Literature moving into obscurity

June 15, 2014

Literature moving into obscurity

by Bhavani Krishna Iyer*

E Literature

I HAVE vivid recollections of receiving brickbats from family members and friends when I made the announcement one eventful day that I was planning to pursue a doctoral degree in English Literature.

Many thought that such a degree would not earn me a living and yet others thought literature was out of vogue. I would say both these groups were neither completely right nor wrong, but the point is I have no regrets having pursued my passion.

It was uphill all the way getting material, and my search to support my thesis often ended in futility. I remember scouring bookshops in India where the assistants would send me to the deepest, darkest and most obscure corners in the shop to look for books related to literature. I often felt small but never any less important.

IT and engineering references were hot sellers and the bookshop owners used to tell me that literature books don’t sell because there was no demand.

There is also this common complaint that studying literature will not be of any use for a working adult unless one is teaching the subject. Not forgetting the acidulous remark we get that literature will not teach anyone how to make a sandwich or build a bridge, hence, why bother?

A course mate said she was almost coaxed into doing something “more marketable” when she was about to embark on the PhD. Such were the harsh realities when all things related to science and technology appeared to have elevated status at work and outside work, due to their perceived importance.

English writersWhen I stood in front of my boss years ago, asking for time off to attend classes, I was not surprised that he asked “how is it going to be of any benefit to you and the company.” I simply said, “I will be a better person to say the least, and of course as an employee, I will have a more enlightened view of my surrounding, the environment and the people around me.

“People with a literature background have better written and other communication skills and it has been widely accepted that understanding complex ideas and theories and doing research come easy,” I explained. He did not say anything further.

The zeal for literature is very much a personal preference, either you like it or you don’t and for those who are consumed in it for reasons other than academic, they will know the many-pronged benefits. I am a staunch believer that the interest can be developed.

Exposure to literature keeps one afloat in a conversation about the life and times of people which would appeal to just about anyone. Additionally, one’s vocabulary increases by reading literature and last but not least, literature serves as momentary escapism from the harsh realities of life. It serves to de-stress people who are overcome by the stress of modern living. People who read literary works will know the power and pleasure of using the language with all its quirks.

Personally, I think, literature adorns one with the ability to appreciate the enriching array of human characters and experiences.”But literature is difficult,” is often the lament from many, but let me tell you it need not be so if you get into the groove of it and start with the right material.

The Ministry of Education has incorporated a component called Language Arts in its English Language syllabus where pupils from Year 1 study rhymes, short stories and others to “activate pupils’ imagination and interest”.

I am told by a friend who is a teacher trainer that the English language teachers are exposed to teaching literature in the classrooms, in a small way from the way I see it but this is a good move and I hope we get this going without high-handed interference.

Having said that we seem to be in transition most times from quick-fixes in as far as learning English is concerned and perhaps a revolutionary policy in teaching and learning English might be just the answer to arrest the decay.

*The writer was a language teacher and now teaches part-time in public universities, apart from having a full-time job. Comments:

How about a little Poem for this Occasion–May 23, 2014

May 23, 2014

How about a little Poem for the Occasion–May 23, 2014

tennysonporI could have posted Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem which I read at Sixth Form at the Penang Free School (1958). It was heavy stuff, way back then and too  long for my purpose here. Yet Milton’s is a must read for those who want to learn English seriously. Also try Chaucer’s Canterburry Tales and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

But  for this occasion, let me revisit Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, which I posted on my blog some years  ago. I think it is an appropriate piece of poetry for my special day. I dedicate it to the memory of my late mother, Hajjah Fatimah Merican, Christie Netto and the forgotten men and women of their generation.–Din Merican


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea:

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life.  Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains:  But every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachos,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone.  He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas.  My mariners,
Souls that have tol’d and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all:  but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes:  the slow moon climbs:  the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

     Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Fellow Malaysians, May The Force be with You Always

Birthday Greetings from my friend Terence Netto

May 22, 2014

Din and KamsiahI am deeply  moved by an e-mail message I received a few moments ago from a soulmate in literature, Terence Netto and thank him  warmly for his very kind wishes to mark my 75th Birthday, which falls tomorrow, May 23.

It is indeed a great honour to share the same date as his late father, Christie Netto, whose centenary it will be tomorrow. Two Germinians, a quarter of century apart, Christie and I share a common passion which is the love of reading and literature.

Terence had an excellent role model in his father, and I had an equally wonderful one in my late mother, Hajjah Fatimah Merican. Both he and I were indeed fortunate to have  such unselfish mentors.

Our parents –my mother and his father– did not leave behind great wealth.  But in their separate ways, they exposed us to great literature and taught us the value of reading.

Yes, I love to read history and literary works of antiquity through which I began to appreciate the nobility of a Hamlet and the idealism of a Brutus and despise  the toxic qualities of Iago, the greed of a Shylock and the machinations and temptations of a Lady Macbeth.

So my friend, Terence, allow me to post a poem by William Wordsworth in honour of the long departed Christie Netto. He did his duty for our country. And so did my beloved mother.You and I will now go on, never to quit because we still have plenty to do before we sleep.

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold (Rainbow)

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Let also us celebrate this auspicious day with this tune by Sammy Davies Jr.–Din Merican

Birthday Greetings from my friend, Terence Netto

Dear Din,

My fond greetings to you on attaining the milestone of three score and 15 years.Ever since I came to know you seven years ago and got to know that your birthday falls on May 23, I have felt a special kinship for you. It is because the date is also the birthday of my father whose centenary is today which makes this day extra special to me.

It is apposite that I should greet you on this day when I feel a deep sense of gratitude to my dad. For without his urging me to read from a young age I doubt I could have forged a friendship with you that I am certain would last for the duration of our remaining years, you being a ripe 75 and I, a mere 14 years to the rear.

You and I have had many occasions when we shared our delight in the stuff we had read in our days of youth and maturity. That reading may not have covered the compendium of what Matthew Arnold meant by the “best that has been said and thought” in this world, but any range that has within its compass a dollop of Shakespeare, a draught of Tolstoy and a distillate of Gibbon would suffice for  the delights that we have shared whenever we met.

 From my father, Christie Netto, I acquired the sheer joy of felicitous statement which led me to devour literary and political stuff, especially when these have been singingly rendered. Combined with the fortune of having a good English teacher in the late Bernard Khoo Teng Swee (whom your website commemorated last week) and the fortuitous friendship of (also departed) fellow journalist, Shaik Osman Majid (who like you had Penang Free School as his alma mater), I learned to read, remember and store my mind with the stuff that will always be a joy forever.

 So on this day when you mark your 75th birthday, I take a special delight in greeting you and in remembering my father to whom I owe such a lot. If in the “brief candle” of our life the knowledge of how this world works and of how human beings are constituted could be available to us, it is almost certain such powers would only be acquired through comprehension of the great works of literary and philosophic merit.

It has been no small pleasure that through the mentoring of Christie, a humble accounts clerk who knew Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Marx, Netto junior acquired some of the wherewithal that must have made him, I figure, a companion of some value to Din Merican to whom the Latin greeting – Ad multos annos – is most appropriate on this auspicious day.




Roth Unbound: A Guardian Book Review

January 17, 2014

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont – Review

Who inspired Philip Roth’s characters? This new study claims to reveal many secrets.
The Guardian, Friday 17 January 2014 09.00 GMT
Philip RothPhilip Roth

Philip Roth, at age 40, published the essay “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka”, which appropriates its title from the short story “A Hunger Artist”, and fantasises that the genius of Prague didn’t die at age 40, but instead was cured of tuberculosis, and lived on to witness the Nazi regime. His response was to give up literature and flee to America, where he took a job teaching in a shabby Hebrew school in Newark, New Jersey.

Among his students was a young “Philip Roth”, who nicknamed this strange, halitotic hermit “Dr Kishka”, Yiddish for “guts”. The Ghost Writer, published six years after this piece in 1979, is the first of Roth’s novels narrated by his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman imagines that Anne Frank survived Bergen-Belsen only to have to hide from the celebrity of her diary in a clapboard farmhouse in the Berkshires, where she changed her name to Amy Bellette and served as an amanuensis to a famous Jewish-American novelist. Roth’s Kafka spends his post-literary existence drilling children in the alef bet; Roth’s Frank spends hers imparting to the work of her employer and lover the authenticating imprimaturs of Holocaust trauma and European Kultur.

Kafka, in his lifetime, published two books; Frank, in hers, published none; Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and announced his retirement 25 novels later with Nemesis in 2010. According to Claudia Roth Pierpont, he has been enjoying his dotage “discussing books and politics and a thousand other things”, entertaining her with “memories, observations, opinions, thoughts, second thoughts, jokes, stories, even songs”.

Pierpont assures us that though she is not related to Roth, she has produced this study of his fiction with his collaboration. It is no surprise that her book is a useful resource for plot summary, then, but it is shocking that the new secrets it claims to offer are only shopworn trivia that even my parents – not academics, just Jews from Jersey – already know: the stock in trade of Saturday synagogue book clubs, and the Sunday New York Times. In The Ghost Writer, the novelist EI Lonoff, who shelters the ostensible Anne Frank, was based on Bernard Malamud; the novelist Felix Abravanel, who is too egotistical to adopt Zuckerman as a literary son and so dispatches him to Lonoff, was based on Saul Bellow – neither were grateful, but both were flattered, I’m sure.

Pierpont mentions that a Zuckerman first appeared in My Life As a Man, as a character in two stories by Peter Tarnopol, another Rothian double, who happens to share a psychiatrist, Dr Spielvogel, with Alexander Portnoy.

Yet another Roth redux, the public radio intellectual and lit professor David Kepesh, changes into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound breast in The Breast; in The Professor of Desire he ventures to Prague and hallucinates a whore who, for $10, will narrate the sex acts she performed on Kafka, and for another $5 will let Kepesh inspect her octogenarian vagina himself. Pierpont tags these books as reactions to The Metamorphosis, but also to Roth’s sojourns behind the iron curtain, which themselves were merely bids to escape his reputation after the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, that classic of filial suffering and fervent wanking: Roth’s “Portnoy readers – even the ones who loved the book, or maybe especially those – viewed him as ‘a walking prick’. When they came up to him in the street, that’s what they saw, it seemed to him, that’s whom they were congratulating.”

