Isnin, 20 Januari 2014

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Nazi Goreng

Posted: 20 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

ONLY in Malaysia will you find brown-skinned neo-Nazis.

This curious phenomenon, a subset within the local skinhead subculture, may be news to the Malaysian mainstream although it is well-documented among punk enthusiasts.

With this in mind, I was excited to learn about Nazi Goreng, a novel featuring two such skinheads as protagonists.

Written by punk-rock guitarist and travel writer Marco Ferrarese, Nazi Goreng appears to offer an exploration of the scene and an exposé of Malaysia's racial tensions as seen by an outsider.

The book opens with Asrul in his hometown of Alor Star, kicking it with his friend and mentor Malik.

As their conversation of making it big out of the "backwater river town filled with mosques" plays out against a backdrop of the Muslim call to prayer, the opening chapters perfectly set the scene for a coming-of-age novel of disenfranchised youth using corrupted punk ideology for some semblance of empowerment.

Sadly, this is not what the novel turns out to be.

Having enjoyed Ferrarese's blog on his jaunts around the South-East Asian punk scene, I was expecting more prose on the subculture, the bands, the venues, and of course, the music.

Aside from a few details on gigs and discussions of bands, though, the description of what it means to be a skinhead seems to be relegated to superficial observations of what the characters look like.

Soon after Asrul and Malik move to Penang to have a shot at the "Malaysian dream", they are caught up in the illegal drug trade.

As things spiral out of control, Asrul grapples with his religious convictions and Malik's penchant for beating up non-Malay "immigrants".

This is a respectable enough storyline for a pulp thriller, with a sufficient number of twists and turns in the plot to keep the reader interested.

Where Nazi Goreng really shines is in its portrayal of the bond between Asrul and Malik, with the latter being the poster boy for the Nazi-influenced brand of "Kuasa Melayu" (Malay power).

With the charismatic Malik leading the way, Asrul's fall from innocence is convincing, and readers will be sympathetic to his attempts at reconciling his moral convictions with his misguided sense of entitlement.

And Malik's character offers a peek into the force that is Kuasa Melayu within the skinhead subculture, and the myriad of contradictory thoughts that the ideology has cobbled together.

At one point in the novel, Malik even expresses his desire to go to London to join a white power group because he identifies with their mission of ridding the city of "immigrant scum" – all the while oblivious to fact that he himself would be seen as such scum there.

With the notable exception of the two main protagonists, however, many of the other characters in the novel appear as hastily drawn stereotypes.

There's the shady Iranian drug lord, the racist low-level cops, the femme fatale of a drug mule from China, and even burly trigger-happy Nigerian gangsters.

Anyone who keeps up with the news on the underbelly of Malaysian life will recognise these characters – and it is true that all stereotypes begin with a germ of truth.

It is just a missed opportunity, however, when these characters do not rise above the stereotypical in the least.

Even when Ferrarese tries to write his immigrant characters with some humanity by offering the reader some insight into their hopes and dreams, they still do not appear to be more than plot devices – like convenient punching bags for Malik's character to tell us that racism is wrong.

Ferrarese's writing, though, is mostly tight and straight-forward enough to keep the pot boiling, especially in his descriptions of familiar local surroundings.

While I was greatly amused by the witty wordplay of the title itself (Nazi Goreng translates directly as "fried Nazi", or more accurately as "mixed Nazi"), this cleverness is sometimes stretched a bit too thin in the novel: "Mister Porthaksh had a grave expression on his face: as if a spirit had come to him with a staple gun and had pinned a grim mask on top of his face, shrouding him out of reality."

And I sometimes found the images conjured up just bizarre: "The moon peeped in through the window, like the iris-less white eye of a giant pervert, to watch what passed between those two bodies.

"The crossing of arms and legs and the pounding of muscles against meat and bones developed like a silent movie before the Cyclop's (sic) creepy eye."

While one can easily ignore such transgressions, they are jarring at crucial plot points – in a climactic scene, when things are really starting to hit the fan, the suspense was spoilt for me when I had to grapple with a character "crawling in the shadow and dust like a tapeworm that had just emerged from a dead anus".

Malaysians who have no prior knowledge of our cities' seedier sides or are completely ignorant of local punk subcultures may find some insight in the blunt honesty of Nazi Goreng. Personally, though, I'd rather just go to a gig and see the reality for myself.

