December 23, 2017
Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018
December 23, 2017
December 7, 2017
by James Chai
Malaysia’s Talented First Lady of Jazz–Dato Sheila Majid
COMMENT | I was first introduced to Sheila Majid’s music when I was 12. My father played me “Sinaran” and “Lagenda”, and told me that Malay artistes have a “bigger” vocal cord – they are able to belt higher musical keys. Indeed, Sheila Majid was the legend in her genre, the “Queen of Jazz”.
Sheila Majid singing Dia–What a Voice and What a Talent
I renewed my interest in her last year when she appeared for an interview on BFM, in which her larger-than-life personality shone through. Her straight-talking character and her latent rebellion reminded me of activist and writer Marina Mahathir, whom I deeply adore.
Sheila will always be special to me.In some sense, it was inevitable that she would provide a concise summary of her general concern towards this country in a widely-shared tweet. With 280 characters, she pointed to the pressing economic conditions of Malaysia – a situation surely experienced by many.
But there were dissenters. Not chiefly on the content of her tweet; instead, on her right to have a say on issues outside of singing.
The critics admonished her in two ways: first, by saying she had no right to comment on socio-economic issues; second, that she had no expertise to comment on anything of that sort.
‘No right to comment’
The flamboyant TV personality Mohamed Azwan Ali (photo) said that Sheila had no right to comment on issues regarding cost of living, because she is who she is today because of the government.
The Weido Azwan Ali–The Brother of Selangor Menteri Besar, Dato’ Seri Azmin Ali
Her wealth, success, “Dato” title, and millions of followers were all contributed by the UMNO government, and thus Sheila loses her right to publicly comment on the state of the country.
With due respect, this argument is hard to support. It grossly underestimates the musical talents of Sheila Majid and the vast Malaysian population who supported her in more ways than one.
Sheila has never received formal vocalional training and instead taught herself to sing; her fans kept her going in the good times and the bad. They recognised that she had talent. And she worked hard for her success.
While the government might have contributed financially to the entertainment industry, these are at best a fulfillment of governmental responsibility using taxpayers’ money rather than an act of UMNO generosity.
UMNO would have a hard time proving that Sheila Majid wouldn’t have succeeded if UMNO was not there to assist her.
Additionally, receiving government support, if at all, does not come with an attached condition of silence. Government funding does not displace a citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, even if that criticism is against the government. In fact, holding the government to account is the right and responsibility of a citizen, and it continues regardless of which political party governs the country and regardless of how well they do.
It is precisely because a government’s decision affects the largest segment of the population that it should never be granted immunity from criticism.
And since Sheila Majid is as much a citizen of this land as anyone else, she should never lose that right simply because she has (supposedly) succeeded with the help of the government.
‘No expertise to comment’
UMNO information chief Annuar Musa (photo) and many others have said that singers like Sheila Majid should never comment on socio-economic issues because they have no expertise in doing so, and that they should stick to singing.
The Tainted Former MARA Chairman, Annuar Musa
But more importantly, the statement of “no expertise” also assumes that somehow members of Parliament and ministers have greater expertise in running the country. If anything, the elite position of politicians puts them out of touch with the common man and daily realities; their internal politicking, posturing, and powerplay often serve no benefit to the general welfare of the people.
The declining status of the country today, in real and perceived terms, should be evidence enough that politicians are not the ones with the greatest expertise in running the country.
Sheila Majid may not be an expert on socio-economic issues. There is something that must be acknowledged: singers and songwriters do not live in a vacuum. They too are daughters, sisters, and mothers who have concerns, just like the rest of us. Furthermore, Sheila is smart and well informed.
You do not need to be an economist or a political scientist to have a conscientious and empathetic view of the plight of the nation. And you certainly do not need any expertise to earn that right to speak up on the things you care about.
November 15, 2017
by Azmi Sharom@www.thestar.com.my
Mustafa Akyol and Azmi Sharom
I WAS very surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent writer. Believe it or not, I do occasionally read things other than football reports, and I have enjoyed Ishiguro’s work tremendously.
However, I always thought that the Nobel Prize for literature was given to authors who are so complex and hyper intelligent that they seem to be from another planet. I have tried to read the books of some of these folks – Naipaul, Saramago and Gao, to name a few. And I haven’t managed more than 20 or 40 pages. It’s not because the books were awful. It’s just that they were too difficult.
Contrast this to Ishiguro’s breakthrough book The Remains of the Day. My Japanese mate introduced it to me and I read it in one night. It was a jolly good read, but it wasn’t particularly challenging.
