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Best Nineties Novels I’ve Read

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Well, I read ingredients on powdered milk tins and packets of Twisties, Sabri Zain’s Reformasi Diary printouts in the loo, and all the noisome pop-up ads on websites (no, I lie about this last). But I hardly ever read novels.  Neither does my dad, nor did his dad, nor his dad before him.  It may be genetic.  My dad used to collect stacks of Popular Science and Popular Mechanic magazines full of practical fix-it-yourself tips. In his mid-eighties he still enjoyed tinkering around with his car and home improvements (like toe-operated fan controls).

ImageI collect pirated photocopied Popular Metaphysics manuals on practical ways to activate and maintain one’s Merkaba (which Bob Frissell has deftly defined as “the image through which all things were created, a geometrical set of patterns surrounding our bodies… a counter-rotating field of light that encompasses both spirit and body and [serves as] a vehicle – a time-space vehicle.”) The ancients say the best Merkabas run on clear intentions, total compassion, and wishful thinking.

But I digress.  I do occasionally read a novel or two, so on those occasions, there’s much to celebrate and to share.  Have you read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie?  I have … one and a half times!  I enjoyed it so thoroughly, when I reached the end with great reluctance, I simply had to return to the first page and begin all over again, just savoring the man’s consummate craftsmanship and imaginative stamina.

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Salman Rushdie

It begins on a high pitch full of frills and promised thrills, then backs up a little and launches into a psychokinetic fractal tapestry of humanity in all its soap operatic complexity, tragedy, and comedy.  Everyone and his closet queen uncle is in Rushdie’s multi-generational tale of two families.  Dostoevsky meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the result is a compelling, masterful fusion of social anthropology, history, and magic realism.

The plot thickens to the point where you begin to suspect it’s about to curdle, but Rushdie adroitly whips it up again into a whole different texture and perspective, until it becomes so sinister, so surrealistic you think he’s gone overboard… but, no, his instincts and his integrity as a master student of the human condition lead him unerringly to a climax so explosively apocalyptic, so archetypal, you KNOW his mind never once wandered off its predestined course, his hand never wavered at the helm… okay, keyboard then.  People,  I honor and value Salman Rushdie’s diabolically precise and articulate intelligence.  Anyone who STILL wants him put down for verbalizing his version of the truth is a mortal enemy of the only non-transferable values we possess: our ethical, intellectual and spiritual liberty.

The Moor’s Last Sigh was to me a novel so satisfying, I didn’t need to read another for the rest of the decade.  But I’d already chomped through Wayne Stier’s picaresque, whimsical, pun-slinging, made-for-the-hammock Malacca Gold – which cleverly combined maverick scholarship with romantic fiction, and yet managed to smuggle in a few enriching insights and historical vignettes.  I thought it was educational and entertaining, and just the thing to translate into a major box-office movie. [Malacca Gold is reviewed in depth here;]

ImageThen my internet friend V. Susan Ferguson sent me her two self-published novels – Inanna Returns and Inanna Hyper-Luminal – which were the perfect dessert, after having gorged myself on a stack of paleo-anthropological studies by Zecharia Sitchin on the Mesopotamian myths.  Apparently, Ms Ferguson was reading Sitchin’s The Wars of Gods and Men when she experienced a series of spontaneous retrievals from her genetic cache.  The Sumerian goddess Inanna appeared as a holographic vision and merged with her cellular consciousness.  She began to reconstruct a brief history of the Anunnaki, the Sumerian Sky Gods of the An lineage who, Sitchin reports, colonized this planet nearly half a million years ago and subsequently created a labor-saving device: US!

Well, Sitchin’s books are based on 30 years of meticulous research in dusty museum vaults deciphering half a dozen dead languages.  But they ARE founded on archeological artifacts, and this emphasizes their important function: which is to convince Homo sapiens sapiens that the Adamic races were the by-product of a genetic experiment gone awry.  Remember The Island of Dr Moreau by, er… was it Jules Verne or H.G. Wells?  Anyway, Marlon Brando played Dr Jeanne Moreau in the recent Hollywood remake.  I won’t discuss Sitchin’s monumental work here.  Those interested can buy, borrow, or steal his books from Toh Seng Keat (the only person I know who owns the complete set) or from Amazon.com.

