of his Malayan characters and their values. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he distorts everything he sees – in the form of romantic idealization or unconscious condescension. It should also be remembered that his apparent spokesman, Rolain, is a character with very fluid views about life and man. Lescalles finds Rolain hard to pin down; his remarks are often allusive, and sometimes paradoxical, even contradictory. One gets the impression that despite the French-style philosophical sophistication of his talk, there is an unconscious attempt to absorb into it something of what he perceives as the peculiar allusiveness of the Malay mode of communication. While he can be memorably articulate about the Malays, he stresses that he “know(s) very few of the secrets of the Orientals.” And, more importantly, he keeps reminding Lescalles that every idea or perception is provisional. He tells his protégé that “men have settled ideas only on subjects they have never thought about.”
I must admit I find some of the things Rolain and his protégé say about the Malay quite acute and suggestive. The passages on the Malay language, the pantun, and the character of the “true Malay” reveal a mind that is deeply sympathetic. Is there beneath all this attempt to articulate the perceived reality of the Malays, an urge to “appropriate” its otherness? If there is, the act of appropriation is, I think, inseparable from the act of creative imagination itself, specifically of the romantic imagination.  And if it is “imperial,” it is so in the sense that the act of imagination itself is or can be “imperial”; the political ideology of Western imperialism is probably incidental or coincidental to it (unlike the case of imperial writers like Kipling). I would imagine when we Orientals write about the Occidentals, our imagination can be “imperial” too.
In The Soul of Malaya, you’ll meet some of the common stereotypes about the Malays – our infamous indolence, our acute sensitivity to insult to our honour, our unpredictable violence, and so on. But in this book these stereotypes don’t come across as stereotypes to me. There is something about the quality of the writing, and the sensibility behind it, that accounts for this. The main Malay character in the book is Smail, Rolain’s servant and de facto tutor in Malay literature and manners. The portrait of this gentle, sensitive youth who out of hurt pride runs amok towards the end of the novel is delicately etched. Smail is a natural poet and a living demonstration of Rolain’s most memorable remark about the Malays: “They say these people are soft… yes, soft – as dynamite.” The build-up to the amok of Smail is powerfully done. And what is particularly worth noting is Fauconnier’s rare insight into the psychology of the amok itself. He describes it as a “lucid (my italics) frenzy that can utilize all the resources of guile.” In essence, it is a “self-liberation through revolt; a soul too… humiliated by its conscious enslavement, at last turns in upon itself and accumulates so much energy that only the faintest pretext is needed to release it.”
Fauconnier in the early 1970s
That, to my mind, is the best thing ever said about the much misunderstood phenomenon of the amok. It took a Frenchman with a rare empathy with “the soul of Malaya” to say it “ … en souvenir de mon pere bien aime, qui etait Presque devenu un Malais…” (in memory of my father who all but became a Malay …). Helene Fontaine Fauconnier, the author’s daughter, wrote that on the flyleaf of the French edition of Malaise that she gave me when I met her in Paris two years ago. Well, Saudara (Brother) Fauconnier, “latent Orientalist” or not, I welcome your spirit into the fraternity of the Malay race.

17 July 1991

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