Roth--BookThe problem with this is not how one congratulates a prick – by wanking it, perhaps – but rather the quotation marks: it is not clear, when it comes to “a walking prick”, who exactly is talking. This vagary plagues every page of Roth Unbound, regardless of attributive punctuation, to the point where Pierpont’s criticism references Roth’s “non-fiction books” as if they were gospels, and assimilates their opinions too. These supposedly impeachable sources are The Facts, which purports to be an autobiography discussed in letters between Zuckerman and Roth; and Patrimony, a memoir of Roth’s father’s death, written in the midst of his decline.

Then there are the miscellanies: Shop-Talk, and Reading Myself and Others. The former collects conversations Roth conducted with the likes of Primo Levi and Milan Kundera, in which he proposes interpretations of their works and they, of course, agree. The latter is a Maileresque orgy of vanity featuring interviews of Roth by George Plimpton and Joyce Carol Oates; an essay about writing Portnoy, in which Roth excerpts a speech he delivered to an Anti-Defamation League symposium; an essay on the novelist-critic divide, the bulk of which is given over to a letter Roth wrote but never posted to critic Diana Trilling, dissenting from her review of Portnoy; a self-interview Roth did for Partisan Review that refers to an essay he wrote about himself for Commentary; not to forget his own review of a Broadway play adapted from his earliest stories.

Now that Roth’s retirement has given him the opportunity to pursue his legacy full-time, it is telling that he hasn’t proceeded in the manner of Henry James, who dedicated his final stretch to assembling his corpus into the New York Edition, rephrasing whole sentences, if not just rearranging the commas he had strewn them with half a century previously. It is as if Roth doesn’t think it makes much difference that Our Gang, his humourless Nixon pastiche, and The Great American Novel, his fussy and precious baseball picaresque, are still available as they were written. Or maybe, after more than four decades in analysis, he has resigned himself to their flaws, or even thinks they are perfect and deserve to be shelved alongside his best: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral.

But then Roth’s tendency has never been to withhold, rather to explain, or revise by explanation, and it is ironic that the same technique that unifies his oeuvre has the opposite effect on its criticism: to Pierpont, Letting Go is about the influence of James, Thomas Wolfe, the stultifying 50s, and “not letting go”; When She Was Good is about the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, the stultifying 50s, and Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson, who faked a pregnancy, faked an abortion, took Roth’s money in a divorce and promptly killed herself (though Pierpont insists that her fullest character portrayal is as Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man).

Roth’s second wife Claire Bloom is Eve in I Married a Communist and, wait for it, Claire in Deception; while the female actor in Zuckerman Unbound is a monster made of Bloom, Edna O’Brien, and Jackie O, whom Roth once dated (kissing her was like “kissing a billboard”). Establishing biographical correspondences is a pleasant way to wait out the clock, but it will never pass for serious criticism. Still, with each of Pierpont’s chapters centred on a certain book, pure fun salaciousness just isn’t feasible. The result is that Roth’s life between publications is mostly ignored, and the most obvious lacuna is the fact that in 2012 Roth authorised an official biography, to be written by Blake Bailey, whose prior subjects – John Cheever and Richard Yates – had been too dead to refuse the honour, or meddle.

This suggests that Roth Unbound might be even more than its breathless publicity promises; indeed, it might be Roth’s most virtuoso stunt. Imagine Roth approaching his 80th birthday laden with awards and honorary degrees, globally translated, universally read, his talent having triumphed over every adversity: mental breakdown, heart ailment, rabbinic orthodoxy, feminism. As an artist who has always thrived on transgression, he must have discerned his mortality in the sense that there was no opposition left for him to outlast. Once again, he would have to invent one, a persecution not romantic or erotic this time, but ultimate enough to flirt with the posthumous, and so he granted access to a biographer, and pretended to retire.

Predictably, the oppressive prospect of having a stranger narrate his life invigorated Roth, and had him reasserting the pre-eminence of his work, by ghostwriting a study of it. The slackness of the prose, then, must be attributed not to Roth’s senescence, but to the demands of writing under an assumed identity. Unable to bear not receiving credit for this feat, and for having concluded his career in the voice of a sympathetic female, Roth chose a pseudonym – “Claudia Roth Pierpont” – just foolish enough to betray the truth. Roth, it seems, is back, and once again he is begging to be punished.

The Abdullah recrudescence

September 19, 2013

The Abdullah recrudescence

by Terence Netto (09-16-13)  @

badawi yearsAn upswing in the hitherto low ratings of the premiership of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi seems to be taking place.

The stock of Malaysia’s fifth Prime Minister was low when he was compelled to give up office in April 2009 in the face of electoral shocks to Umno-BN in Election 2008.

It was a vertiginous fall, after a mere 48 months, from the results of Election 2004 when Abdullah, cresting on the wave of national expectations of political reform and institutional revival after 22 years of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad imperium, led his coalition to an impressive 64 percent take of the popular vote.

Four years later, as a result of his backpedaling on critical areas, like reform of the Police force and the fight against graft, Abdullah saw his popularity nosedive from its heady electoral perch of 2004 to the doldrums of Election 2008.

A year on from that stinging setback – months spent in a forlorn bid to stave off the inevitable – Abdullah bowed and accepted the end of his season at the top.

Perhaps the only consolation of his retreat was the grace with which he brought if off, it being a mark of statesmanship that a leader yields gracefully what he has no longer the power to withhold.

Now, a little over four years from Abdullah’s valedictory graces, there is an uptick in his ratings.  For sure, a leader’s ratings on those fairly bogus scales of history can flicker around like a speedometer gone wrong.

This is because not only are leaders judged on what they have done and what they have failed to do there is also the question of the vagaries of history.

The forces that influence the historical standing of leaders – shifts in popular opinion, the emergence of consciousness of some ideal or necessity, demographic changes – operate on levels of complexity one can only perceive, and that too vaguely, some time after they have occurred.

Maintaining a certain restraint

Abetting the Abdullah recrudescence is his relative quiet in comparison with the noisily captious ways of his predecessor. It’s de rigueur for retired leaders to maintain a certain restraint when commenting on current affairs.

It’s not that they are debarred from commenting on current goings-on: awareness that vision is always 20/20 in hindsight properly restraints the impulse to hold forth archly on current affairs.

Abdullah has abided by this restraint and only commented when there was a need to or when such comments as he made did not obtrude on the prevailing debates.

The retired Mahathir, by contrast, was an albatross around Abdullah’s neck Dr Mand is a millstone around present Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s.

[The] ‘Awakening’, a book of retrospectives and assessments of Abdullah’s tenure, published last month, has been well-timed to call attention to moves he made during his tenure –  checking fiscal irresponsibility, opening space for dissent, and attempting to restore judicial independence – which stand him in good stead compared to the track record of his predecessor and that of his successor.

Again here, the contrast with the memoirs of Mahathir, ‘A Doctor in the House’, a tawdry exercise in obfuscation, was stark. Mahathir is the more prolific writer, having written tracts early in his career and even during his time as Premier, but his aims in his memoir were abjectly self-serving. His book deserves the oblivion it quickly attained.

Which brings us to the factor that judicious observers would be apt to cite as the most likely to figure in the revised estimates of the premiership of Abdullah Badawi.

This was his attempt to restore independence to the judiciary, an institution that suffered the debilitation Mahathir visited it through the impeachment of Lord President Salleh Abbas in 1988 and promotion of mediocrities to the bench.

Mahadev Shankar,This plus point about Abdullah’s tenure was made by no less a judicial luminary than Mahadev Shankar, the retired Court of Appeal judge, who presided at the launch of ‘Awakening’ in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

At the launch, Shankar cited the acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim on appeal of the guilty verdict in the first sodomy charge preferred against him in 1999 in validation of his opinion that Abdullah freed the judiciary to do the thing they were appointed to do.

Shankar deployed the inelegant term “scrotal gumption” to describe the decision of judges who sat on the acquitting panel.

It may have taken “scrotal gumption” for the judges to acquit Anwar on the charge which many felt at the time it was levelled – and more so in retrospect – to have been trumped up.  For Abdullah, however, it must have been plain decency that prompted his exercise in judicial restoration.

That exercise is by no means complete but that he commenced it at all is stupendous and explains the man’s reviving historical fortunes.

Tribute to Seamus Heaney: Bard of Tradition and Modernity

September 2, 2013

Tribute to Seamus Heaney: Bard of Tradition and Modernity


Seamus Heaney (pic above), who has died aged 74, was widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, who like Heaney was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Heaney was renowned for his mastery of Irish and Gaelic sources, as well as Old English, the Anglo-Saxon tongue from which he translated in 1999 a much-praised version of the medieval epic “Beowulf”.

Although wary of being compared to Yeats – who died in 1939, the year Heaney was born – he acknowledged his kinship with a compatriot who also dug deep into ancient Irish traditions while reflecting his country’s modern conflicts.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 into a Catholic farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland.

His father was a farmer, while his mother’s family had been workers in the local linen industry. The eldest of nine children, Seamus grew up on the family farm of Mossbawm, before becoming a boarder at St Columb’s College in the city of Derry, where he studied both Latin and Gaelic.

He went on to take English language and literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, which became his home until 1972 and where he came under the influence of the British writer and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, who helped confirm his vocation as a poet.

His first published work was “Eleven Poems” in 1965, the year in which he married Marie Devlin, a fellow writer about whom he penned some of his finest poems and with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

Other collections include “Death of a Naturalist” (1966), “Door into the Dark” (1969), “North” (1975), “The Haw Lantern” (1987), “Seeing Things” (1991), “The Spirit Level” (1996) and “District and Circle” (2006). In 1972, at the height of the violence involving British troops and Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries over Northern Ireland’s status, Heaney moved to Dublin, which was to be his home base for the rest of his life.

After a spell devoted only to writing, he resumed teaching activities in 1975, speaking as a guest lecturer in US universities and in Britain.

Between 1989 and 1994 he held the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at England’s prestigious Oxford University. The following year he became the fourth Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the three others having been Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969).

In March 2009, Heaney was awarded the £40,000 ($62,000, 47,000-euro) David Cohen Prize for Literature for his lifetime of work.

“For the last 40-odd years, Heaney’s poems have crystallised the story of our times, in language which has bravely and memorably continued to extend its imaginative reach,” said Andrew Motion, Britain’s then-poet laureate and the chairman of the judges.

“At the same time, his critical writing, his translations and his lecturing have invigorated the whole wider world of poetry.” In 2003 the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queen’s University, housing a unique record of Heaney’s entire works. – AFP/Relaxnews/The Malaysian Insider, September 2, 2013.