V. Susan Ferguson’s ghostwriting effort on Inanna’s behalf was luminous and divinely inspired, I thought. She beautifully fleshes out the skeletons Sitchin dug out of humanity’s closet  (or was it just Mother Hubbarb’s cupboard?) The ancient gods of Sumer – Enki, Enlil, Ninhursag – who later became the ancient gods (or Neteru) of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Canaan, Judaea, and India; and later Peru and the Mayalands, are resurrected skillfully and empathetically by Ms Ferguson, and integrated into a contemporary context.  This is what makes her Inanna books so valuable: she transforms the mythical into modern mystery teachings of irresistible cogency and veracity.  She makes us understand, as in a gratuitous epiphany, exactly why we are the way we are.  Part of it was a genetic legacy of the “gods” who manufactured us from the silly putty of simian DNA; the rest of it was pure bad luck or evil karma or hubris or whatever, but there IS a way out of the evolutionary predicament we’re in.  We have to awaken from our cultural trance, our religion-induced spiritual somnambulism, be jolted out of our collective amnesia back into anamnesis, into full recollection of who we truly are.

ImageAs an epilogue of sorts, I have to include Shahnon Ahmad’s political shit-stirrer, the ingeniously titled, SHIT. I confess that I have only read portions of it, a testimony of how basic my Bahasa skills are.  But from the little I have savored, I can feel the tradition-shattering force of Shahnon’s poker-faced prose which reminded me in places of Samuel Beckett’s 1950s experiments with literary nihilism.  But in Shahnon’s case the prime concern is obviously not so much with nothingness, the void, the vacuity of human existence – but with the forced evacuation of our political innards.

We’ve seen all kinds of movements here but the ultimate goal is to achieve healthy and regular bowel movement.  It takes real guts to do that.  And in these dark and rumbling days of borborygmic unease, when the whole nation seems divided between those who dwell froglike, in their own bloated yellow bellies and those who aspire towards the higher mind or a return to the soul, it cheers me up immeasurably, like a well-pitched burp or perfectly-timed fart, every time I see SHIT prominently displayed in all the Mamak newsstands.  Can anyone tell me why the Mamaks seem to have a monopoly on sales of Shahnon’s history-making novel?  Roti canai and teh tarik not enough ah?  Shiterature oso wan ah?

Posted in December 1999 on artisproactiv@yahoo.com in response to Amir Muhammad’s request for reviews of books we enjoyed in the 1990s.

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CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE MOVIE!

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Title: MALACCA GOLD*
Author: Wayne Stier
Publisher: Meru Publishing
Pages: 369
ISBN 983-99152-0-7

My trusty Britannica describes Ophir as “an unidentified region, famous in Old Testament times for its fine gold.” In the time of King Solomon (circa 920 B.C.), “Ophir was thought of as being overseas… the Jewish historian Josephus… evidently understood that India was the location of Ophir…”

How does this relate to Mount Ophir (now known as Gunung Ledang) which straddles the border of Malacca and Johore? Was this landmark peak named after an original Mount Ophir located in the Pasemah Highland of Sumatra – where English mining engineers found ancient gold mines dating back at least 3,000 years? Could this have been the true location of King Solomon’s legendary mines?

Farfetched as it may sound at first, the notion isn’t altogether preposterous. Otherwise, Wayne Stier’s rambunctious but highly readable romp through Malacca’s intriguing past and present could simply be dismissed as a darn good yarn spun by a Texan gunslinger-turned-punstringer who happens to write “in a hammock with a laptop on top of his lap on the veranda of a house in a coconut grove on the beach of an island in the Gulf of Thailand.”

This might explain Mr Stier’s “swinging” style – which gleefully combines swashbuckling adventure and historical romance with a dash of mystery, treasure-hunt travelog with a generous dollop of vaudeville comedy, maverick scholarship (guaranteed to annoy the dour academic) with straight-talking, in-your-face satire.

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ImageBut pure whimsy alone would not have fired the author’s imaginative flair to such a compelling degree of literary ardor and passion. Stier is quite clearly convinced that he has stumbled upon a mystery of mind-boggling significance. Yet, he has opted for a flamboyant, flippant tone – and further protected himself by attributing the entire manuscript to an ex-colleague and barmate named Edwin Prebble – who, in turn, credits the story to a certain Ms Cindy Anna from Montana, salivatingly described as a “luscious, statuesque woman” with “long, blonde hair… long supple legs… powerful lapis eyes… stunning!” Hmmm. Who do we cast in that role? Kim Basinger? Sharon Stone? Uma Thurman? Daryl Hannah?

