Hanif Kureishi”s The Nothing

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

My review of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing appeared in The Star last week. It’s available here.

This is the review in full:

In Hanif Kureishi’s brief and caustic novella The Nothing, Waldo is a celebrated filmmaker who is confined to his apartment because of illness and advancing age. He has lately begun to suspect that his wife Zee, younger by twenty-two years, has begun an affair with Eddie, “more than an acquaintance and less than a friend for over thirty years”. This is the story of Waldo’s descent into paranoia, obsession, and sexual jealousy.

Eddie is a scamp, an itinerant shifty dude who has done some film journalism and written about Waldo. Currently, because of money troubles, he is largely living with Waldo and Zee on the pretext of assisting Zee with caring for Waldo. And care for Waldo he does; he has even given him a bath. Waldo has tolerated him and enjoyed his company all these years, to an extent, because Eddie has interesting things to say about movies and “adores the famous” and is a “dirty-minded raconteur”. Waldo describes in detail why he tolerates Eddie and keeps him around, but his exact words are not fit to be printed in this venue.

It is that kind of a book. It’s always a pleasure to read Kureishi, and this is shot through with vivid descriptions and black humour on every page. It’s obnoxious, clever, and bawdy, much like its main character. The whole novel is told from Waldo’s extremely graphic and increasingly paranoid first-person point-of-view. As Waldo says of his detailed, obsessive fantasies, “I like to think I can see it. I was always a camera”. The reader is reminded that “the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth”.

A glimpse into Waldo’s character can be seen in this nugget:

If you’ve once been attractive, desirable, and charismatic, with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing, it can’t be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled. However you end up, you live your whole life as a member of an exclusive club. You never stop pitying the less blessed. Filth like Eddie.

If this makes you want to suffocate him with a pillow, you won’t be the first in line. Certainly his wife is tempted to do the same. But as Waldo reveals more of himself throughout the book, one starts to wonder if all this philosophising is just a cover for a real and actual fear: the slow, creeping realisation by someone on their death bed that all that they hold dear might not be what makes the world go around. If beauty and desirability are the true forms of entitlement and the ugly are to be pitied-from the perspective of someone who has always had both-then what makes an average-looking man like Eddie such a hit with the ladies, including his own wife?

Waldo would certainly bristle if you called him a misogynist; he might counter that he does in fact love women, and would probably privately write you off as a prudish, repressed feminist, which in turn would affirm the fact. That’s the kind of man Waldo is. He does love women, but only if they’re pleasing to his eye and sexually-alluring. If they’re not, they’re dispensed with in one sentence, like Maria, “the kind Brazilian maid”. Waldo’s appreciation for his friend Anita, one of the actresses he has directed, is summed up in an assessment of a physical feature of hers that also cannot be reprinted in this venue.

If you love sharp, snappy writing with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, this book has it. Waldo’s bon mots are clever and provoking but the whole thing can often feel like one giant quip. And that might be the problem with the book: while Kureishi has established an incredibly vital sense of character through Waldo’s voice, there’s never a sense that anything is truly at stake. The obsession with his wife stays on the surface, though when Waldo tries to contextualise how a rogue like him fell in love with this one deserving woman, it sounds a bit hokey, like something he’s memorised from a Hallmark card.

Thus one isn’t quite sure what was Kureishi’s intention in this character study. Perhaps a man who values looks, charm, sexual allure and glamour like Waldo can always only skate on the surface. As always, one is left wondering about the women whom we have only seen through one man’s eyes. One wants to know more about them and why they are this way. Seen by Waldo, Zee veers from petulant to crazed and fulfills all the stereotypes about attractive women who are constantly threatened by the presence of women who are considered more attractive. Yet she is fascinating; Kureishi gives her some amazing lines.

The book ends abruptly, with a bleak solution. Waldo is no fool and he hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes, but things have certainly gone his way-in a sense. Waldo’s voice is memorable and I will probably still think about his pitiful masculine ways for some time. “You have savage eyes”, Zee tells her director husband, and the same could be said of the male gaze in general, as well as of Kureishi. Whether or not one enjoys this book depends quite a bit on how much of this savagery one is willing to sit through.

Review of Malaysia’s Original People (ed. Kirk Endicott)

August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

original people cover

(A shorter version of this review is in The Star.)

Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli is a dense, far-reaching compendium of essays edited by Kirk Endicott, a professor with the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in the US. His bio states that Endicott has carried out fieldwork with the Batek and various other Orang Asli groups since the 1970s; hence, this anthology naturally features other academics and researchers who have spent many years with the Orang Asli in various capacities. The essays run the gamut from pieces on Orang Asli religion, language, and culture to the legal battles and political situation that renders them displaced and marginalised within the nationalist framework.