Congrats to Dato Baha Zain, National Laureate

June 2, 2013

Dato Baha Zain, National Laureate: The Best and Truest of Malay Literature

by Johan Jaafar (01-06-13)

NATIONAL LAUREATE: Baharuddin Zainal is an embodiment of the best and truest in Malay literature

s-Baha3DATO’ Baharuddin Zainal, or Baha Zain, is the fourth poet to be accorded Sasterawan Negara (National Literary Laureate). Out of the 12 who had won the coveted award, seven were novelists and short story writers and there is one dramatist among them, Noordin Hassan.

Baha is the second oldest person to win the award at 74; the oldest was Abdullah Hussein, who was 76 when he won it in 1996. The youngest recipients were Shahnon Ahmad (1982) and Muhammad Haji Salleh (1991) who were 49 when they won. Four of the recipients (Kamaluddin Muhammad or Keris Mas, Usman Awang, Arena Wati and S. Othman Kelantan) have died. Anwar Rithwan (who won in 2009) is the youngest recipient alive (64) while the oldest is Abdullah Hussein (93).

Every one of them had their own strength. Some have redefined the genre they were involved in. Keris Mas, the first recipient was a true story teller — he wrote great novels and tantalising short stories. Shahnon will forever be remembered for his novels like Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, Srengenge and Tunggul-Tunggul Gerigis and, of course, the notorious ones like Piem and Shit.

A. Samad Said was one of the finest novelists in the land and a great poet, too. He wrote Salina and Sungai Mengalir Lesu and the much acclaimed narrative on Prophet Muhammad in poetry, Al Amin. Sadly we have lost him to political activism.

Arena Wati and Abdullah Hussein wrote novels that span the entire globe. It is a pity Abdullah’s best work Interlok is misconstrued; it is the only novel that tells the story of the major races in the country. Arena Wati’s Sandera is a masterpiece, a novel that is both ambitious and entertaining.

Anwar Rithwan wrote Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (the screen adaptation to be aired on Astro Box Office tonight) when he was in his late 20s. Like Samad, he writes poetry and drama, too.

S. Othman Kelantan is an interesting novelist, to say the least. To many, he was a curiosity among the winners. Noordin is said to be the pioneer of absurd theatre in the country.

Muhammad Salleh started his writing in English. Like the character in the Malay moral stories, Si Tenggang, he came home to write in Bahasa Melayu. He was a scholar, thinker and poet, one of the finest in the land.

Ahmad Kamal Abdullah (Kemala) is capable of coming up with surprises. The 11th recipient (2011) has been one of the most prolific poets the country has ever known.

Baha Zain is in a class of his own — a poet with more than conscience to start with, he is an indefatigable crusader of goodness in humanity. His essays are illuminating and always relevant.

Interestingly, he was the head of the Literary Department of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) when Usman was his deputy. Their former boss was Keris Mas. Those were the glory days of DBP. The literary department had the best assembly of literary greats back then — Baha, Usman, Kemala, Abdullah Hussein, Shamsuddin Jaafar, Anwar Rithwan, Syed Jaafar Husin, Suhaimi Haji Muhammad, Sutung Umar R.S. and Dinsman, among others.

Remember, out of 12, six of the recipients came from DBP, beginning with Keris Mas. Four were Baha’s own staff when he was heading the department — Usman, Abdullah, Kemala and Anwar.

I joined the department in 1977 and shared a room with Abdullah (the eighth recipient) for almost two years. Baha was more than a head of department to me, he was my mentor, a brother and a friend.

Managing creative people requires a different skill, Baha found out. He popularised the term “cultural and literary managers” at the time. He was fortunate to have them in his department but they posed different challenges. Baha was a great leader and respected by the literary community. He went on to become the deputy director-general of DBP. He left the organisation in 1984.

He was appointed a board member the second time when I was the chairman in 2006. He was there to help me in good and trying times.

Baha is first and last a writer, a fine one at that. His poetry speaks for him — the joy, frustration, anxiety and hope. His works transcend race and creed. Like his friend, Usman, he believes in universality and humanism. He is never selfish, though uncompromising in his stand, but always fair and just. He can be critical but as a wordsmith extraordinaire, he made his criticism palatable, even stylish.

Baha is an embodiment of the best and the truest in Malay literature.


‘Wise Men’ by Stuart Nadler

March 2, 2013

Here is something light  and entertaining, yet philosophical about life. We all have our moments, both good and bad, except that some of us do not learn the lessons of life. We keep talking and blabbering to the Kingdom come in self justification, pouring out invented stories and revising history to fit our version of reality. I can only quote my favourite Black novelist James Baldwin of the Civil Rights era here for those who continue to remain in that mode (with apologies to Minister Rais Yatim): “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction”.–Din Merican

Books of The Times (

One Summer and One Girl Will Define Him Throughout His Lifetime

‘Wise Men’ by Stuart Nadler

by Janet Maslin (02-24-13)

Wise Men

The title, setting and central romance of Stuart Nadler’s “Wise Men” are whoppingly bland. The novel is about two men, a father and son, whose surname is Wise. Its main setting is a pokey but fabulous seaside compound on Cape Cod. And at first it seems to be about That Summer, the time when a shy boy develops a hopeless crush on some unattainable woman and seems unlikely ever to get over her. Lots of gooey romances fit this description.

But Mr. Nadler’s version travels a long way from those inauspicious Stuart Nadlerbeginnings. And it gains strength as the story stretches over both Wise men’s lifetimes and fills them with resonant complications. It becomes a bigger, more surprising book than it initially seems to be.

“Wise Men” begins in 1947, with a plane crash that transforms Arthur Wise, a small-time litigator, into the nation’s most famous ambulance chaser. Arthur figures out a way to profit enormously from class-action lawsuits, specializes in air disaster and makes himself the terror of the aviation industry. He becomes enormously rich and isn’t shy about flaunting it. By the time Arthur buys a sizable chunk of Cape Cod coastline and settles his family there, his only child, 17-year-old Hilly, is mortified by his father’s showboating.

Hilly (born Hilton) narrates the book and recalls every little wince he experienced when the family moved to its grand new world. A lot of his mortification involves Lem Dawson, a black caretaker who lived there before the Wise guys took over.

“The sellers threw in their boy,” says Arthur, whose casual racism is only one of his cringe-worthy attributes. As Hilly becomes increasingly fascinated by Lem, his problems with his father get worse. That may be exactly what Hilly wants, but he’s too young to know it.

When Lem is visited by another black man and a young woman in a beat-up old Packard, Arthur berates him with typical crudeness. (“You call the whole goddamned N.A.A.C.P. over for a clambake?”) That’s not the only reason Hilly falls for Savannah, the girl in the car, who turns out to be Lem’s niece. But Mr. Nadler leaves it to his readers to guess what role Arthur’s bigotry plays in such a forbidden attraction. In any case, Hilly falls into a swoon over a girl he barely gets to know. He will yearn for Savannah for most of his life.

Even as Mr. Nadler sears That Summer into Hilly’s mind with an episode of terrible cruelty, “Wise Men” retains its early formulaic feel. It’s only after the book leaps forward two decades that its scope and impact can start being felt. At 38 Hilly has grown up to be a Boston newspaper reporter specializing in racial strife. The year is 1972, and he needn’t leave Boston in search of material.

Still, he travels to Iowa to follow up on a small news item he’s spotted. He thinks it may have something to do with Savannah. For reasons that remain intriguing because they’re so unexplored (by Hilly, garrulous as he is) and so understated (by Mr. Nadler, more subtly than might be expected), he remains determined to find her.

There are good reasons to bridle at such sentimentality. But Mr. Nadler counters them well. Hilly’s narrative voice ages so credibly that this book’s final pages really do sound as if they come from a much older and wiser man. (Eventually “Wise” makes a decent double entendre.) And Hilly’s sheer irrationality makes him much more interesting than he first seemed. He seeks a life he can never have and can’t stand the family he was born into.

Arthur craves his son and heir; Hilly refuses to be bought. To the chagrin of his girlfriend, Jenny, he won’t take a dime; if their roof leaks, tough luck. He hates the money, and he hates his father’s ruthlessness, which remains undimmed even when Arthur is in his 90s.

Mr. Nadler is also the author of “The Book of Life,” a short story collection. There are times when “Wise Men” feels like an interlocking series of stories, smoothly linked and anthologized. The description of Savannah’s father, a gambler and onetime baseball player, is expertly wrought, but it’s a tangential part of this big, rambling novel.

Each encounter between Hilly and Savannah exists in a world of its own. Arthur’s arrogant rich-guy antics are a whole other tale, as is the complicated relationship between Arthur and his only partner, a much quieter lawyer who moved to the Cape enclave with the Wises and stays there for the rest of his life. And Hilly’s life as a father and grandfather is touchingly different from his life as a lovestruck teenage boy.

As he grows up on the page, Hilly likes to overexplain himself to the reader. “Time does that,” he says, as an older man looking backward; “it kills the mystique, replaces the boundlessness of wishing and hoping with some well-earned, necessary clarity.” Talk kills mystique too, and by some lights “Wise Men” talks too much about too little. But in taking a long view of his characters’ lives, and following them so closely, Mr. Nadler finally gives them what they’ve lacked: staying power.

A version of this review appeared in print on February 25, 2013, on page C9 of the New York edition with the headline: One Summer and One Girl Will Define Him Throughout His Lifetime.

Poetry, You and Me

February 11, 2013

Poetry,You and Me

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”-T.S. Eliot

Let us use this CNY period to listen to some poetry and reflect on where we are all heading. Bean. are waiting to take that ride on the Kerbau on a journey to a faraway place beyond the crimson sky. Poetry can be fascinating yet amusing.But it is certainly better than politics.–Din Merican

Singapore: Softer Part of Nation Building

November 19, 2012

Singapore: Softer Part of Nation Building

By Seah Chiang Nee (11-17-12)

For decades, the government had regarded chasing after gross domestic product and accumulation of reserves as the supreme objective, done at the expense of other developments. However, it still lacks the “graces of a civilised society” such as music, culture and the arts.

WITH the foreign population topping a historic two million mark, materialistic Singapore is seeking to turn more towards values it was rarely famous for.

“We can’t just measure our success by GDP growth…but also by the growth of our values: compassion, empathy, altruism, love for our fellow citizens,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This is the second time in three months Lee has referred to the softer part of nation-building, something not often emphasised in 47 years of independence.

It comes at a time when division in this over-crowded city is growing between locals and foreigners as well as between Singaporeans themselves.