The Shock Of The Fall

Posted: 18 Jan 2014 08:00 AM PST

Presenting the very deserving winner of the 2013 Costa First Novel Award.

I WAS somewhat underwhelmed by the winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Award, Francesca Segal's The Innocents. That novel seemed a bit too chick lit and lightweight to win such a lofty award.

So I approached the latest Costa First Novel winner – announced on Jan 6 – with reduced expectations.

However, to use a hyperbolic phrase with good cause, The Shock Of The Fall by 32-year-old Briton Nathan Filer simply "blew me away". This is a brilliant and ground-breaking work of such emotional heft that my eyes moistened every few pages.

It's not a traditional or straightforward narrative, though; more a multi-dimensional portrait of a highly vulnerable and fragile teen. The young man featured is a schizophrenic called Matthew Holmes. Following the childhood death of his brother, Simon, at a holiday camp in Dorset, a rural county on England's south coast, The Shock Of The Fall chronicles both the coming of age and the descent into mental illness of Matthew.

Duly, the reader inhabits the central character's baffling and occasionally terrifying world, which swerves from vignettes of bittersweet family life to chilling visions of his deceased brother.

What undoubtedly enabled Filer to pen such a powerful novel on mental illness is the fact that he used to work as a registered mental health nurse with Britain's National Health service (the NHS). But the book's focus is sensibly demarcated, given the subject matter.

"It's a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he's got schizophrenia.

"But it's not a novel about schizophrenia and it's not a novel about the NHS," the author told British national daily The Guardian after winning the award earlier this month.

The novel opens with Matthew, at this point 19 years old, nostalgia-tripping about the family's stay at that fateful holiday camp, though not about the fatal accident itself, which instead hovers over all these pages, ghost-like.

Matt – as he dubs himself – blames himself, probably wrongly, for the accident – with inevitable devastating psychological consequences brought on by his guilt.

In his own words, while writing about himself in the third person, Matt "suffers from command hallucinations", which he attributes to his dead sibling, who is described as having had "special needs" and "a beautiful smiling face that looked like the moon".

Eventually, and as we anticipate, Matt takes us back to the accident itself, a decade previously, when the two brothers ventured out of their family's caravan to a spot on a cliff-top, where Matt tells Simon he saw something interesting take place a few hours earlier.

This episode ends abruptly in a tragedy that unfolded in simply a few seconds, but whose outcome may haunt Matt forever.

We can almost picture 12-year-old Simon falling slo-mo into the sea.

"Whatever wave had been swelling in the sea in the seconds before he fell," Matt writes from a bottomless well of melancholia, "would break in the seconds after. This dismissive and uncaring universe simply carried on with its business, as if nothing of any consequence had happened."

Here in Malaysia, where mental illness issues remain something of a taboo topic (though this picture has improved considerably in recent years), Filer has provided a strong and sympathetic voice in Matthew Holmes, the owner of an unwell mind.

There are Matts all over the world but, sadly, very few live in places with advanced mental-health care programmes.

Usually, novels that tackle the issue of psychiatric illness tend to stereotype or oversimplify their lead characters. However, Matt is so realistically depicted and complex that you can almost sense him fidgeting in the next chair as you read this.

His treatment for his burgeoning mental illness makes him, in a sense, lose his brother all over again. The reader urgently wants him to get better, but this is a realistic depiction of a malady with no reliable cure.

He is, however, "managed" by his local community health team, undergoes therapy, and takes medication.

The treatment scenes are packed with of sharply droll observations.

"The mugs are provided by drug (sales) reps. They have the brands of the medication we hate stamped all over them," Matt notes. And at the patients' day-care centre, "the manics talk – but they talk crap".

And the descriptions of family life for the Holmes before and after the tragedy are beautifully penned, especially those of Matt's close relationship with his grandmother.

Filer's style is uncompromising. For a first novel, the writing here is remarkably audacious and experimental. And as a result of this, the author is able to convincingly capture Matt's desperate state of mind.

The Shock Of The Fall, which took the author three years to in the complete, proves that adage that you "should write what you know" and deservedly won one of the world's most prestigious writing awards for this former mental-health nurse, and now Britain's latest literary supernova.

Netting a globally renowned writing prize is the blissful reverie of many an aspiring novelist. I can't help thinking that it could not have happened to a worthier or more courageous contender.


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