Sunday, February 28, 2016

Don’t Forget to Remember By Sonia Mael Launched by Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar

27 February 2016

One of the pleasures of increasing age, I presume, is when one starts reminiscing plentifully. Old memories come cascading in fragments, in snippets or in whole, sometimes remembering the moments but not the people or vice versa. 

There is no harm in being nostalgic and, better still,if those memories are captured in a fictional form, adding little stories, exaggerating a bit here and there, utilising creative freedom to the fullest. And using moments of the past as psychological and emotional references.

This novel, Don’t Forget to Remember, by Sonia Mael is one such product. It is perhaps the culmination of stories from the past, even a re-creation of incidences and moments of years long gone. Under the skilled hand of a writer, a wordsmith, a chronicler of memories and an interpreter of dreams and melodies, the outcome can be immensely exciting, like this one.

I like this book. It is not a pretentious novel with a notion to capitalise on the latest literary trend. This is not a feminist, colonialist or hermeneutic discourse. Nor a foray into the realm of magical realism. It is an old-fashioned love story about, what else, people in love. Plain and simple.

I am not a literary scholar but I studied literature, mostly English literature. And I am a journalist or was. I believe forms blur when journalism and literature intertwine. 

There is always the love-hate relationship between the two. But, at best,they can complement one another. Oscar Wilde, the hugely notorious epigrammatist, famously said, “The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.”

It is not a fair analogy for both the disciplines but, metaphorically speaking, it is not too far wrong. The best novels are seldom read – if I may ask, how many of you have read Moby Dick, Finnegan’s Wake, Oblomov, The Tales of Genji, Merahnya Merah, Love In Times of Cholera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Hujan Pagi and such? 

Moby Dick is a 1851 novel by Herman
These were written by some of the finest novelists on the planet and regarded as the greatest novels of all time. Some say that the quality of a work of literature is inversely proportional to the number of its readers. Even that is not necessarily true.

But I believe there is something unique about the relationship between literature and journalism;there is a synergy between the two, even a connection. Didn't Ezra Pound once say that “literature is news that stays news”? And works of literature are ‘news’ told ‘differently’? Little wonder that there are many literary writers who are journalists and journalists who write literature. 

In the history of Malay literature, there was a group of writers labelled sasterawan-wartawan (creative writers cum journalists) – the likes of Pak Sako, Usman Awang, A Samad Ismail, A Samad Said, Keris Mas, Hamzah, Adibah Amin, Zahari Affendi, to name a few.

There is a new genre in novel-writing that began in the 1960s – the so-labelled ‘new journalism’, with names like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S Thomson and gang literally rewriting the convention of journalism and further blurring the lines between journalism and literature.

In a piece for the New Straits Times on the subject (1 January 2004), I wrote: “Journalists apparently would be better read if they think like literary writers. And literary writers, to avoid the dreariness of literature, ought to think like journalists.”

But I love all things literature. I have read almost all the ‘impenetrable’ classics. I read James Joyce’s Ulysses to put myself to slumber. I am a great fan of Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, Hermann Melville, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t mind Tom Clancy or even Jeffrey Archer.

And I read JK Rowling too! So, as you can see, I don’t mind rising to the challenge posed by ‘difficult’  writers and I can tolerate snobbishness and ambiguity as much as I am at ease reading Rindu Awak 200 Persen or Ombak Rindu. I am totally unpretentious, you see!

I love Don Quixote for it is as relevant today as when it was first published 411 years ago. I believe that had our politicians read the novel, they would not be in the mess that they are in today. Most of the time, they are wasting precious time fighting imaginary windmills.

Now, before I am accused of not being nationalistic, I like local novels too. I enjoyed reading the first Malay novel, Hikayat Faridah Hanum, by Syed Syeikh Ahmad Al Hadi published in 1925, and novels by writers such as Harun Aminurashid, Pak Sako, A Samad Ismail, A Samad Said, Adibah Amin, and Anwar Rithwan.
Hikayat Faridah Hanom by Syed Syeikh
Ahmad Al Hadi 1925

Back in 1984 I even adapted Anwar Rithwan’s novel, Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman, for the stage. I read A Samad Said’s Salina 17 times, and Pak Samad honoured me by allowing me to bring the classic novel to the stage in 1986.

I had been active on stage during my school and university days and I spent a lot of time writing stage plays, directing them and even acting in some. I have played some of the most notorious characters written for the local stage – Pateh Kerma Wijaya, the scheming badass, and Sultan Mahmud Shah, the over-agitated despot during the Melaka years. 

And I had portrayed two of the most difficult characters that challenged even the best stage actors – Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dr Thomas Stockman of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.I was also the playboy Omar in Hatta Azad Khan’s direction of Pak Samad’s Di Mana Bulan Selalu Retak.

And I write too – short stories and even novels, forgotten ones though, other than all those pieces related to journalism, books, culture and the arts.

Thus I understand the agony of bringing this novel to life. I am sure it was an excruciatingly difficult process for Sonia – but a notoriously fulfilling one. It is like childbirth, I was told, laboriously painful and exhilarating yet full of contentment.

This is an interesting novel to read. Dense but readable. Wordy but written with poise and style. It is as eloquent as it is exciting. There is no one way to tell a love story though. It can be massively challenging like Dr Zhivago (please do not use David Lean’s film version as your reference, for that is an abridged version of the sprawling novel). 

It can be Love Story by Erich Segal made famous by the movie of the same name directed by Arthur Hiller in 1970. Or it can be one of those novels by Nicholas Sparks. (I wouldn’t include EL James 50 Shades of Grey here).