In his National Day Rally in August, Lee dwelt on how Singapore could become a home with heart, where people become more gracious.He also set up a “national conversation” in which values became a regular theme.

Society is undergoing a period of transformation as more foreigners continue to be admitted to fuel its economic growth and make up for a low birthrate.

At end of 2011, the number of foreign workers, including permanent residents, reached 1.926 million, but by mid-2012, it totaled 2.027 million – 38% of a population of 5.3 million.

For decades, the government had regarded chasing after gross domestic product and accumulation of reserves as the supreme objective, done at the expense of other developments.

The result has been a “golden era” of economic growth. But as Lee Kuan Yew, then Senior Minister, himself admitted eight years ago Singapore was every bit a First World nation.

However, it still lacked the “graces of a civilised society” such as music, culture and the arts.

“The generation now in their 30s to 50s can take Singapore there in the next 15 to 20 years. The best is yet to be,” Lee added. It implied he was leaving the problem to the current leadership under his son to resolve, and could be the cause of PM Lee to start emphasising on “compassion, empathy, altruism, love for our fellow citizens.”

The pursuit of the dollar – from the government and corporations downwards to the ordinary citizens – has become so strong that it has clouded some Singaporeans’ sense of ethics and morality.

This money preoccupation stems from many of the young to senior citizens who flock to 4-D shops and casinos.It includes employers who exploit foreign workers before packing them home and girls traded into prostitution by boyfriends, all under the influence of making money.

I have heard cases of kids expressing shame at their father’s small Japanese car “when their friends were being driven in luxury vehicles”.One child reportedly told his father not to pick him up in his old car too close to his school gate.

Some teachers commented that it began with the schools and the choice of studies. For most students acquiring knowledge or serving society is the last thing on their mind.

“By and large students choose subject they can easily score distinctions rather than what they like or need,” said a retired school principal.

As a result few readily choose to study literature or history, which are useful to learn but hard to score good grades, she said.They are also shunned by parents because they don’t make money.

Yet these subjects often teach young people about humanity about what is right and what is wrong about life.

I remember the occasion when (then Deputy Prime Minister) Dr Goh Keng Swee called for a wider teaching of Humanities not only for individuals but society as a whole.

Books like Shakespeare, the Three Kingdoms or English literature are not only interesting, but are a treasure cove on ethics and morals.Science, Math and Engineering are useful, but just as important to any society is the old wisdom or values.

In Singapore we have too many who choose to study finance, medicine and law where the money is.

The habit of sitting quietly to read a literature book or the humanities helps to moderate temptations of modern times and provides a balanced sense of right and wrong.It teaches us to express ourselves and articulate well.

“We learn what we should do or not do, what we should say or not say.Literature is not a popular subject among Singapore’s students. Our education system as everyone well knows places a huge emphasis on scores and grades,” wrote Elaine Ee.

Holding a masters degree in Comparative Post Colonial Literature from the University of London, she said: “Waxing lyrical about the benefits of studying literature doesn’t address the issue that Singapore schools face either.As long as grades remain what makes or breaks a student in our system.”

A local DJ, Anna Lim commented to Lianhe Wanbao that Singaporeans are well educated but have poor upbringing.

“Singaporeans reserve seats with tissue paper packets and they leave trash behind after gatherings”, she said.

“On the MRT, they do not give up their seats to the needy, neither do they allow alighting passengers to get off before squeezing their way into the carriage.”

Students compete both academically and in the sporting arena, she said. “It certainly makes us afraid and it saddens their teachers,” she said.

Orhan Pamuk: By the Book

November 10, 2012

NY Times: Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk: By the Book

Published: November 8, 2012

The author of “The Innocence of Objects” and “Silent House” believes all American presidents should read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”(by Robert M.  Pirsig)

What book is on your night stand now?

Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” — subtitled “The Persian Book of Kings,” a great translation and compilation by Dick Davis — is a Penguin Classics edition. Like Rumi’s “Masnavi,” or “Arabian Nights,” “Shahnameh” is a great ocean of stories that I browse from time to time in various Turkish and English translations to be inspired by or to adapt an ancient story as I did in “My Name Is Red” and “The Black Book.” At the heart of this epic lies the great warrior Sohrab’s search for his father, Rostam, who without knowing that Sohrab is his son, kills him in a fight.

The place of this great tragic story in the Persian-Ottoman-Mughal literary canon is very similar to the place of the legend of Oedipus in the Western canon, but the story still awaits its inventive Freud to address the similarities and radical differences. Comparative literature can teach us more about East-West than the rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations.”

What’s the last truly great book you read?

The truly great books are always novels: “Anna Karenina,”  “The Brothers Karamazov,”  “The Magic Mountain.”. . . Just as with “Shahnameh,” I browse these books from time to time to remember how a great book works on us, or to teach my students at Columbia University.

And what’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

The worst books are also bad novels. Just as good books give me the joys of being alive, bad novels depress me and as I notice this sentiment coming from the pages, I stop. I also do not hesitate to walk out of a movie house if the film is bad. Life is short, and we should respect every moment of it.

Any guilty reading pleasures — book, periodical, online?

For a long time I naïvely believed that thrillers and detective novels were a waste of time. And I thought that was why I felt guilty enjoying the novels of Patricia Highsmith. Later I realized that the guilt comes not from reading thrillers but from her ingenious method of making the reader identify with the murderer. She is a great Dostoyevskian crime writer. I also wish I had read more of John Le Carré. I feel guilty if I read too much book-chat on the Internet.

The last book that made you laugh? 

Oscar Wilde always makes me smile — with respect and admiration. His short stories prove that it is possible to be both sarcastic, even cynical, but deeply compassionate. Just seeing the cover of one of Wilde’s books in a bookshop makes me smile. Julian Barnes has some of his cruel and humane humor. I liked Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending” very much.

The last book that made you furious? 

Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” is about the atrocities committed by the army and people of King Leopold II of Belgium, between 1885 and 1908, with the pretext of “fighting against slavery” but actually simply to make money in the Congo. Leopold’s men killed more or less 10 million people in Africa. We all know too well that the rhetoric of “civilization, modernization” is a good excuse to kill, but this great book was too infuriating for anyone — especially someone like me who believes in the idea of Europe too much.

If you could recommend one book to the American president, what would it be? To the Prime Minister of Turkey?

Many years before he was elected president, I knew Obama as the author of “Dreams From My Father,” a very good book. To him or to any American president, I would like to recommend a book that I sometimes give as a gift to friends, hoping they read it and ask me, “Why this book, Orhan?”

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” is a great American book based on the vastness of America and the individual search for values and meaning in life. This highly romantic book is not a novel, but does something every serious novel should do, and does it better than many great novels: making philosophy out of the little details of daily life.

I respected the Turkish Prime Minister’s politics of pushing the army away from politics and back to the barracks, though I am not happy about going to courts for my political opinions like many, many others during his reign. He sued a cartoonist for picturing him as a cat, though as anyone who comes here knows we all love cats in Istanbul. I am sure Erdogan would enjoy the great Japanese writer Natsume Soseki’s book “I Am a Cat,” a satirical novel about the devilish dangers of too much Westernization, narrated by a smart cat.

You have been charged with “insulting Turkishness” for acknowledging the mass killings of Kurds and Armenians, and have been outspoken about Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. In these instances, were you acting as an engaged citizen or do you think writers have a responsibility for social activism?

At most I was acting as an engaged citizen. I do not have systematical political beliefs, nor am I a self-consciously political writer. Yet my books are political because my characters live in troubled times of political unrest and cultural change. I like to show my readers that my characters do make choices all the time, and that is political in a literary way in my fiction.

I am never motivated by political ideas. I am interested in human situations and funny stories. The political problems I face in Turkey are not because of my novels but because of the international interviews I make. Whatever I say outside of Turkey is twisted, changed a bit back at home to make me look silly and more political than I am.

Once I complained to the young Paul Auster — a writer I admire, whom I met in Oslo as he was also doing interviews, like me, to promote one of his books — saying that they are asking me political questions all the time, and that it may be easier to be an American writer. He said they are also asking him about the gulf war all the time. This was the first gulf war! In the 20 years that passed in between, I perhaps learned that political questions are a sort of destiny for literary writers, especially if you come from the non-Western world.

The best way to avoid them is to be political — like a diplomat — and answer only the literary questions. But my character is not the character of a successful diplomat. I lose my temper and answer some of the political questions and either end up in court or face a campaign by right-wing newspapers in Turkey.

Novels are political not because writers carry party cards — some do, I do not — but because good fiction is about identifying with and understanding people who are not necessarily like us. By nature all good novels are political because identifying with the other is political. At the heart of the “art of the novel” lies the human capacity to see the world through others’ eyes. Compassion is the greatest strength of the novelist.

You can bring three books to a desert island. Which do you choose?

Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 1911 edition, the first edition of “Encyclopaedia of Islam” (1913-1936) and Resat Ekrem Kocu’s “Encyclopedia of Istanbul” (1958-1971), which I wrote about in my book “Istanbul,” will keep me busy for 10 years. My imagination works best with facts — especially if they are a bit dated. After 10 years they should pick me up from the desert island to publish the novels I wrote there.

You’ve lived on and off in America. Which American writers do you especially admire? Any who have influenced your work?

The late John Updike once wrote that all third world writers are influenced by Faulkner. I am one of them. Faulkner showed us that our subject matter may be provincial, away from the centers of the West and politically troubled, yet one can write about it in a very personal and inventive way and be read all over the world.

I’ve read almost all of Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I also read all of Updike’s literary reviews he wrote for The New Yorker. I learned a lot from Updike and benefited from his reviews of my books too. Since I went to an American secular high school in Istanbul, Robert College, I’ve read “Tom Sawyer” as required reading, as well as “A Separate Peace” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” enjoying the democratic and egalitarian spirit of these books. Salinger was not taught at school then, so I read “The Catcher in the Rye” as a subversive book in high school years. I admire the novels of Thomas Pynchon, the intelligence of Nicholson Baker. I respect Dave Eggers. . . .

But when someone asks me about American literature, I immediately think of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. For me these three writers represent more than anyone else the American spirit.

Perhaps because it is easy for me to identify with their anxiety of provincialism and wild imagination, their small number of readers in their time and their energy and optimism, their successes and spectacular failures. In my imagination I associate Poe, Melville and Hawthorne with some mystery just as I associate, say, German Romantic painters and their landscapes with something unknowable.

How has your training as a painter informed the way you write and read your books?