But then, can we be surprised? After all, Bob blinking Dylan won the prize last year. Seriously? “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? …The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Seriously?
Again, I am not dissing Bob. I think that Blood on the Tracks is an awesome album; it’s the best break-up album money can buy. And I remember fondly hearing him sing unintelligibly at, of all places, the Putra World Trade Centre. But is he up there with Neruda?
Okay, at this point, you may be saying that I am being elitist. Maybe I am, but not in the way that you may think. After all, I freely admit that I am not smart enough to get the works of the Nobel winners that I have tried to read. How can I be elitist when I clearly don’t understand them?
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is good to have some crazy mad high standard of human achievement; something to look up to and admire. A gold standard that perhaps in our own small way we can aspire to.
The same goes for sport. As sweet as it is to see the Falkland Islands badminton team huff and puff away at the Commonwealth Games, it is the elite in sport that truly captures the imagination.
It is when we bring things down to a lower or in the case of television, the lowest, common denominator that we start to lose that aspirational element of human endeavour. Why train and work hard to be a good actor when you can simply be obnoxious and have your own reality TV show?
And so it is in politics. I want leaders who are smarter and more able than me. They should be people who have a grasp of the world that I don’t have, in order for problems to be solved and governance to be good. If we just go for the popular and the lowest common denominator, then any Tom, Dick or Donald can be a leader and that could be disastrous.
All people are created equal. That is something I believe in. But not everybody can achieve equally. Some are just stronger or smarter or more talented.
It is one thing to acknowledge those who can be appreciated by a wider audience, who are more like “one of us”. But if we do that all the time, then what is there to aspire to? What is there to inspire?
Azmi Sharom (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
August 13, 2017
I am fascinated with Bamboo. It is Nature’s gift to mankind because it is versatile and durable. Dr.Kamsiah and I plant bamboo in our home, no. 26, Jalan SS22/39, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya to enrich our environment and attract the birds.
Have a good weekend.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican
July 22, 2017
At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.
He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.
For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile.
The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
Hotel Majestic —which first opened its doors in 1932, and relaunched in December, 2012 to much fanfare—is a building that doubles as a treasure trove of Malaysian history. Former patrons claim the Allied forces of World War II conspired within the walls of this hotel; the inaugural meeting of the Independence of the Malaya Party, held by Datuk Onn Jaafar, took place here in 1951.
Dato’ Ooi with Tan Sri P. Ramlee, both are from Penang
Today, as every day, guests are spending a cloudy afternoon basking in the Majestic’s colonial luxury. A group of girls eat scones on embroidered sofas. Some aunties chatter while sipping the house-blended Boh Cameronian tea. Waiters decked in white jackets walk around in brisk fashion. The only constant is the sound of music that floats in the air, the last thing anyone would remember.
Yet, unbeknownst to everyone present in this room, the old man hunched over the piano is Ooi Eow Jin. 38 years ago, Ooi Eow Jin (known to hotel staff as Uncle Ooi) was one of the music industry’s most sought-after composers.
It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.
Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang
“It was at that place when he first heard me,” says Ooi as we sit at a corner of the Majestic before his session. His voice is brittle, strung-out. His thoughts jump between past and present. Sometimes he stops, and leans forwards to ask you to repeat your question. He wonders why we’re sitting here in conversation.
Well, you have an interesting life.
“I don’t know what is there to write about me,” he says, words rattling gently inside a soft, time-worn box. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”
But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”
“Those days, the RTM Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
This was a big deal. Soliano had moved from his part-time job playing keyboards at nightclubs to starting an orchestra at then-Radio Malaya in 1957. When television broadcasting was introduced in 1963, the RTM Orchestra became one of the most widely-watched music acts in the country.
It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. “Imagine people saying, ‘You are crazy. You’ve got a full-time salaried government job, and you’re leaving it for a contract job.’” He wags his finger, reminding you that one generation will always admonish another for choosing uncertainty over certainty. “But that was my calling. I couldn’t be a clerk if there was something like this in front of you. Those days, the Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
Radio Malaya Band with Alfonso Soliano in the early 1960s
Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra. “It was a great experience playing all kinds of music. To have the orchestra there, that’s something, you know? That… that really took my heart away.” Soliano would groom Ooi to become the orchestra’s senior arranger, giving him opportunities to conduct concerts, and teaching him how to compose a piece of music. “He guided me. He wanted me to depend on my ears. ‘What you hear, you play’, he would tell me.’”