Can’t wait to see the movie. Maybe if Steven Spielberg turns it down, Wayne Stier will offer the film rights to me? Malacca Gold undoubtedly has all the ingredients of a big-time Hollywood box office hit. The epic action sweeps across time and space: starting on an island in southern Thailand, we’re taken on a dizzy Disneyland ride to Munich, a beach resort in Spain, then on board a gas tanker bound for Tokyo. Our heroine Cindy Anna accidentally falls into the Malacca Strait and gets rescued by a boatload of amateur Gudang Garam (clove cigarette) smugglers. After a brief sojourn in a hormonally charged Malay village, she meets the dramatis personae of the Majestic Hotel – Alfonso Fernandes, Dominique D’Abreu, Jimmy Ng, Arthur Rangjit, Percival Wiggins, and Vijay the newshound – who take turns guiding us on a whole gamut of magical-mystery-history tours.

ImageHere’s what you get for the price of your ticket: Malacca before, during, and after the Portuguese; medieval China, the Revolt of the Red Eyebrows, Shaolin Temple, ta’i ch’i chuan, kungfu monks, and the rise of the Chinese triads; Mesopotamia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Phoenicia, Palestine, Damascus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, cryptic gold inventories; the Knights Templar and the secret history of Freemasonry; Madagascar, the Solomon Islands, and Pulau Upeh (a nondescript isle off the Malacca coast). Somehow there’s even space and time for a few poignant Chinese immigrant vignettes like Tai Tai Bong and Lucky Lim’s amazing lifestories – set against the soap opera backdrop of Malacca’s Baba and Nyonya families, and the hellish horrors of the Japanese Occupation.

ImageStier manages to conjure a constant undercurrent of mystery in his copious history with titillating references to magical kris (wavy-bladed Malay daggers), “gileega” stones (usually spelt geliga, bezoar stones associated with dragons, the mythical guardians of subterranean hoards), Batu Pahat gold (reputedly the finest in the world), and apocryphal speculations about the cabalistic Keys of Solomon and the precession of the equinoxes.

Among the colorful and everchanging cast of characters in Malacca Gold, two are particularly memorable: the young Portuguese troubadour-chef Duarte Fernandes, and retired planter Percival Wiggins. Duarte Fernandes is portrayed as a prototype Forrest Gump: besides playing romantic lead to the beautiful 16-year-old firebrand Anyi, daughter of Utimuti Rajah, Duarte is credited with (among other things) introducing the joget and red hot chili peppers to Malacca high society, penning the lovesong that would later be adopted as Malaysia’s national anthem, and “donating” a drummer dwarf named Captain Universe (Panglima Awang) to Fernao Magalhaes, better known as Ferdinand Magellan, the “first” world circumnavigator.

Anyi and Duarte’s foredoomed liaison parallels the ill-fated passion of Putri Ledang for her lover, Dua. (Note the “coincidental” similarity of the names Duarte and Dua.) Putri Ledang, of course, was the love-maddened princess and sorcerer’s daughter of Malay legend after whom Mount Ophir was renamed.

ImageStier’s portrait of Percival Wiggins as the archetypal expatriate-gentleman-scholar-raconteur is charmingly crafted. (Sir Alec Guinness would have been the ideal choice for this plum role.) The fact that Planter Wiggins – the embodiment of the late Classical European mind at its scientific and encyclopedic best – is named after the Percival (or Parsifal) of the Grail Quest is significant. It reinforces the intricate interlocking motifs of all major planetary myths: lost kingships, lost civilizations, lost treasure, lost keys to the Mystery, lost stories, lost meanings. Wiggins is a crucial lynchpin of this multi-layered, meandering tale; indeed his solid characterization anchors the more exotic sub-plots in the realm of the credible.

