Malaysia’s great – and recent – identity crisis

August 16, 2017

Malaysia’s great – and recent – identity crisis

If ever there was a country chronically afflicted by an identity crisis, it would be ours. Debates rage on about how we should define our identities. For example, do I say I am Malaysian first, or Malay first, or Muslim first?

But why not all or none of the above? After all, many of us from George Town may consider ourselves Penangite first.

While I believe identities are fluid and should not be set in stone, there is something to be said about the pervasiveness of racial identity in our public sphere. Discourse on almost every issue, be it the economy, education and especially anything political, cannot escape the inevitable question of race.


pfsheadmastersBorn in 1816 for Multiculturalism

In the Malaysian context, this is translated into the great dichotomy of our country – the division between the Bumiputeras, a bureaucratic label with no constitutional basis, against the others, who are collectively reduced to the ignominious label of “non-Bumiputera”. As the state actively promotes a distinction between these two groups of citizens, the perception now pervades that there are some Malaysians who are considered to be more Malaysian than others.

Ironically, even the Bumiputera identity itself is full of ambiguities and contradictions. Deriving its modern definition from the genesis of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the term generally encompasses the Malays, the Orang Asli and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Yet while government employment and education quotas are supposed to favour the Bumiputeras, its practical application has raised questions about some Bumiputeras being more Bumiputera than others.

malaysiansThis is Penang

Issues revolving around Bumiputera, particularly Malay, rights and privileges are often emotional and confrontational in nature. In fact, for a race that is probably the most inclusive in definition, as anyone can be a Malay provided they fulfil the constitutional requirements of language, religion and culture, the Malay race is perhaps one of the most exclusive and parochial of political identities in Malaysia today. Not only have they walled themselves into a self-created mental fortification, Malay nationalism also adopts a fiercely antagonistic attitude towards their politically constructed rivals, the non-Bumiputeras.

It is no wonder then that former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once commented that the current Prime Minister’s “1Malaysia” slogan would never be coherent, simply because it essentially means different things to different people.


According to sociologist Frederick Holst, identity has become central to socio-politics in Malaysia because both public institutions and social structures have undergone a process of ethnicisation – the infusing and intertwining of economic or political contestations with collective identities. As a result, the question of race, or more accurately, ethnicity, cannot be separated from any form of discussion regarding our country’s social and political dimensions.

Yet, it is important to realise that such a situation is not naturally occurring but instead a social construction. In other words, the ethnicisation of Malaysian society has taken place through a conscious agenda to create an identity that is primus inter pares (first among equals) in order to legitimise policies that favour a certain ethnic group. Hence, the construction of the Bumiputera identity. While the term is not new and has been used in various contexts prior to independence, its adoption as an umbrella identity for the Malays was essentially a post-NEP concept.

At another level, the concept of “race” is also a problematic one because our understanding of it is essentially derived from colonial knowledge. In fact, race as a genealogical concept to describe the societies in the Malay Archipelago was almost non-existent in pre-colonial times. Often, race was used to describe the milieu, such as humanity, as was the case in the Malay Annals or the Sulalatus Salatin, which I quote below:

Maka sahut Nila Pahlawan, “Adapun kami ini bukan daripada jin dan peri, dan bukan kami daripada bangsa indera; bahawa adalah bangsa kami ini daripada manusia.”

Similarly, the concept of “migrants” or “pendatang” has no historical basis. In Hikayat Hang Tuah, for example, the word “asing” or “foreign” is rarely used, and only in reference to foreign countries. When describing traders from foreign lands, the simple and universal term dagang or merchant is used, without any ethnic, racial or national connotation.

In fact, the concept of race as a social identity only became dominant following the arrival of colonialism. As a case in point, the first modern census in the country was conducted in 1871 in the Straits Settlements and had no reference to “race.” Instead, people were categorised into a multitude of ethnicities, such as Acehnese, Boyanese, Bugis, Burmese, Jawi Peranakan, Malay, Malayalam and so on. It was only in later censuses that the term “race” was used in the context that we are familiar with and the Malay, Chinese and Indian races officially became collective identities.