Bollywood film that been a huge
phenomena in 2016
Or it can be those hugely popular Barbra Cartland novels, which I am sure the author is also fond of.

Fictional love stories have taken a different dimension after Dilwale the movie directed by Rohit Shenty last year, which is taking the world by storm. No, you can’t fault audiences for liking the almost perfect dream-like pairing of Shah Rukh Khan and the incredibly beautiful Kajol. And you can’t fault them for loving the luscious songs in it. Hindi movies are made of these – songs like Garua and Janam Janam, spectacular dance sequences and eye-watering love drama. 

These are ingredients that make a perfect recipe for box-office hits. If you don’t mind verisimilitude, that is – when total strangers suddenly dance in unison and the hero and heroine sing and dance around trees, in temples, on camel-back, even on moving trains! Does it matter? This is the astonishing world of make-believe!

We have seen this in Sangam, Devdasor, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai before. Same construct. Same formula. Same responses. Box-office hits all!

Someone whom I had asked to condense Dilwale simply said: Two people in love trying to overcome the violent conflicts within their respective families.

Isn’t that the theme of Wuthering Heights, Dr Zhivago, Tess, Jane Eyre, Salah Asuhan, Di Bawah Lindungan Kaabah or the plays Romeo and Juliet (by Shakespeare) and Uda dan Dara (by Usman Awang)?

Well, Malay films are good at portraying stories of love deconstructed in the form of Penarik Beca, Ibu Mertuaku, Rumah Itu Duniaku, Kaca Permata, Antara Dua Darjat, and Gerhana.

Forbidden love is as evergreen a theme as a story of betrayal and insubordination. People love forbidden love. Even fantasising the perils of falling into such a frightening situation.

Malay's love story film back in 1960
This is a book for readers whose minds wander beyond yonder, imagining the unimaginable, going back to the days when loving was an exhilarating experience, when falling in love was part of the rites of passage.

I am not going to give you the synopsis for it will spoil the fun. Suffice to say, it is a poignant love story with all the attributes of a telenovela and more. And like a good TV serial, replete with intrigue, surprises, shocks and cliff-hangers. No, I am not revealing the plot or the story line.

The story of two love-birds coming from different cultures and backgrounds in a setting that is absolutely exotic, where values seldom intertwine, makes this novel irresistible to say the least.

Sonia writes well. And effortlessly, I sense as I meander through the maze of cultural tit bits and plethora of information. It is like reading a novel with lush historical, geographical and particularly cultural references. 

Set in Malaya of the 1960's, it is little wonder that the book is so stylish, placed at a time when things were less complicated. Everything you need to know about a Malay village is here – unspoiled, untarnished, virgin and pristine, just like Ari the heroine.

I imagine Khaled Hosseini writing about his Afghanistan in The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns or And the Mountain Echoes. Khaled, incidentally, is one of Sonia’s new discoveries. I also go back to 1950s Malaya with Pak Samad in his Salina, Usman Awang with his Tulang-Tulang Berserakan or Pramodya Ananta Toer in Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu in Indonesia.

Best selling novel written by Khaled Hosseini
This is the kind of book that the Man Booker Prize loves. The Man Booker Prize is, according to some, the Academy Award for novelists in Britain. It is supposed to be the most prestigious. Taken at face value, it is an award to look for by connoisseurs of English literature. 

Although shunned by the so-called ‘London literati’, the prize is a recognition of works written in English. Don’t Forget to Remember has all the attributes of a novel worthy of consideration. If it is repackaged, re-branded, and reprinted in the UK, I think it might stand a chance to be shortlisted. I have seen worst novels winning the prize anyway. Sonia’s is among the better ones written in English so far.

I am happy that Sonia has actually written this novel, her second I am told. And I am pleased that she has followed in the footsteps of one of our finest women writers writing in English, Adibah Amin. 

Recently, Adibah came out with her first English novel,The End of the Rainbow, which she had contemplated writing more than 50 years ago. Don’t Forget to Remember, I am sure, is one novel that was screaming to be written and perhaps had been in Sonia’s mind for many torturous years, perhaps for as long as the song that inspired the title of this novel was recorded, which was in 1969, some 47 years ago.

Not many of our writers are writing in English today. I am happy that Sonia is helping to fill the void. Yes, books are still relevant despite information technology and our obsession with smartphones, IPads and laptops. Books are still being published at the rate of one every 30 seconds even as I am talking to you now. 

For every book you read, there are 4,000 more new titles you have to forgo each day. According to Gabriel Ziad in So Many Books, a million titles are published every year the world over. But let’s ponder on the number of books published in this country –14,000 titles some say, mostly textbooks and workbooks, perhaps many novel picisan among them, a few gems and some glittery trash masquerading as serious literature.

I am glad this novel is seeing the light of day. One can find fault with the novel. There is, after all, no ‘perfect novel’ and some of the finest works by some of the greatest writers are pitted with imperfections. Sonia is not claiming to be someone else. She is herself, writing with passion and conviction, hoping to enlighten, entertain, even enthrall. Literature is like that – it amazes, it inspires and it provides us with an experience unlike any other.

Reading a novel is a very personal thing.

Why read a novel in the first place? Tolstoy famously said, “The aim of an artist (a novelist in this context) is not to solve a problem irrefutably but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

For that, we thank Sonia for a wonderful reading experience.

As such and with the lafaz, Bismillah, I hereby officially launch the novel Don’t Forget to Remember by Sonia Mael.

Thank you.  

1 comment:

  1. Love your analysis on the subject of love. Love means never having to say you're sorry...