Silverfish Books recently moved to chic new premises in Bangsar (next to Devi’s Corner). I missed their official opening and didn’t get around to dropping by until last Wednesday (11 July 2001) when they hosted an informal powwow with Slovenian literary luminaries Evald Flisar and Maja Vidmar.
Author-playwright Flisar is president of the Slovene Writers’ Association and editor of a reputable literary magazine. Ms Vidmar is a well-known poet with three published collections (Distances of the Body, 1984; Ways of Binding, 1988; and At the Base, 1998). What brought them to Malaysia was a close encounter with Malaysian novelist Chuah Guat Eng at a writers’ symposium in Helsinki earlier this year. Since they were on a cultural mission to Australia, they figured a brief stopover to say hello to Chuah and meet Malaysian writers might prove a pleasant and productive digression. A third member of the touring Slovenian writers, Andrej Blatnik, had opted to sun himself on a Tioman beach instead of staying in hazy, humid Kuala Lumpur (so his works are unlikely ever to become bestsellers in Malaysia – big deal!)
Also at the session was Singapore-born writer Lau Siew Mei (currently based in Rimbun Dahan on an Asialink scholarship). Ms Lau, whose mother is from Penang, is a Brisbane resident whose first novel, Playing Madame Mao (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000) was shortlisted in the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for the best emerging Queensland author. She read a few evocative paragraphs from her novel, set in the brave new island-republic of Singapore, where intellectuals do their thinking in the everpresent shadow of Big Brother and his secret police. (Or else they migrate south to the Land of Oz, where they just might get a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.)
Apart from Chuah Guat Eng, others in attendance included playwright Ann Lee, a young poet-troubadour named Jerome Kugan, and the affable Japanese writer-translator Takashi Yoshida (who had also attended the Helsinki writers’ powwow).
Much interest was expressed in the Slovenian national mythos – which seems to be characterized by a pervading sense of existential angst, metaphysical restlessness, and the inevitable nostalgia of the cultural exile. Flisar himself has spent the larger part of his 56 years as a sort of Wandering Jew, working as an underground train driver in Sydney, editing a scientific encyclopedia in London, and nosing his way around at least 80 countries, mostly in the Third World. His semi-autobiographical cult novel, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ documents his quest for inner balance in the Mystic East, after a debilitating nervous breakdown in 1983.
We discussed the fierce individualism and intellectual independence the Slovenian intelligentsia have somehow always enjoyed, even amidst the terrible turmoil accompanying the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Flisar drily observed that the inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans stems mainly from the Serbs’ dogmatic insistence on racial dominance… yes, that whole “ketuanan” nonsense which we in Malaysia are all too familiar with.
Maja Vidmar read a few of her own poems, first in English, then in the original Slovenian. Everyone was touched by the sensual lyricism and luxurious musicality of her sensitive imagery, which came through even more vividly in her native tongue.
There was an attempt to discuss the dearth of writers and the sorry state of intellectual life in Malaysia – but fatigue rapidly set in and the thread was soon abandoned.
Certainly the featured readings and dialogues hosted by Silverfish Books are a noble attempt to keep the love of literature alive. The setting is certainly convivial enough and one can always continue the heady discussions over a few drinks just down the road.
On July 22 at 4.30 pm, Kee Thuan Chye presents excerpts from A Sense of Home – his novel-in-progress. And beginning on August 1st, Chuah Guat Eng and Lorna Tee will offer creative writing classes for adults and students. Those interested will find more information at http://www.silverfishbooks.com.
19 July 2001