As I wrote in my autobiographical book “Istanbul,” and now in “The Innocence of Objects,” I was raised to be a painter. But when I was 23-years-old, one mysterious screw got loose in my head and I switched to writing novels.

I still enjoy the pleasures of painting. I am a happier person when I paint, but I feel that I am engaged more deeply with the world when I write. Yes, painting and literature are “sister arts” and I taught a class about it at Columbia. I liked to ask my students to close their eyes, entertain a thought and to open their eyes and try to clarify whether it was a word or an image. Correct answer: Both! Novels address both our verbal (Dostoyevsky) and visual (Proust, Nabokov) imaginations. There are so many unforgettable scenes in the novels of Dostoyevsky, but we rarely remember the background, the landscape or the objects in the scenes.

There are also other types of novelists who compose memorable scenes by forming pictures and images in our minds. Before Flaubert’s “perfect word,” there should be a perfect picture in the writer’s imagination. A good reader should occasionally close the novel in her hand and look at the ceiling and clarify in her imagination the writer’s initial picture that triggered the sentence or the paragraph. We writers should write for this kind of imaginative reader.

Over the years, the painter in me taught essentially five things to the writer in me:

Don’t start to write before you have a strong sense of the whole composition, unless you are writing a lyrical text or a poem.

Don’t search for perfection and symmetry — it will kill the life in the work.

Obey the rules of point of view and perspective and see the world through your characters’ eyes — but it is permissible to break this rule with inventiveness.

Like (Vincent) van Gogh or the neo-Expressionist painters, show your brushstrokes! The reader will enjoy observing the making of the novel if it is made a minor part of the story.

Try to identify the accidental beauty where neither the mind conceived of nor the hand intended any. The writer in me and the painter in me are getting to be friendlier every day. That’s why I am now planning novels with pictures and picture books with texts and stories.

The city of Istanbul has changed enormously in the last 50 years. How has this change been reflected in literature? 

The previous generation of Turkish writers were more busy with life and social injustice in rural Anatolia while my poor Istanbul of the 1950s grew from one million to 14 million in my lifetime. The suburban neighborhoods, small fishermen’s villages, fancy summer resorts for the Westernized upper classes and the factories and working-class quarters that I describe in “Silent House,” along with their angry young men, the nationalists, the fundamentalists and the secularists and their political problems are part of the big metropolis now.

I feel so lucky to have observed all this immense, amazing growth from the inside. And since most of it happened in the last 15 years, it is hard to catch up with it too. As I did in the years that I wrote “Silent House,” I still take long walks in the various quarters of the city, as it gets bigger and bigger, enjoying everything I see, observing the high-rises that replace old shantytowns, the fancy malls built on old summer cinema gardens, all sorts of new shops and local fast-food chains representing many communities and endless crowds in the streets.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 11, 2012, on page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: By the Book: Orhan Pamuk.

‘Joseph Anton: A Memoir,’ by Salman Rushdie by Donna Rifkind (10-12-12)

October 16, 2012

NY Times: On Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

A Fictional Character

‘Joseph Anton: A Memoir,’ by Salman Rushdie

by Donna Rifkind (10-12-12)

Salman Rushdie’s memoir is many books in one book. It’s a personal story that takes place at the center of an international crisis: the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 denunciation of the author’s fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” as a work of blasphemy against Islam, and his call for Rushdie’s death.

It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man that describes his influences, obsessions and ambitions as well as his rise in the publishing world. It’s a record of his relocation from Bombay to London to New York, where he settled in 2000. It’s an intimate tale of fathers and sons, of the beginnings and ends of marriages, of friendships and betrayals.

At the same time, “Joseph Anton” is a large-scale spectacle of political and cultural conflicts during an era in which, Rushdie writes, “incompatible realities frequently collided with one another.” The death decree, or fatwa, would come to be seen by some as an early signal of a clash of absolutes that would lead up to 9/11 and into our tinderbox present — of the continuing struggle between religious belief in the immutable word of God on one hand and secular faith in the unconditional right of free speech on the other.

One unifying theme that emerges from this multilayered account is the concept of flight — though here that word assumes a double identity. Flight from the fatwa meant a “fretful, scuttling existence” in which the author, a 41-year-old British citizen, abandoned his home in the London neighborhood of Islington and dashed from one safe house to another around the United Kingdom. While Rushdie located and paid for these dozens of hide-outs himself, the British government provided him with nine years of round-the-clock protection by the “A” Squad of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, who in turn answered to Britain’s intelligence services.

If flight meant forced departure, for Rushdie it also meant an insistence on certain freedoms. Most critically, he would not give up his literary life, his flights of fancy. Battling depression and writer’s block, he managed during this time to write a major novel, “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” along with a charming children’s book called “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” at his young son’s insistence. He collected a volume of short fiction (“East, West”) and another of essays (“Imaginary Homelands”). He wrote book reviews, poems and op-ed essays. Whether large or small, every completed piece of writing felt, to him, like “victory over the forces of darkness.”

Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told?” Rushdie is right to pose the conflict over “The Satanic Verses” as a question not of ideology but of power and control. And he is right to claim his own story after many humiliating years of surrendering that story to other people, most of whom transformed it for their own purposes.

But the question of control is also a tricky issue in Rushdie’s own writing. His novels are giant winged contraptions, packed to capacity, hurtling across time and space, “pitting levity against gravity,” as he describes one of his airborne protagonists at the beginning of “The Satanic Verses.”

At their best, Rushdie’s imaginative machines attain lift and remain thrillingly aloft. At their worst, their centers cannot hold, and they spin into pieces. In “Joseph Anton,” which Rushdie has composed very much like a novel, both these scenarios come to pass. There are sections where the narrative soars, and more than a few in which it plummets.

One of the memoir’s novelistic approaches is its perspective, which shifts from the autobiographical “I” to “he.” It’s not as mannered a choice as it sounds in a narrative consumed, as much of Rushdie’s writing is, with the multiplicity of identity. “He was a new self now,” he realized after news of the fatwa reached him.

In fact he split into several selves: not just the Salman his friends and family knew but also a “Rushdie” reviled by screaming demonstrators in England and abroad, “an effigy, an absence, something less than human”; and reproached, too, by many unsympathetic compatriots in the Western press.

The sense of fracture was heightened when the Police insisted he invent an alias so he could write checks without being identified. He came up with “Joseph Anton,” the first names of two favorite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. Not lost on him was the peculiarity that a man who invented characters for a living had now “turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well.”

In early sections — among the best in the book — the author reveals that his actual surname was itself an invention. His father, a nonpracticing Muslim, changed his “fine old Delhi” name to Rushdie in homage to Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Spanish-Arab polymath who wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle and made a forceful case, 800 years before the uproar over “The Satanic Verses,” for rationalism over Islamic literalism.

Yet if his father’s “fearless skepticism” was his gift to young Salman and his three sisters, a dire home environment was his curse, for Anis Rushdie was so wrathful an alcoholic that Salman’s mother admitted she survived the marriage by developing a “forgettery” instead of a memory. In 1961, 13-year-old Salman was only too willing to leave his hometown, Bombay, for boarding school in England, where he was lonely and unpopular, and on to Cambridge, where, as a history student, he first learned about the “satanic verses,” a set of lines expunged from the Koran.

These absorbing coming-of-age passages are followed by equally engaging recollections of Rushdie’s London jobs as an advertising copywriter, where he developed his distinctive verbal bounciness. Those jingly effects and aphorisms pop up in the memoir as well (“Life was lived forward but was judged in reverse”).

And he vividly conveys the exhilaration he felt in the mid-1970s while dreaming up his first big success, “Midnight’s Children,” scene by scene, finding the tools and tone to tell his story: “India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try to find that language.” Rushdie also comes across as tenderly devoted to his two sons, Zafar and Milan, and grateful to many of the individual police officers who guaranteed his and his family’s safety for nearly a ­decade.

If “Joseph Anton” builds up a lot of reader-friendly capital in these sections, it exhausts that capital rather too freely as the story continues. While the first days of the fatwa unfold grippingly, there’s a steep drop in momentum as the years drag on. Not even as talented a writer as Rushdie can avoid writing about tedium without becoming tedious himself. Clichés abound: “The house was beautiful but it felt like a gilded cage”; “What was he,” he wonders while contemplating moving to America after his ordeal is over, “but a huddled mass yearning to breathe free?”

As that last quotation suggests, Rushdie shows a cheerful willingness throughout the memoir to show off his less than dignified side. These scenes can be bleakly funny: when the police persuade him to wear a wig to avoid recognition in public, he tries it out on Sloane Street in London and is immediately the center of amused attention. “Look,” he hears a man say, “there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.” But there are occasions in which his goofiness grates and creates an uncomfortable dissonance in what is, after all, a sobering chronicle of state-sponsored terrorism that resulted in the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator and near-fatal attacks on his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.

It’s of course lots of fun to read of the author’s unflagging bedazzlement at mingling with all kinds of celebrities, from Playboy bunnies to Heads of state, and in his access, post-fatwa, to every sort of party. (“Willie Nelson was there! And Matthew Modine!”) It’s fun also to render cheap sideline judgments during the many instances of score-settling here (particularly unflattering are Rushdie’s portrayals of his ex-wives Marianne Wiggins and Padma Lakshmi; his publishers at Penguin and Random House; and the former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb).

Are readers likely to remember mostly these juicy bits, and if so, how will that affect Rushdie’s literary legacy? “It was as a writer that he wanted to be defended, as a writer that he wanted to defend himself,” he eloquently states. But with “Joseph Anton,” is he risking becoming the kind of writer whose books are not so much read as skimmed for their potential provocations — a barbarism he’s fought against for nearly a quarter-century? Read all of “Joseph Anton,” then, for its lessons in how books are used, and whether they matter.

Donna Rifkind is writing a book about the screenwriter Salka Viertel and her Hollywood émigré salon.

A version of this review appeared in print on October 14, 2012, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Fictional Character.

Modern Lessons on Disappointed Idealists

August 22, 2012

Modern Lessons on Disappointed Idealists

by Karim Raslan (08-21-12)

A recent book by an Asian observer of Asian societies breathes new life into some old(er) ideas.

I SPENT much of the 1990s either writing or reading about the Asian Values debate. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the years leading up to the 1997 financial crisis, books by Pakistan’s Muhammad Iqbal and Iran’s Ali Shariati, not to mention our very own Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, were top of my reading list.