Despite her obvious sex appeal, Cindy Anna (from Montana not Indiana) emerges as a perfectly edible… sorry, credible and well-developed central figure (pun intended, if only as an example of the spicy ribaldry that seasons Stier’s storytelling). Indeed she comes across as a fine embodiment of feisty, free-spirited femininity: adventurous, intelligent, imbued with an earthy spirituality. When she describes ch’i as “that mysterious force in the universe that causes water to ripple, and mountains to fold, that puts the spin in planets and makes stars explode and then reform within our bodies,” she makes perfect, poetic, profound sense. The quest for buried treasure – the thematic thread which links the diverse characters in Malacca Gold – acquires an altogether deeper, alchemical meaning in the light of many such metaphysical epiphanies hidden throughout the text.

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Author Wayne Stier in his Hawaii home

However, it is as a veteran writer of travel documentaries that Stier’s prose flows most comfortably. The cinematic detail of his descriptions of Malacca and its street life are among the most animated and vivid I’ve read. Naturally he couldn’t resist throwing in a satirical montage of “current affairs” images culled from reading the local newspapers. The Great Malacca Drought of 1991 and the two-million-ringgit “High-Tech Rainmaker” scam receive prominent attention, along with grisly gossip inspired by Mona Fandey (the infamous killer-witch) and the private shenanigans of people in public office.

Occasionally, the narrative flow is broken by the interjection of painful puns and sophomoric sexual innuendoes – which, of course, the reader must blame on gin-and-tonic-loving Ed Prebble, recording angel and interlocutor. Ed comes across as an incorrigible pedant with his poker-faced, pseudo-academic footnotes, signed “Ed, ed.”

Alas, Ed’s pedantry is sometimes unjustified, as his facts are not always impeccably researched. (For instance, Ed informs the reader that Malayan independence was declared “in a ceremony in the center of Malacca” on August 31, 1957. This isn’t completely correct: the imminent granting of Merdeka (independence) was announced in Malacca on February 18, 1955. But the actual Merdeka ceremony was staged in the national capital, Kuala Lumpur more than two years later.)

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Jacques de Molay

In a brilliantly succinct chapter on the advent of the Knights Templar as the first international bankers, Stier – or, rather, Ed – misspells the name of the first Grand Master, Hugues de Payens – as well as the last, Jacques de Molay, who was burnt at the stake on the orders of King Philip le Bel, and died cursing the French monarchy. But these are trivial complaints when weighed against the sheer entertainment value and little gems of gritty, witty insight Malacca Gold provides. For example, Cindy Anna on her short stint as a sidewalk mime: “Takes a lot of concentration to stand still. I never realized how much we use speed to help keep our balance. I think that’s why so many people are afraid to slow down – afraid of crashing. It takes guts to do nothing.”

I won’t vouch for the originality of the following quirky quip, but I liked its sparkle: “He calls himself a ‘Heinz 57’ breed, a mixture of a little English stock, Dutch, and probably some orang asli, the aboriginal people of the Malay peninsula. Alfonso hinted that there might also be an orangutan swinging around in Dominique’s family tree.”

ImageIs there anyone on earth who can deny that we all have a primate or two swinging around in our family tree? After all, recent paleo-anthropological evidence suggests that the Adamic race may have been created by the “Sky Gods” – Nefilim from the planet Nibiru (symbolized by the winged orb of the Sumerians/Assyrians/Egyptians and the splayed cross of the Templars) – specifically to mine for gold. Isn’t that why men (and women, too) have always been obsessed with the Metal of the Gods?

Personally I found Wayne Stier’s fantastic patchwork of short and tall stories so engaging and enjoyable, I would have happily kept the Malacca and forgotten about the Gold. But who knows… the world may soon be queuing for the movie version, thereby inspiring Mr Stier to switch from Gudang Garam to Lucky Strike.

Read Wayne Stier’s memoirs, Stars When The Sun Shines.

*[Book review for The Star written in 1996. In June 2009 I received an email from Mars Cavers, Wayne’s wife and lifelong traveling companion, informing me that Wayne had succumbed to the cancer he had been diagnosed with in his early twenties. Seizing life with superhuman passion, Wayne Stier was extremely productive till his death at the age of 62, churning out travelogs, novels, plays and metaphysical poetry. He even tried his hand at woodcarving and sculpture, and did a few tours as an itinerant monologist and raconteur. I dedicate this post to an old pal who made a few inspiring cameo appearances in my life.]

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