Overcoming our psychological problem

Ketuanan_zawawiHow right you are, Dr. Zawawi

As can be seen, our own history has much to offer in trying to make sense of our post-colonial nation-state. If we seem confused as a society and unable to escape our identity crisis, it is because we do not truly appreciate the richness of our origins. As controversial as it may be, the conversation about who we are, where we came from and who this country belongs to is one that needs to take place. However, it also needs to be discussed rationally and objectively, without being pulled into the myopic frames of ethnocentrism.

Contrary to what the federal government thinks, the way to foster such constructive discourse is to allow greater space and more debate, rather than stifle alternative opinions through draconian legislation. But while ideas should be allowed to propagate, there must also be room for them to be challenged. It is only through such a process, of mature deliberation and openness to contrarian opinions, that we can shake off the noise surrounding the issue and finally discover our true Malaysian identity – or identities.

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and Executive Director of Penang Institute.

Balan Moses on Learning English

 June 15, 2015

Balan Moses on Learning English

by Balan Moses

Learning English at the University of Cambodia at  the beginning and a success story: It takes Political Will and Personal Perseverance and Grit

The issue of  whether English should be the medium of instruction in schools has been talked to death in recent years with only funeral rites yet to be observed over the demise of the grand old lady of language.

Ever so often, concerned citizens will give vent to angst over the Malaysian malaise where English is concerned and the powers-that-be will  respond in a patronising father-knows-best tone that the matter was being studied.

To be sure, recent Malaysian history is replete with such studies — truly embarked upon or just a figment of someone’s imagination — that have entered the mists of time due to changes in the political administration of the education ministry.

Let’s be frank about this: no amount of pressure from any quarter will have any bearing on the debate over English if the Education Ministry (read Minister) is not party to it.

The fact is English has been battered beyond recognition over the years by well-meaning nationalists wanting to champion Bahasa Malaysia in its rightful role as the lingua franca of the people.

Even as I stand up for English, I shudder when some young non-Malays today fail to put together a proper sentence in Bahasa Malaysia despite the latter being the medium of instruction in all government schools since the 1970s and one of the elements that binds us together as Malaysians.

Every Malaysian since I took my Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) in 1972 has been required to pass Bahasa Malaysia at MCE and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysian (SPM) levels or go nowhere in local life.

The sad fact of the matter is that many young non-Malays are neither good at Bahasa Malaysia or English, no thanks to a built-in antagonism for the former in some  and the lack of heart among the authorities in teaching the language for the latter.

For the majority of Malays who came into the mainstream of Malaysian  life in the 1980s, English  has  been a foreign language to be studied merely to pass examinations and not for use in daily life.

Orang Putih, as in the language, has by and large become something that  Malays who studied  abroad speak to each other in small and select groups with common political, social or religious interests.

I was intrigued recently when I heard a small group of retired Malay Balan Mosespoliticians in their late 70s and 80s hold an hour-long conversation in an eatery entirely in English on issues concerning their common interests.

I have seen this in various other settings where Malays  schooled locally and who, perhaps, read their degrees abroad were even more comfortable in English than their mother tongue.

The long and the short of it is that English has suffered equally among Malays and non-Malays. To put things in perspective, I am not the first journalist to comment on the dirge being sung over English and, most certainly, will not be the last.

Time was when Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang were bastions of the English language and, in my humble opinion, a notch higher in its finery than our southern neighbour .

I know I may come in for upbraiding by our southerly cousins for saying this. This could have been the result of the sheer number of English speakers in the peninsular,  taking into cognizance the excellence than comes out of competition.

I am not ignoring the likes of lawyer and politician David Marshall, poet Edwin Thumboo and writer Catherine Lim and the legion of other Singaporeans who stand equal to the best in the use of  the Queen’s English.