So, it was with a degree of dismay that I first picked up Pankaj Mishra’s latest book: From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. Fearing a repeat of those tiresome, discredited arguments, I turned the pages warily.

However, Pankaj’s spritely account of turn-of-the-century Asian intellectual life approaches the subject from an altogether more exciting vantage point. For a start, he begins with an account of the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 of the Russo-Japanese War.

Over a century ago, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. How could the Japanese possibly overcome the sheer might of Imperial Russia? Everything seemed to favour the Europeans as they systematically subjugated the Asiatic world.

However, and almost unbelievably, Admiral Togo’s fleet was to emerge victorious. In one fell swoop, Korea, Manchuria and much of the western Pacific were to become an extension of Japanese power – setting in motion a series of events culminating with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 40 years later.

Nonetheless, Japan’s victory was also to have an enduring impact intellectually across Asia – galvanising a generation. Men such as the Iranian-born pan-Islamist Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Liang Qichao of China and the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the chief protagonists of Pankaj’s book, had witnessed their civilisations endure a succession of humiliating defeats.

For them and others – Sun Yat Sen, Ataturk (then known as Mustapha Kemal) and Nehru – Tsushima brought hope. It allowed them to imagine what their peoples were capable of if they embarked (like the Japanese) on a journey of political and economic transformation.

Interestingly, in an era long before the advent of mass democracy, all three men recognised that enlightened (and perhaps despotic) leadership was critical in order to achieve societal change resilient enough to repel the Europeans.

Uttar Pradesh-born and Allahabad-trained Pankaj Mishra has produced a remarkable book – something that we were striving for back in the 90’s but never produced.

From the Ruins of Empire is essentially an Eastern canon of political thought – linking Indian, Chinese and Arab/Muslim figures and ideas. Pankaj (right) reveals how their responses to the ignominy of colonialism were to shape their future nation-states.

This heir of V.S. Naipaul’s mantle is in fact very similar to his three chosen subjects. Growing up on a diet of the American critic Edmund Wilson, Pankaj is himself a firm believer in the power of ideas and it’s this commitment to intellectualism (unlike Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim who trusted in raw power) that propels his narrative.

Moreover, as a world-class traveller and essayist, Pankaj’s writings have a certain contemporary resonance. He traces the skein of ideas, like the growth of Wahhabism and its intermingling with specifically Egyptian experiences of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb – a process that was to lead to the swift globalisation of Wahhabi thought.

At the same time, Pankaj’s trio were conscious that a blind adoption of Western modes would rob Asia of its cultural heritage and turn the Occident’s vices into its own.

Each of the men sought a “middle-path”, calling on their societies to equip themselves with modern science and thinking but to reject the grosser aspects of Western modernity with greater cultural confidence.

Sadly, all three men were to be grievously disappointed. Whilst they sought to find an acceptable compromise between East and West, they were not to live to see any of their ideas come to fruition, besides which their intransigence was to come at great personal cost.

Al-Afghani, arguably the father of political Islam, lived a life of constant re-invention. Dying in obscurity, this latter-day “Scarlet Pimpernel” was to rue his focus on traditional Muslim elites, most of whom ignored his call for a pan-Islamic revival.

Liang, whose reformist activities made him a wanted man in Qing dynasty China, wound up a Confucian conservative arguing after a disillusioning trip to America that “…the Chinese people must for now accept authoritarian rule; they cannot enjoy freedom.”

Even Tagore’s calls for Asia to maintain its cultures was violently rejected by revolutionary-minded thinkers (including a young Mao Zedong) during his lecture tours of China, a prelude to the destructive Cultural Revolution.

Their failures are warnings for Asian leaders today. As Pankaj argues in his excellent Epilogue, China and India have now unthinkingly bought into the gospels of globalised capitalism which “…looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.”

Pankaj’s book is hence not some simplistic paean to “Asian values.” He warns that we Asians should not gloat over the West’s decline and our prosperity.

Rather, the failure of our elite to, in Pankaj’s words, forge a “…convincingly universalist response … to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though the latter seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world” condemns us to repeat the mistakes of the West.

This is a prophetic book that cannot be ignored by Asia moving forward. How I wish Pankaj had written it all those years ago. It would have saved me a lot of effort.

Gore Vidal Remembered

August 5, 2012

Ny Times: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal Remembered

by Charles McGarth (August 1, 2012)

Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday July 31, 2012) at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003 after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86. The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said.

An Augustan Figure

Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, put-down or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.

Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office — in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate — and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Mr. Vidal was an occasional actor, appearing in animated form on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” in the movie version of his own play “The Best Man,” and in the Tim Robbins movie “Bob Roberts,” in which he played an aging, epicene version of himself. He was a more than occasional guest on talk shows, where his poise, wit, good looks and charm made him such a regular that Johnny Carson offered him a spot as a guest host of “The Tonight Show.”

Television was a natural medium for Mr. Vidal, who in person was often as cool and detached as he was in his prose. “Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

“Love is not my bag”

Mr. Vidal loved conspiracy theories of all sorts, especially the ones he imagined himself at the center of, and he was a famous feuder; he engaged in celebrated on-screen wrangles with Mailer, Capote and William F. Buckley Jr. Mr. Vidal did not lightly suffer fools — a category that for him comprised a vast swath of humanity, elected officials particularly — and he was not a sentimentalist or a romantic. “Love is not my bag,” he said.

By the time he was 25, he had already had more than 1,000 sexual encounters with both men and women, he boasted in his memoir “Palimpsest.” Mr. Vidal tended toward what he called “same-sex sex,” but frequently declared that human beings were inherently bisexual, and that labels like gay (a term he disliked) or straight were arbitrary and unhelpful. For 53 years, he had a live-in companion, Howard Austen, a former advertising executive, but the secret of their relationship, he often said, was that they did not sleep together.

Mr. Vidal sometimes claimed to be a populist — in theory, anyway — but he was not convincing as one. Both by temperament and by birth he was an aristocrat.

A Child on the Senate Floor

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. was born on October 3, 1925, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father, Eugene, had been an All-American football player and a track star and had returned as a flying instructor and assistant football coach. An aviation pioneer, Eugene Vidal Sr. went on to found three airlines, including one that became T.W.A. He was director of the Bureau of Air Commerce under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Vidal’s mother, Nina, was an actress and socialite and the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma.

Mr. Vidal, who once said he had grown up in “the House of Atreus,” detested his mother, whom he frequently described as a bullying, self-pitying alcoholic. She and Mr. Vidal’s father divorced in 1935, and she married Hugh D. Auchincloss, the stepfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — a connection that Mr. Vidal never tired of bringing up.

After her remarriage, Mr. Vidal lived with his mother at Merrywood, the Auchincloss family estate in Virginia, but his fondest memories were of the years the family spent at his maternal grandfather’s sprawling home in the Rock Creek Park neighborhood of Washington. He loved to read to his grandfather, who was blind, and sometimes accompanied him onto the Senate floor. Mr. Vidal’s lifelong interest in politics began to stir back then, and from his grandfather, an America Firster, he probably also inherited his unwavering isolationist beliefs.

Mr. Vidal attended St. Albans School in Washington, where he lopped off his Christian names and became simply Gore Vidal, which he considered more literary-sounding. Though he shunned sports himself, he formed an intense romantic and sexual friendship — the most important of his life, he later said — with Jimmie Trimble, one of the school’s best athletes.

Trimble was his “ideal brother,” his “other half,” Mr. Vidal said, the only person with whom he ever felt wholeness. Jimmie’s premature death at Iwo Jima in World War II at once sealed off their relationship in a glow of A. E. Housman-like early perfection, and seemingly made it impossible for Mr. Vidal ever to feel the same way about anyone else.

After leaving St. Albans in 1939, Mr. Vidal spent a year at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico before enrolling at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He contributed stories and poems to the Exeter literary magazine, but he was an indifferent student who excelled mostly at debating. A classmate, the writer John Knowles, later used him as the model for Brinker Hadley, the know-it-all conspiracy theorist in “A Separate Peace,” his Exeter-based novel.

Mr. Vidal graduated from Exeter at 17 — only by cheating on virtually every math exam, he later admitted — and enlisted in the Army, becoming first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. He began work on “Williwaw,” a novel set on a troopship and published in 1946, while he was an associate editor at the publishing company E. P. Dutton, a job he soon gave up. Written in a pared-down, Hemingway-like style, “Williwaw” (the title is a meteorological term for a sudden wind out of the mountains) won some admiring reviews but gave little clue to the kind of writer Mr. Vidal would become. Neither did his second book, “In a Yellow Wood” (1947), about a brokerage clerk and his wartime Italian mistress. Mr. Vidal later said it was so bad, he couldn’t bear to reread it. He nevertheless became a glamorous young literary figure, pursued by Anaïs Nin and courted by Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams.

In 1948 Mr. Vidal published “The City and the Pillar,” which was dedicated to J. T. (Jimmie Trimble). It is what would now be called a coming-out story, about a handsome, athletic young Virginia man who gradually discovers that he is homosexual. By today’s standards it is tame and discreet, but at the time it caused a scandal and was denounced as corrupt and pornographic. Mr. Vidal later claimed that the literary and critical establishment, The New York Times especially, had blacklisted him because of the book, and he may have been right. He had such trouble getting subsequent novels reviewed that he turned to writing mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box and then, for a time, gave up novel-writing altogether. To make a living he concentrated on writing for television, then for the stage and the movies.

Politics Onstage, and for Real

Work was plentiful. He wrote for most of the shows that presented hourlong original dramas in the 1950s, including “Studio One,” “Philco Television Playhouse” and “Goodyear Playhouse.” He became so adept, he could knock off an adaptation in a weekend and an original play in a week or two. He turned “Visit to a Small Planet,” his 1955 television drama about an alien who comes to earth to study the art of war, into a Broadway play. His most successful play was “The Best Man,” about two contenders for the presidential nomination. It ran for 520 performances on Broadway before it, too, became a well-received film, in 1964, with a cast headed by Henry Fonda and a screenplay by Mr. Vidal. It was revived on Broadway in 2000 and is now being revived there again as “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.”

Mr. Vidal’s reputation as a script doctor was such that in 1956 MGM hired him as a contract writer; among other projects he helped rewrite the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” though he was denied an official credit. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of his friend Tennessee Williams’s play “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

By the end of the ’50s, though, Mr. Vidal, at last financially secure, had wearied of Hollywood and turned to politics. He had purchased Edgewater, a Greek Revival mansion in Dutchess County, N.Y., and it became his headquarters for his 1960 run for Congress. He was encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt, a neighbor who had become a friend and adviser.