Ooi’s career would soon intersect with another artiste looking for his own break in life. In 1976, a young singer with a songbird’s voice by the name of Sudirman Arshad took part in a nascent reality show called Bintang RTM. In the final round, Ooi arranged a Broadway medley that would help Sudirman win the competition. “I used two songs. One of them was ‘Cabaret’, and the other was ‘Big Spender’. I arranged those two songs for him, and he got first prize because of that.”
The two became friends, and Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”. History tells us that Sudirman would become an Asian phenomenon, pulling in 100,000 people in a Chow Kit Road open air concert, tabbed as “Malaysia’s Number One Entertainer”.
Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”.
“One thing I know of Sudirman is that he is a very, very humble man, a very nice person to know,” Ooi says. “Every time he meets me, when he was famous, he would say, “Mister Eow Jin, I can never forget you for what you’ve done for me. Imagine someone like that saying like that about you.” He looks down, humbled by the power of a sincere compliment. “It makes your heart melt.”
Ooi gets up from his seat, and returns soon after with a CD in his hand. It is a compilation of twenty compositions, a greatest-hits collection he gives out to friends. It’s part of a personal canon that encompasses over 60 Malay pop songs, a nostalgic walk-through of the local music industry’s heyday.
Singing Sensation Dahlan Zainuddin
He penned the weepy hit “Masa Berlalu” for singer Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia; other singles include Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film Dia Ibukuin 1981, along with the theme song sung by the popular M. Nasir. He would rub shoulders with industry luminaries that spanned the entire region; names like Gigi Villa, the Alleycats and Frances Yip all sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
“I have something that will knock you down.” He takes out a photograph, and lays it on the table. It is a black-and-white snapshot of a boyish, bespectacled Ooi wearing an army uniform. He is standing next to P. Ramlee on the shores of Sebatik Island off Tawau.
Industry luminaries sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
Ooi played for the Malaysian legend during a tour of 21 army barracks in Borneo in 1965, bringing A-class entertainment to the armed forces. “We were quite near the Indonesian camps, and we could hear gunfire sometimes, at a distance… A few of us would fly in on helicopters into these camps, and we would do on-the-spot performances for the soldiers.”
By any generation’s estimation, this is unquantified success. But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music.
When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”
His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.
Older guests who come to the Majestic Hotel—some fans of the RTM Orchestra, or simply those who listen to artistes like Sudirman and are homesick for a piece of history—still remember Ooi. “Some will come up and say, ‘Hey, you formerly from RTM Orchestra ah?’ Ya lah, I’m now doing a new job.” By a twist of fate, the Filipino quartet who plays in the evenings after Ooi’s session are the Solianos, a family ensemble who are all children of the late Alfonso Soliano, Ooi’s mentor.
Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.” Ooi has also seen his only two sons through tragedy; the eldest had a brain tumour in his twenties that has resulted in two serious operations, and his youngest son died of leukaemia as a youth. “These are just the sad things of my life I put away. I store it away somewhere, and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
He comes to us after his first session. He sits on our table, and a waitress brings him a cup of coffee. Instead of drinking one of the hotel’s hinterland imports, this cup is made from a three-in-one instant coffee mix from Malacca, a sachet he gives to the kitchen to specially brew for him every day. He grabs her hand, and pats it like a grandfather.
“Thank you.” He looks up and smiles at her, paying forward the kindness once shown to him a long time ago. “You are a very nice lady.”
“No problem, Uncle.”
He leans forward, eyes tainted in fading black. “Did you hear me?” He looks back at us for an answer.
We could hear you.
“I’m always not sure whether people can hear me from back here.”
Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent.
UPDATE: As of 30th June 2015, Mr Ooi has retired as a pianist, aged 77. However, friends rallied around by organising a fund raising concert to help the pianist through his family difficulties.
On 7th September 2015, Mr Ooi was conferred a Datukship by the state of Penang. Poskod.MY is honoured to have played a small role in bringing wider attention to this music man.
April 16, 2017
The following text is adapted from a keynote address given to the recipients of the 2017 Whiting Awards for emerging writers.