An illustration is in order to show where we once were in the use of English .I remember visiting Seattle on a junket in 1984 and speaking to an august gathering of intellectuals about the Malaysian way of life on behalf of our group of reporters.

Our audience was beaming when I ended and the first question asked of me was whether Í spoke English on a daily basis and where I had picked it up. They were confused when I said that my entire primary and secondary education was in English. How was that possible, they asked, when I was brought up in Asia.

My reply that Malaysia had been  a colony of Great Britain and that we had inherited their system of education in English, at least until the early 1970s, left them befuddled.

But I digress as the thrust of this comment piece is to ascertain if there is a future for English in Malaysia after a disastrous 40 years or so of it languishing in the doldrums.

The provocation for this baring of my soul comes from a statement by HRH The Sultan of Johor who said Malaysia should follow Singapore in making English the medium of instruction in schools to maintain the nation’s competitive edge in all spheres of activity.

The Ruler should know, given the geographical reality arising out of the republic’s proximity to Johor and the attendant relationships forged over time with the Singaporean man-on-the-street who today speaks arguably better English than the average Malaysian.

Only time can tell if mastery of English will engender greater unity among Malaysians as the ruler suggests. Any language, including Bahasa Malaysia, can help unify the people.

At the  end of the day, the government, the people and our young must decide in concert if they want English to regain its once pre-eminent position in our education system to enable our nation to find its rightful place under the sun.

Even if one of the three reject this proposition, it will be  bound for failure and forever remain just a romantic notion in the minds of those above 50 who lived through the glory days of English.  

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Reviving English schools–Dr. Wong Chin Huat

June 13, 2015

Note: Dr Wong Chin Huat, Senior Research Fellow, The Penang Institute, whose views on politics, education and social policy I take seriously, penned his thoughts on education in The Malaysian insider some time in September, 2014, nearly a year ago.

I thought I should post it on this blog so that we can continue to discuss English as a medium of instruction in our schools and the revival of well known English schools like Penang Free School, Victoria Institution, Anderson School, St Johns Institution,  St Xavier’s Institution and others throughout the length and breadth of our country. I feel it is vital for us to resolve this issue for the sake of Malaysia’s place in the community of nations. No nation is an island onto itself in an interdependent networked  and technology driven world where science and mathematics play a decisive role.

Dr Wong raised two questions: First, can the current poor performance of Malay-medium schools be significantly improved and made competitive? Second, can the value of Malay language be enhanced? My own view which support Dr. Wong’s position is that we should adopt multilingualism and each community should be given the right to teach their respective languages and cultures.

In my time in the 1950s I learned both English and Malay. Other Malaysians (Malayans)  of my generation went to Chinese and Tamil schools where they were taught in Mandarin and Tamil respectively and also learned English. One can have both national and cultural identities.

The Malays in remote towns and rural communities  went to Malay schools where they were exposed to their own history and culture.  At Form 1 Level, they were admitted to Special Malay classes for them to learn English in schools where English is the medium  of instruction.

For religious education, I was sent to a pondok school  after classes where I was taught how to read the Holy Quran,  say my prayers and  understand Islam from an enlightened village religious teacher who said to my class that Islam was based on iman (faith), ilm (knowledge), and ehsan (compassion). Mind you in the ’50s. My education made what I am today.  I am not a pious man with a skull cap, but I take my faith seriously and try to do good for my fellow beings. Where have we failed in the 21st century? Your views are welcome. –Din Merican

penang-free-schoolEstablished In 1816

Reviving English schools – why and why not?

by Dr. Wong Chin Huat

In a way, many English-speaking persons are like the ancient Chinese living in the “Middle Kingdom”. They believe that their civilisation is the most sophisticated in the world, it sets standards and it defines progress.