The 29th Congressional District was a Republican stronghold, and though Mr. Vidal, running as Eugene Gore on a platform that included taxing the wealthy, lost, he received more votes in running for the seat than any Democrat in 50 years. And he never tired of pointing out he did better in the district than the Democratic presidential candidate that year, John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Vidal also returned to writing novels in the ’60s and published three books in fairly quick succession: “Julian” (1964), “Washington, D.C.” (1967) and “Myra Breckinridge” (1968). “Julian,” which some critics still consider Mr. Vidal’s best, was a painstakingly researched historical novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism. (Mr. Vidal himself never had much use for religion, Christianity especially, which he once called “intrinsically funny.”) “Washington, D.C.” was a political novel set in the 1940s. “Myra Breckinridge,” Mr. Vidal’s own favorite among his books, was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery. (A 1970 film version, with Raquel Welch and Mae West, proved to be a disaster.)

Perhaps without intending it, Mr. Vidal had set a pattern. In the years to come he found his greatest successes with historical novels, notably what became known as his American Chronicles: “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr” (1973), “1876” (1976), “Lincoln” (1984), “Empire (1987),“Hollywood” (1990) and “The Golden Age” (2000).

He turned out to have a gift for this kind of writing. These novels were learned and scrupulously based on fact, but also witty and contemporary-feeling, full of gossip and shrewd asides. Harold Bloom wrote that Mr. Vidal’s imagination of American politics “is so powerful as to compel awe.” Writing in The Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said, “Mr. Vidal gives us an interpretation of our early history that says in effect that all the old verities were never much to begin with.”

But Mr. Vidal also persisted in writing books like “Myron” (1974), a sequel to “Myra,” and “Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal” (1992), which were clearly meant as provocations. “Live From Golgotha,” for example, rewrites the Gospels, with Saint Paul as a huckster and pederast and Jesus a buffoon. John Rechy said of it in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If God exists and Jesus is his son, then Gore Vidal is going to hell.”

In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”

Mr. Vidal’s reputation as a script doctor was such that in 1956 MGM hired him as a contract writer; among other projects he helped rewrite the screenplay of “Ben-Hur,” though he was denied an official credit. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of his friend Tennessee Williams’s play “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

Mr. Vidal also returned to writing novels in the ’60s and published three books in fairly quick succession: “Julian” (1964), “Washington, D.C.” (1967) and “Myra Breckinridge” (1968). “Julian,” which some critics still consider Mr. Vidal’s best, was a painstakingly researched historical novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to convert Christians back to paganism. (Mr. Vidal himself never had much use for religion, Christianity especially, which he once called “intrinsically funny.”) “Washington, D.C.” was a political novel set in the 1940s. “Myra Breckinridge,” Mr. Vidal’s own favorite among his books, was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who has sexual reassignment surgery. (A 1970 film version, with Raquel Welch and Mae West, proved to be a disaster.)

Perhaps without intending it, Mr. Vidal had set a pattern. In the years to come he found his greatest successes with historical novels, notably what became known as his American Chronicles: “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr” (1973), “1876” (1976), “Lincoln” (1984), “Empire (1987),“Hollywood” (1990) and “The Golden Age” (2000).

But Mr. Vidal also persisted in writing books like “Myron” (1974), a sequel to “Myra,” and “Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal” (1992), which were clearly meant as provocations. “Live From Golgotha,” for example, rewrites the Gospels, with Saint Paul as a huckster and pederast and Jesus a buffoon. John Rechy said of it in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, “If God exists and Jesus is his son, then Gore Vidal is going to hell.”

In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 3, 2012

 An obituary about the author Gore Vidal in some copies on Wednesday included several errors. Mr. Vidal called William F. Buckley Jr. a crypto-Nazi, not a crypto-fascist, in a television appearance during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. While Mr. Vidal frequently joked that Vice President Al Gore was his cousin, genealogists have been unable to confirm that they were related. And according to Mr. Vidal’s memoir “Palimpsest,” he and his longtime live-in companion, Howard Austen, had sex the night they met, but did not sleep together after they began living together. It is not the case that they never had sex.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 1, 2012, on page A1 of the National edition with the headline: Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer.

Sasterawan Usman Awang dalam kenangan

July 16, 2012

Sasterawan Usman Awang dalam kenangan

oleh Uthaya Sankar SB@

Sasterawan Negara Dato’ Usman Awang meninggal dunia pada 29 November 2001. Hampir sebelas tahun kemudian, apakah segala sumbangan bakti Allahyarham dalam bidang bahasa, sastera, seni dan budaya Malaysia masih dikenang?

Demikian persoalan yang timbul dalam minda saya pada 11 Julai 2012 apabila berpeluang bertemu dan berbual panjang bersama-sama Haslina Usman (anak sulung Allahyarham) dan suaminya, Abdul Rahim Affandi.

Usman Awang yang antara lain menggunakan nama pena Tongkat Warrant, Adi Jaya, Amir, Atma Jiwa, Manis, Pengarang Muda, Rose Murni, Setiabudi, U.A. dan Zaini dilahirkan pada 12 Julai 1929 di Kampung Tanjung Lembu, Kuala Sedili, Kota Tinggi, Johor.

Bagaimanapun, pada tahun ini, tiada apa-apa majlis untuk mengenang tarikh lahir beliau memandangkan pelbagai masalah besar menyelubungi UA Enterprises Sdn Bhd selaku pemegang amanah dan hak cipta karya-karya Usman Awang.

Hasil penelitian saya, masalah itu muncul susulan pementasan “Muzikal Uda & Dara” (MUDD) di Istana Budaya pada Julai 2010. Selepas dua tahun, khabarnya UA Enterprises berdepan kemungkinan diisytiharkan bankrap dan hak cipta muzikal berkenaan pula diambil pihak bank.

Saya dimaklumkan bahawa UA Enterprises dipelawa mementaskan “Muzikal Uda & Dara” untuk mengisi “Slot Sasterawan Negara” yang diwujudkan oleh Kementerian Penerangan, Komunikasi dan Kebudayaan (KPKK).

“Kami hanya setuju mementaskan apabila ada pihak yang bersetuju menjadi penaja utama. Persetujuan itu dibuat secara lisan. Kerana percaya akan penajaan ini, kami teruskan kerja-kerja produksi untuk mementaskan MUDD.

“Malangnya, penaja tidak meneruskan hajat itu beberapa bulan sebelum tarikh pementasan. Sewaktu itu, kami telah menggadaikan rumah, mula bayar produksi dan separuh jalan dalam produksi. Maka, pementasan terpaksa diteruskan,” kata Haslina yang merupakan Pengarah Eksekutif UA Enterprises.

Saya sedia maklum bahawa beliau memohon Pinjaman Dana Industri Kreatif iaitu satu gabungan pinjaman antara KPKK dan sebuah bank ke arah membantu produksi seni persembahan dan pelbagai kesenian. Syaratnya melalui dua proses kelulusan iaitu kelulusan KPKK dan kelulusan bank berkenaan.

Antologi ‘Keranda 152’ (1968) diterbitkan semula pada 2002.“Kami mendapat kelulusan pinjaman RM1.5 juta, iaitu bajet minimum; cukup-cukup sahaja untuk mementaskan MUDD. Jumlahnya besar kerana kebanyakan kemudahan di Istana Budaya telah rosak dan kami terpaksa menyewa berbagai peralatan yang memang mahal  dari luar untuk pementasan tersebut,” kata Rahim yang menganggur sejak seminggu lalu.

Rahim sebelum ini bekerja secara kontrak di sebuah stesen televisyen dengan gaji sekitar RM1,000 sebulan, manakala Haslina membuat kek untuk menyara keluarga. Anak-anak mereka pula terpaksa berhenti belajar dan bekerja akibat kesempitan kewangan yang sedang dialami.

Amat sukar untuk saya membayangkan bahawa waris yang sedang berusaha bersungguh-sungguh memelihara pusaka peninggalan seorang Sasterawan Negara berhadapan segala masalah seperti ini! Namun, berat mata memandang, pasti berat lagi bahu yang memikul.

Saya ada menulis mengenai legasi karya Usman Awang di akhbar Sinar Harian pada 29 Jun 2009. Saya turut menyampaikan kertas kerja bertajuk “Antara KeMelayuan dan Kemanusiaan Sejagat: Sorotan Karya Usman Awang” sempena Simposium Lim Lian Geok dan Usman Awang: Nasionalis Malaysia yang Tulen anjuran LLG Cultural Development Centre pada 19 Jun 2010 di Dewan Perhimpunan Cina Kuala Lumpur dan Selangor.

Usman Awang mula berkhidmat sebagai sidang pengarang majalah Dewan Bahasa di Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) pada 1962 sebelum dilantik menjadi pengarang majalah Dewan Masyarakat, Dewan Sastera dan Dewan Budaya.

Harus dinyatakan juga bahawa Allahyarham adalah individu pertama yang menerajui kepimpinan Persatuan Penulis Nasional Malaysia (PENA) iaitu pada 1962-65. Saya tidak pasti jika mana-mana persatuan penulis masih mengadakan majlis bagi mengenang tarikh kelahiran/pemergian Usman Awang.

“Pada tahun 1991-2001, ayah dilantik sebagai Ahli Jemaah Kolej Selatan; suatu pelantikan yang disifatkan oleh arwah sebagai pemangkin ke arah meningkatkan hubungan antara kaum dalam proses pembentukan Bangsa Malaysia,” Haslina pernah menceritakan kepada saya sambil menambah bahawa Usman Awang juga dilantik sebagai Penasihat Sastera Maybank dari 1991 hingga 2001.

Pada tahun 1991, Usman Awang dianugerahkan Darjah Kebesaran Dato’ Paduka oleh Sultan Perak, yang membawa gelaran Datuk.

Terdahulu, pada 29 Mei 1976, Usman Awang dianugerahkan gelaran “Pejuang Sastera”; SEA Write Award pada tahun 1982; Ijazah Doktor Kehormat (Persuratan) oleh Universiti Malaya pada 11 Ogos 1983; Anugerah Sastera Negara yang membawa gelaran “Sasterawan Negara” pada tahun 1983; dan “Zamalah Sastera” daripada akhbar Berita Harian pada tahun 1985.