When my mother’s mother began to die of a mysterious, undiagnosable neurological illness, the first thing she lost was her sense of taste. For most families, perhaps, this would be a rather inconsequential loss, but this had severe repercussions for us. As the matriarch of our heaving, multi-generational family, she had always helmed the kitchen with an efficient, if somewhat despotic, hand. Because all the food in that household was cooked by her—years earlier, an attempted takeover by one of the uncle’s wives had been swiftly and tyrannically rebuffed—my grandmother was, in fact, the ultimate arbiter of taste. For decades, this had been a relatively stable and blissful arrangement: she was an acutely talented cook. But as her taste buds numbed, week by week, the food turned from mild to well-seasoned to intolerably spicy. It was, perhaps, a kind of neural compensation for her—the way people with early hearing loss often begin to speak more loudly—but the fish curry now went off on the palate like a thermonuclear bomb. The lentils exfoliated the tongue. The fried spinach was an incinerating terror; the okra, an endurance sport. When even the white rice, the final refuge of the Asian tongue, began to arrive at the table with halved Thai bird peppers on top, the seeds squinting above it, we squirmed in terror. But we steeled ourselves and kept eating: numbness begetting numbness.
I want to talk to you today about desensitization. In my other life, I am an oncologist. Numbness, you might say, is my occupational hazard. Over the past month or so, I have watched twelve of my patients die from or relapse with cancer. Yesterday, I heard that a friend who ran my favorite restaurant, the place I went for daily refuge while I was writing my last book, passed away from tongue cancer that had colonized her brain and bones. When interviewers ask me how I carry on carrying on, I speak about the startling successes with some of my patients, about hope and the future. But I do not—I cannot—tell them that a certain kind of numbness must be a part of it. I come home from the bone-marrow-transplant wards on a January morning and play with my dog, rearrange the furniture, and practice polynomial factorization with my daughter. I celebrate a recent laboratory paper with a glass of champagne. I return to the wards the next morning and look down a microscope to find a marrow choked up with leukemia cells after a heroic attempt at salvage chemotherapy. And this cycle repeats. You might say that I have an advanced degree in desensitization.
But, of course, I am not here to describe the numbness that accompanies medical practice. There is a different form of desensitization that surrounds us today. When I was asked to give this talk to a roomful of aspiring writers, I had to confront the elephant-in-the-room question: How shall we continue to write in these numbing times?
On April 21, 1890, a thirty-year-old doctor turned writer named Anton Chekhov travelled to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony, in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. The journey took three months. To get to Sakhalin, Chekhov had to cross, by train, the wind-blown steppes of northern Russia and the still-frozen Siberian tundra. He boarded a horse-drawn carriage, then a steamer across the Amur River, and then a small trawler ship across the Okhotsk Sea.
Why, you might ask, did an unusually sensitive and mild-mannered man—delicate of physical and mental constitution—choose to travel to a hostile, faraway island inhabited by thieves, hustlers, and murderers? Chekhov told some of his friends that he was going to Sakhalin to run a census (and indeed he did run a census, although he didn’t seem to care particularly about the data). He told others that he was doing some sort of ethnographic project on the prisoners and settlers as part of his medical studies. But the census and the medical project were half-lies, each merely an excuse—a “device,” to use his word—to bring him to the island.
So what was the real reason that drove the journey? Chekhov’s medical training had left him spiritually depleted. He had honed his observational skills and matured into an astute diagnostician. But the extraordinary quality of suffering that he had witnessed, and the inscrutable arbitrariness of sickness and death, benumbed him. Much of this anguish would find eventual voice in his later works—particularly in the story “Ward No. 6”—but he wrote virtually nothing about it at the time. We also know that his health was declining. Chekhov’s brother had died, of tuberculosis, in 1889, a year prior to Chekhov’s departure, and Chekhov himself, having spit up blood just before the arduous journey, also knew that he was infected with the bacillus, and that the illness would likely kill him. Perhaps he thought that the island would offer a kind of medical or mental sanatorium.
But as much as he was encumbered by the diseased state of his body, Chekhov was repulsed by the diseased state around him—by the sickness of the body politic. “To a certain extent,” his biographer Ernest Simmons writes, “his anxieties mirrored those of all thinking people of the Eighties, this ‘epoch of social stagnation.’ “ Tsarist Russia in the eighteen-eighties was suffused with moral and economic depravity. It was a society overrun by corruption, bribery, and nepotism. Censorship abounded. The news was frequently manipulated and false. Political dissidents were kidnapped, assassinated, or packed off to prison. The élites ensconced themselves in grotesquely opulent homes while poverty, violence, illness, and incipient famine haunted parts of the land.