Published by the National University of Singapore, the book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. However, as the writers are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; so an essay on Orang Asli animism and cosmology, for instance, is also rife with facts about the history of oppression they’ve faced on the Malay Peninsula, starting from Malay and Indonesian slave raiders of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no beating around the bush here in an attempt to neutralise or even erase colonial British and Malaysian government complicity in the systematic displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli. In fact, this displacement occurs under the guise of “modernisation”; but as Duncan Haladay shows in his essay, “Notes on the Politics and Philosophy in Orang Asli Studies”, around the 1980s, within the rubric of development, the Orang Asli “were subjected to resettlement and pressures toward acculturation, and their sanctuaries were subjected to appropriation and extensive deforestation”. It cites a case study from 1997 that “government policies … appear to be transforming Orang Asli into a demoralized rural lumpenproletariat”. Not the words you’ll see in local media reports on Orang Asli, which, as multiple essays in this book point out, often quote government officials tied to the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which is in itself is part of the problem.

Not quoting these words in a review of this book will be intellectually dishonest; from start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil plantation and logging industries, for example, and the bureaucratic nature of the capitalist democracies like Malaysia whose state interests are, with greater intensity and frequency, tied to the profits of corporations. As such, states that claim to protect minorities often make decisions in favour of profit and surplus value to the detriment of its people. This is standard anti-capitalist critique; for many Malaysians, however, the ideas might seem new, even ludicrous. We are often encouraged to think of “development” as an abstract idea that is for the greater good, but the Orang Asli were aware of the rampant consumption of resources required for development as a potential ecological and natural disaster from decades ago.

Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics and the non-specialist reader might find certain words and terms going over her head. While the essays on Orang Asli religion are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it merely regurgitated a string of words in Orang Asli languages, couched between linguistic concepts, terms, and phrases. Despite these occasional hurdles, these essays demonstrate that Orang Asli beliefs about animism and interconnectedness between humans and non-humans are the key to how they manage the land and resources. It’s not that Orang Asli abstain from eating meat, or clearing land; it’s that they do it within a belief system that says they shouldn’t take more than they should, and that for what is taken, something should be done on the part of humans to restore the balance. As such, blaming indigenous practices of slash-and-burn on the yearly haze, for example, is outright falsification by logging and oil palm companies and stakeholders in order to maintain their image.

Orang Asli practices are managed for the greater good of the community that abhors greed; a key tenet is that one group or family should never have more than the other. They see their biological and spiritual wellbeing as tied to the land and the trees, the rivers, and the wildlife. An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting nonhuman life. This is an idea that is almost alien to the money-obsessed, work-driven middle-class urban professionals. To me it demonstrates something beautiful; the value of words and ideas, and the effect it has on one’s own wellbeing and one’s community and family. This interconnectedness makes it hard to close one eye and sanction widespread ecological destruction through various excuses, such as “We need to modernise” or “The technology helps us in the end”. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, is built on profit and works within a system that rewards people who gain more at the expense of others. Whose practices do you think is destructive to the environment?

Another key point is the practice of nonviolence among the Orang Asli; researchers who have lived with them for years explore how it is possible that they never abused their children, or their wives, even when they disagreed. To me, this is astonishing: no child abuse, no rape. These disagreements are always sorted out verbally through intense discussions; and it’s never individualised, as all parties involved must participate. Some speculate that their adherence to non-violence grew out of a reaction to the brutalities faced by the Orang Asli when slave-raiders regularly tore threw the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a concomitant fact about their practice of non-violence is the communal nature of their societies. Private property doesn’t exist; in the instances where some Orang Asli groups tried to absorb capitalist values and enter into market-based living, earning more at the expense of others, their attitudes changed, and they became selfish. They hoarded what was theirs, which was alien to most Orang Asli. The connection between private property and violence is interesting, here, but as these are anthropologists and not Marxists, it’s not explored in detail.

Malaysia’s Original People is required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a detriment to some. It’s too bad that such information is not widely available to local readers by local publishers at affordable prices; reading about these issues will engender a seismic shift in most Malaysians’ thinking and our ready acceptance of capitalist values as the best values for competition, innovation, and development. Seen from the point of view of the Orang Asli, however, it looks different. They foresaw the dystopian future most of us are now aware of with regards to climate change from more than a mile away. However, they continue to struggle against oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them as “the original people” in theory, but in practice, ensures that they remain irrelevant and on the margins, displaced in resettlement villages, and left out of educational opportunities that lead to better-paying jobs. Forced out of the forest by an intricate legal framework that gazettes their ancestral land for “wildlife reserves” (oh, the irony) and development, and forced to assimilate into Malayness (an official “secret” until the 1990s, as Diana Riboli’s essay makes clear), some of the Orang Asli have survived by retreating further back into the forest and refusing the state’s demands to assimilate, convert into another religion, and erase themselves. More Malaysians should learn not to accept what’s being done to them in the name of a so-called developed Malaysia. We, like the Orang Asli, should learn how to say no.

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