Usman Awang juga terlibat dalam penerbitan antologi sajak “Keranda 152” (1968) yang merakamkan penentangan kaum Melayu terhadap Akta Bahasa Kebangsaan 1967. Antologi berkenaan diterbitkan semula (“cetakan kedua”) pada 2002 sebagai merakamkan penentangan kaum Melayu terhadap Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI).

Namun, apalah gunanya segala sumbangan Usman Awang terhadap bahasa pada saat kita dikejutkan dengan berita bahawa UA Enterprises mungkin terpaksa “dibungkus” dan hak cipta “Muzikal Uda & Dara” bakal tergadai!

Hasil risikan, saya mendapat maklumat bahawa walaupun pinjaman bank yang diluluskan adalah RM1.5 juta, namun pada 20 Julai 2010 — tarikh akhir pementasan MUDD di Istana Budaya — bank terbabit hanya memberi RM900 ribu.

“Bayangkan, betapa peritnya kami terpaksa meminjam sana sini untuk menampung kos produksi dan membayar segala macam kos,” kata Haslina sambil menahan air mata apabila saya ajukan soalan berkaitan perkara itu kepada beliau.

UA Enterprises sebenarnya mahu mementaskan muzikal tersebut sekali lagi supaya mampu membayar balik pinjaman bank.

“Bank minta tunjuk pelan cadangan untuk pementasan kedua itu. Setelah kami tunjuk cadangan kami, mereka membuat keputusan menarik balik pinjaman RM900 ribu kerana pihak Istana Budaya belum memberi tarikh untuk pementasan,” kata Rahim pula yang ternyata agak emosional mengenangkan segala apa yang berlaku.

Khabarnya Haslina juga mengirim surat kepada Ketua Setiausaha KPKK untuk meminta bantuan. Adakah surat rayuan itu menerima apa-apa balasan atau reaksi? Pasangan suami-isteri itu tidak mahu memberi komen apabila saya ajukan pertanyaan itu.

“Apabila semua jalan buntu, saya menulis kepada Menteri KPKK, Datuk Seri Utama Rais Yatim pada 2 Februari 2012. Saya mendapat jawapan segera! Beliau sangat prihatin tentang nasib karya tersebut dan memberitahu bahawa tindakan selanjutnya akan diambil oleh pihak KPKK,” Haslina memberikan jawapan alternatif.

KPKK khabarnya memanggil beliau untuk bermesyuarat dan Haslina diberi jaminan bahawa MUDD akan dipentaskan semula di Istana Budaya dengan kerjasama KPKK.

Saya masih tidak mampu menarik nafas lega kerana pada realiti, hasil maklumat dari sumber dalaman, belum ada sebarang tarikh ditetapkan oleh Istana Budaya bagi pementasan semula yang dimaksudkan.

Pada masa sama, pihak bank sebenarnya sudah memberi notis 21 hari untuk UA Enterprises menjelaskan hutang RM900 ribu. Hak cipta karya “Muzikal Uda & Dara” yang dicagarkan itu kini berdepan dengan kemungkinan besar diambil alih oleh pihak bank.

Sementara itu, tidaklah menghairankan jika pelbagai pihak (individu, persatuan, agensi) yang kononnya berjuang demi maruah, hak, karya, bahasa, sastera, seni, kaum dan sebagainya, terus berdiam diri dan memberikan alasan “tidak tahu” mengenai perkara ini. Saya teringat akan kata-kata Usman Awang: “Musuh orang-orang Melayu bukanlah orang-orang Cina, dan musuh orang-orang Cina bukanlah orang-orang Melayu, tetapi musuh kita bersama ialah kemiskinan, ketidakadilan …”

* Uthaya Sankar SB adalah pemilik tunggal Perunding Media, Motivasi dan Penerbitan Uthaya serta presiden Kumpulan Sasterawan Kavyan (Kavyan).

Now JAKIM’s Turn

July 6, 2012

Now JAKIM’s Turn: Mulling over Banning Book launched by Prime Minister Najib?

by Zulaikha Zulkifli@

A novel launched by the Prime Minister last Tuesday might be banned for purportedly spreading Shiite teachings.

NONEThis was confirmed by Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) Deputy Director for planning and research Mohd Aizam Masod, who said the department was now deliberating on the novel Perempuan Nan Bercinta by prominent novelist Faisal Tehrani.

“Yes there are (discussions)… There have been complaints and JAKIMis in the process of taking action. Just wait two or three days more,” he said when contacted yesterday.

According to literary activist and writer Uthaya Sankar SB, speculation of the likely banning arose on June 6 when a JAKIM officer urged the public to lodge police reports against the book during a forum by the Ulama Association of Malaysia (PUM).

When contacted, Faisal said that he is certain that his novel will have a “longer life” considering that the premier himself had recently said that writers should be free to produce their work.

NONE“The PM even referred to (Islamic modernist) Syed Jamaluddin el Afghani’s vision as a benchmark before he launched Perempuan Nan Bercinta,” he said of the the launch, along with 29 other books in Putrajaya.

For now, Faisal (left), who is a lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said he will continue to write and conduct academic research.

He is due to hold a press conference tomorrow to announce his entry as an honorary member to Kavyan, a literary group for Indian writers writing in Bahasa Malaysia headed by Uthaya.

Controversial writer

If the ban is imposed, it will be the second book by the author, whose real name is Mohd Faizal Musa, to be banned in less than a year. His book Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang was banned by JAKIM last December, while he had faced difficulties over a screenplay which he wrote for a made-for-television production earlier this year.

The film, directed by well-known actress and director Erma Fatima, was eventually approved and screened on February 4. The Anugerah Seni Negara’s contract for the serial novel Ketupat Cinta, published by Malay daily Harian Metro, was also terminated in June 2008 after strong protests by then-Perlis mufti Asri Zainul Abidin.

The novel Perempuan Nan Bercinta is about a feminist who becomes inspired by a Professor to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah Az-Zahra, but the professor is later persecuted by religious authorities.

Fatimah is highly venerated by Shiites and is considered “the Mother of the Imams”. She was married to Ali, whom the Shiites believe was chosen by the Prophet as the latter’s successor.

The book hits the market this week and retails for RM35.

Rabrindranath Tagore: Asia’s Renaissance Man

June 1, 2012

Celebrating the Life of Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s Renaissance Man

by Aditya Chakrabotty (04-09-12)

The great Bengali thinker Rabindranath Tagore, born 150 years ago, was a passionate political author. Sadly, literary writers today seem to have no time for politics

The past sometimes shames us. At least, visitors this weekend to Dartington Hall in the south Devon town of Totnes must have come away feeling taunted by history. Because while the festival they attended was celebrating the life of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali artist and thinker born 150 years ago, it also cast a shard of light on a gaping, and usually unremarked upon, hole in today’s culture.

You glimpsed it every time a musician performed one of Tagore’s songs urging fellow Indians not to give up their struggle against British rule, and you confronted it directly in discussions of the poet’s political and social campaigning. Because what his legacy draws attention to is a creature so rare in today’s culture as to be semi-endangered: the political author.

Even the most casual acquaintance with Tagore’s work cannot escape his politics. His novels attacked the oppression of women; his essays warned about environmental degradation; he argued with Gandhi about what an independent India should look like; and he delivered lectures in America on the evils of nationalism (“at $700 per scold”, as one newspaper sniped). Nor was the poet all talk: a believer in educational reform, he established a school, then a university in the Bengali countryside. They have grown vastly since, although students reportedly still take their lessons sat under trees. Even the venue for this weekend’s festival, Dartington Hall, was a 500-year old wreck – until a couple of western Tagoreans bought it and, at his urging, transformed it into a centre for learning and agricultural work and to reinvigorate an impoverished rural community.

Nobel Laureate Tagore was an Exceptional Talent

The first Asian recipient of a Nobel prize for literature, Tagore was an exceptional figure – but he was not alone. Another Bengali, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, won huge success for his stories criticising India’s caste and class system; while Mulk Raj Anand published novels titled Untouchable and Coolie. As for Tagore’s western contemporaries, they were just as engaged with their politics and society. Spanish civil-war combatant Orwell is the most striking example, but there was also Spender, Auden and Pound.

Look for their equivalents in England or America now, and you’ll be disappointed. Some politically committed authors immediately come to mind, such as Dave Eggers – for his novels on Sudanese refugees and post-Katrina New Orleans, and his establishment of children’s reading groups – but the paucity of their number reinforces how few there are. India is subject to a similar lack: Arundhati Roy (left) is the stand-out example of the author-turned-activist, but the fact that she has not written a novel after 1997’s The God of Small Things suggests that she has traded fiction for campaigning.

Indeed, readers wanting fiction that offers up political or social commentary are hardly drowning in paperbacks. Plenty of authors can slip in cute references to the internet or the other stuff of everyday life. But what’s striking about the novels that address themselves directly to society is how the authors often fail to sustain them as full-blooded fiction. Joshua Ferris’ novel of office life, Then We Came to the End, and Gary Shteyngart’s satire on consumerist America, Super Sad True Love Story, are both superb depictions of social landscapes for the first 100 pages or so. But in both cases it’s as if delving into so much reality has tuckered out the authors and they have run out of energy to deliver an actual plot.

What I’m complaining about here is not just the lack of options on the three-for-two table. This is a time when, from the environment to the economy to the hollowing-out of so many public institutions, there are many big crises that need addressing – and not just by the desiccated imaginations of frontbench MPs or in 800-word columns. At the point when we need people of all disciplines and none to offer their say, the artists are missing. In the 1920s and 30s, Tagore helped place the perimeter on what would be possible in an independent India. In Britain or America or India today, our social boundaries are defined by the market and ever more diffident politicians.

Of course there are exceptions. In Scotland, James Robertson and Pat Kane and other artists do address themselves to national concerns. And in English theatre, such as the Tricycle or the National, audiences can still see openly political work. But English and American novels are particularly gutless.

Some of this is down to how economics and politics have been cordoned off from the rest of society: as stuff best left to the experts and the careerists. But literature too has been professionalised, so that authors now go from their creative-writing MAs to their novels to their relentless promotional work. Contemporary literary writers, it sometimes seems to me, are so tightly wedged behind their Apples that they have no time for politics. Unless you count signing the odd letter to the broadsheets as a political activity.

Yet the desire for a more imaginative politics hasn’t gone away, as is clear from the Occupy movements or the student sit-ins, or the numbers that turn out on a Sunday morning in Totnes to listen to a talk about Tagore’s activism.

In one of his most celebrated poems in Gitanjali, Tagore called for a country: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/…Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls … Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.” That warning against the comfort of small thinking remains relevant today.