It wasn’t just disease or death that Chekhov was trying to escape; it was deadliness. “There is a sort of stagnation in my soul,” he wrote to a friend. Chekhov, then, was looking to resensitize himself—to un-numb the numbness. He sought a place where he might inoculate himself against the ennui that was slowly destroying his soul.
Sakhalin Island, to put it mildly, was not a place for the faint-hearted. What Chekhov found there was a community even more depraved than the one he had left behind—an island society on the edge of sanity, law, and self-discipline. The men on this island hunted each other for sport. Women were routinely sold into prostitution. The children were malnourished and enslaved by adults. The prisoners bribed the guards, and the guards beat the convicts nearly to death.
Two examples from Chekhov’s writings about Sakhalin Island serve as conduits or portals to a deeper point. One is an encounter on the ferry across the Amur River:
On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.
The second describes a meeting with a woman on the island:
An old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive—she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buying a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?
In Plato’s Republic, Leontius, the soldier, forced to confront a glut of decaying human corpses, turns his eyes away in horror and shame. But the appetite to look overtakes him; he rushes toward the bodies, forcing his eyes open and shouting, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches.” Chekhov, the writer, neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity. He simply looks, and looks again. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical—a word used often in association with Chekhov. You cannot see if your eyes are clouded with tears, he seems to tell us: a weeping doctor is a useless doctor. He cuts away the artifice. He cauterizes our indulgences in pity or piety: it is impossible, he reminds us, to feel pity for the self-pitying.
But Chekhov, importantly, does not only cauterize. If the nerve ends were left seared, dead, and blunted—numbed—then he would be a lesser writer. In Chekhov, the clinical detachment—that cool, unsparing, astringent gaze—gives way to tenderness, to a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion. The dissecting lamps must be turned on and left on, he realizes, but the patient cannot be left to wither under the mercury bulbs. She must be tended and resuscitated, made whole again. It is easy for the doctor to express moral outrage or indignation at the patient’s illness, but there is narcissism in that revulsion. It is easy, too, to concoct a moral fable out of sickness—“this is a punishment that the patient brought on himself”—but there is sadism in that confabulation. It is vastly more difficult, and more courageous, to observe, describe, diagnose, empathize, and heal. “Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.” The first five principles cleanse and desensitize our wounds. But it is the last—compassion—that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.
Chekhov, in short, invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness. “These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize,” Virginia Woolf would later write about Chekhov. “In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong. But where the tune is unfamiliar . . . as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
It was this world—arbitrary and strange, not unjust but simply lacking justice, without moral or spiritual tidiness, with no simple harmonies, no hum-along tunes—that would find its full-throated voice in Chekhov’s most powerful later works. This world would be actualized in the plays and stories that he crafted after 1890, which would define his oeuvre and establish his reputation: “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and “Ward No. 6.” These works indubitably define modern writing. But, perhaps more significantly, they launch modern writing. Indeed, we might argue that Chekhov invented the modern novel—and, for that matter, contemporary narrative nonfiction—along the way. If the immensity of that achievement escapes us today, it’s because the fundamental elements of Chekhov’s writing—its clinical humanism, its keen compassion, its steadfast rejection of the narcissism of moral outrage and the sadism of moral fables—have become so familiar in the greatest of our literature that, like the air we breathe, they escape notice. We want to see Chekhov through the lens of the modern novel, but it’s the novel that must be seen through the lens of Chekhov.
I hesitate to make this story into a parable—its protagonist would have protested—but this, after all, is a keynote address. What—how—shall we write during this time of numbness? One temptation, perhaps, is to succumb to Leontius’ first urge: to turn our eyes away. Numbness begets numbness, and it’s easy to steel ourselves to our times, or to withdraw from engagement altogether. There’s a more insidious and seductive temptation: to indulge in self-pity and piety. Anger, like false news, is cheap and easily digestible; it is the fast food of the indignant.
Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?
Each of us will find individual answers to these questions. There is no formula that describes what your solution might be (although Chekhov’s six principles of storytelling certainly come close to such a formula). But it is humbling to recall the breadth and depth of our literary debt to a thirty-year-old physician who set out to cure his anesthesia. The opposite of “anesthetic,” we might recall, is “aesthetic”—a word that originally referred to whatever could be perceived or felt but that came to refer to the nature of beauty. Beauty, in all its myriad forms, can only be created in opposition to numbness. That, at least for me, serves as a quiet manifesto for our times.
Siddhartha Mukherjee has published three books, including “The Emperor of All Maladies,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, “The Gene: An Intimate History.”