They therefore get perplexed and frustrated why some people won’t learn the language and restore the English-medium schools. To appreciate the frustrations of the English-medium school enthusiasts, one must first understand why many others strongly resist the revival of English-medium schools.

Now, one must first unpack the idea of English-medium schools: are they for all or for some? The opponents and their grounds of opposition may be rather different.

English-medium education for all, why not?

English-medium education for all refers to a single stream of schools, which may take two forms. In the maximalist form, English as the sole medium of instruction for all non-language subjects, and in a diluted form, English and Malay or another language share the dominance as mediums of instruction.

The former is roughly what Singapore has today and what we would dr-wong-chin-huathave if the Holgate Report released by the British Colonial Government’s Central Advisory Committee on Education (CACE) in 1951 was followed through.

Meanwhile, the now-abandoned policy of “Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English” (PPSMI) can be seen as a manifestation of the latter. The first ground of objection is not against having a single medium of instruction, but only against English being the chosen medium.

This is where the “mono-streamers” were split in the past, are still split in the present and will continue to be split in the future. They all claim that only one single medium of instruction can unite the population, yet, ironically, they themselves are divided over which language to play that role, English or Malay.

PPSMI, ‘Let them eat cake!’

Roughly, the preference for English indicates a more globalised outlook while that for Malay points to a more nationalist one.

The faultline between the “monostreamers” appears to many as a communal one cutting between the Anglicised non-Malays and the Malays, but it is at least by now more a class one, cutting between the multi-ethnic middle-upper class and the Malay-speaking middle and working classes.

noor-azimah_200x300The latter is best illustrated by the fact that pro-English education lobby, the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) is actually headed by an articulate Malay woman, Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.

The second ground of resistance is the standard mother tongue education discourse, which was effectively employed and convincingly presented in the rejection of PPSMI.

The advocates of Malay-medium schools finally embraced a discourse long advocated by the lobbies of Chinese- and Tamil-schools.

Many PPSMI supporters see that policy is already a compromise from having English as the sole medium of instruction for all non-language subjects. In their crusaders’ frustration, they cannot understand why many Malaysians resist the golden opportunity to improve our English proficiency within one generation’s time and make ourselves more competitive globally.

The simple answer here is class. Not everyone learns in English equally well, because of difference in socio-economic conditions and intellectual endowment.

To begin with, many urban upper-middle class kids are actually speaking English as home language. Hence, they will reap the benefit of learning in their mother tongue while the non-English speaking kids have to struggle to simultaneously learn both the English language and knowledge in science and mathematics.

One’s ability to learn in a second language of course needs not be hampered if one’s parents are rich enough to provide tuition, if one’s school provides fantastic support or if one is simply smart. But what if one comes from a poor family, attends a low-performing (Band 6/7) school, and is not particularly bright?

Will this kid learn more in mathematics and science through English than if he learns them in her/his mother tongue? Now, if he is going to do poorly or even drop out in high school, what benefit are we talking about here that he may pursue physics or biology in some foreign university without language barrier?

“Let them eat cake!” – the “cardinal sin” I see in PPSMI is not about privileging one language over another, but this self-serving one-size-fits-all mentality that presumes “since my kids will do well, so will your kids”, arrogantly ignoring that different people live in different realities.

Now, those who are maladapted to learning in English under the PPSMI policy may choose to make English their home language – never mind their own proficiency – to ease learning for their kids. So, the language gap may disappear in one generation.

While the English they learn may only get them a low-paid job in hotels and restaurants, but their children may stand a better chance to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. This is in fact the path of social upward mobility taken by many families in the colonial or early independence years.

But why should a sizeable portion of an entire generation be structurally marginalised so that the nation can be linguistically transformed? What is the moral justification for such a “class-blind” policy? At the end of the day, is social exclusion the inevitable price for national competitiveness?

English-medium education for some, why not?

One cannot help to think that the PPSMI policy is an inferior alternative for the federal government to divert the public’s attention from a real option – reviving the English-medium schools, i.e., English-medium education only for some, not for all.

That would be basically admitting the policy to eliminate them in the 1970s was wrong. And in Malaysia, it is much easier for a man to be sent to the outer space than for a government to admit its own mistake.

Having English-medium schools as a stream alongside the existing Malay-, Chinese- and Tamil-medium schools would seem to bring two clear benefits.

First, from the perspective of national competitiveness, it will allow students to be linguistically specialised in English, hence filling the need of a globalised market.

Second, from the perspective of social inclusion, it will allow students whose home language is English to enjoy the benefits of mother tongue education, which some 87%-98% of students in other streams of education have been entitled to.

It would be greatly hypocritical for any advocate of mother tongue education in Malay, Chinese or Tamil to oppose the same right for English-speaking kids. In fact we are closer to a national consensus on education if the mother tongue education discourse is embraced by advocates of all streams of schools: Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English.

Will Malay-medium schools be wiped out?

So, what’s the fuss with some people passionately opposing the revival of English schools? The emergence of English schools as a choice for parents and students rather than a uniformity imposed by the state poses two challenges.

First, the questionable “national integration” discourse against diversity in education, suppressing variance in individual needs and choices, will be effectively abandoned. This is just the problem of face-losing.

Second, and the one with real consequence, is that with its much higher market value, English-medium schools may eventually drive all other streams into oblivion – given time, the market may just achieve what the state has failed so far in this “ultimate objective” of creating a single stream.

This is a fundamental problem posed and encountered by multiculturalism. Like unconstrained market competition may lead to monopoly, laissez-faire multiculturalism may lead to the dominance of one culture and the decline or subjugation of others. Simply put, without artificial intervention, diversity in the long run may not be an equilibrium point.

If the English-medium schools are revived, the Tamil-medium schools may be largely gone in a generation’s time while the Chinese-medium schools too will suffer attrition but will probably survive due to the rising value of the Chinese language.

The question that the state will really care is: What will happen to the Malay-medium schools? Will they survive? Will majority of Malay-speaking parents send their kids to English-medium schools? If so, will the graduates from Malay-medium schools be worse than now in their competence and employability?

This boils down to two questions: First, can the current poor performance of Malay-medium schools be significantly improved and make competitive? Second, can the value of Malay language be enhanced?

For the revival of English-medium schools to be politically viable, the answers to the above two questions must be “yes”.

Like it or not, if you want the English language to flourish, you must help the Malay language too. This is however a reality many advocates of the English-medium schools refuse to face.

How can we confidently answer “yes” to the two questions?

Some like to think that the solutions to our educational decline are already there in everyone’s mind, and only political will is lacking. I beg to differ and this is a humble attempt to ask hard some questions. – September 4, 2014.


Learning English at The University of Cambodia

June 10, 2016

At the University of Cambodia we teach English

uc_campus_00Artist Impression of U of C Campus (Ready by October, 2015)

Today I was at the well equipped and modern Language Center, University of Cambodia, I watched how young Cambodians learn to speak, read and write  English. I was impressed. The young student in the video could speak better English than me. He  was confident  and articulate.

English is spoken here in Phnom Penh compared to the time I first lived and worked here some 2 decades ago. 

The Cambodian Government under the leadership of His Excellency Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen made a wise and conscious decision to teach English as a second language. The Prime Minister wanted his people  to  speak  this widely used language so that they can integrate with ASEAN and do business with the world large.

His farsighted policy decision is paying good dividends for his country today. At the same time, the Prime Minister made sure that Khmer is taught as the first language in all schools and universities together with Cambodia’s history, culture and the fine arts. A study of history, culture and the fine arts is vital to the Cambodian psyche. It has to do with their national identity.

University_of_CambodiaAt the University of Cambodia, we offer degree courses in both Khmer and English at the undergraduate, Masters and Phd. levels.–Din Merican

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:

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.