Ahad, 2 Februari 2014

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Bayu (Wind)

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

ROZLAN Noor's latest crime thriller, unlike his last three books (of the much-acclaimed Inspector Mislanseries), is told from the point of view of the criminal. The premise of the story is grand, and the author seems to have a solid vision of the entire caper, which has Danny Ocean levels of planning involved.

Bayu, which means "wind" in Malay, is a master criminal, known throughout the international underworld as "The Planner" for his uncanny ability to plan and carry out major heists without being caught.

For his last caper before retirement, the master criminal decides to kidnap a foreign national in the hopes of pitting his wits against the best law-enforcement personnel in the world. What he doesn't realise is that the target is the grandson of the US Secretary of State. What should have been a simple kidnap and ransom operation is suddenly turned into a terrorist hunt with the CIA, US Special Operations, and Islamic terrorist groups getting involved. Bayu has taken on a lot more than he bargained for.

Unfortunately, most of the book is spent trying to convince us that the protagonist, the self-styled "Bayu", is a master planner without actually revealing any of the planning. This takes away greatly from the reader's enjoyment of the story as we are told over and over again how complex this plan is and how famed the main character is as a criminal mastermind.

Another negative aspect of this book is what seems to be bad editing. Not having read the author's previous works, I am unfamiliar with his style of writing. However, there are parts of the text that read almost as though they were written by two different writers. Assuming that the voice of the author is written in mature prose, there are several places in the text where it seems that a much younger writer is filling in the blanks.

There are also some spelling mistakes, and the feel of the book seems cheapened to me by the overall quality of the editing. This is unfortunate, as it appears that between mind, pen and editor, the flow of the story and the build-up to the second half is compromised.

It is difficult to deduce if the intended audience for this book is meant to be mostly local or foreign. There is dialogue within the story that seems painfully contrived, such as the initial conversation between Inspector Mala and Bayu. However, within the same chapter, the conversation between Rosni, a reporter, and Bayu seems effortless and natural. These contrasts occur in several places throughout the book – they began to jump out at me before I got halfway through the book.

In addition to this, the interactions between foreigners and locals are very stiff, not only between law enforcement officials, which is expected, but also between most characters, whether criminals or lovers. These details, though small, tend to pile up quickly and adds further to the already choppy flow of the book.

I found the first 180 pages of Bayu slow-paced and a little boring. It starts off with an adventure at sea by two professional divers, a short story that doesn't seem to have any connection with the main plot.

The second chapter picks up a little, with the actual kidnapping happening. One feels slightly let down when the third through umpteenth chapters are full of Bayu playing what feels like a childish game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The antagonist, Assistant Superintendent Ong, plays a losing game of wits against the simple tactics used by Bayu throughout the whole book and by the end, sounds as though he may be in love with his own romanticised idea of the master criminal. Put plainly, the last time I saw police this bumbling was in The Blues Brothers.

The last 70 pages of the book, however, become very engaging, and it is a pity that this fast-paced flow is not evident throughout the book. I found it hard to put it down once events began moving.

Rozlan Noor has an evident talent for descriptive and detailed stories and this is put to good use in these last chapters. Everything that happens at the beginning of the book is tied together and it all begins to make sense. The only nagging thought I had at the end was that it was wrapped up a little too neatly, but that could just be my own cynicism at work.

Overall, the character of Bayu never really becomes an engaging, real person. I think that it would be interesting to watch this master planner at work again; hopefully, the author will write prequels or sequels that will bring this character to life.

Tropical Madness

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

I OFTEN tell the Malaysians who attend my creative writing classes to write about Malaysians and to give their stories a Malaysian setting. To me, not writing about ourselves is a wasted opportunity.

There is not much Malaysian literature in English and I feel that fiction about Malaysians and Malaysia should, by and large, be written by us. We can't expect others not to tell our stories but we must do so as well.

When a foreigner writes a Malaysian story, the focus shifts. And I feel the same about Malaysian stories published by international publishing houses.

In the latter case, the books are being written with a foreign audience in mind. The authors (and publishers) might feel compelled to over-explain some things, play up others. In the former case, foreigners naturally don't think and feel the same as Malaysians. They don't have the same insight or concerns or baggage so it's not possible for them to create convincing Malaysian characters.

When I read a Malaysian story written by a non-Malaysian (be it Frank Swettenham or W. Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess or Paul Callan) I feel that they are telling their version of things and it makes me wish that there were more Malaysian versions to redress the balance. As Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe said, "Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin."

Marc de Faoite is originally from Ireland. He now lives in Langkawi. Tropical Madness is his first collection of short stories, but he has been published before, in various anthologies, including Sini Sana: Travels In MalaysiaFish Eats Lion, and Love In Penang. De Faoite's stories feature, according to the back cover blurb of Tropical Madness, "gritty back streets" and "remote rubber estates", "fishing boats" and "ancient rainforests", "dark magic", "transsexuals", and "sex slaves" – just what readers in search of "exotic Asia" want, and also in keeping with Fixi Novo's pulp fiction focus.

They are interesting as stories go – de Faoite provides plenty of stirring details, dutifully ticking all the sense boxes, but these don't reveal enough about his characters, whom I feel are at the heart of his tales and whose psyches are not adequately explored. Their lives are all dramatic turns of events, ending with shocking twists or portentous statements, but the gaudy surface smear of violence, deception, lust and greed give only an impression of shape and depth.

These are actors playing the parts de Faoite has written for them. He tells you what they are and how they feel, and you respond because his narratives are evocative and engaging.

However, I didn't feel any emotional connection. What lies in the depths of these hearts, what secret motives spur them on or hold them back – I caught fleeting glimpses of these things, but I didn't feel them, because de Faoite does not let the reader get close enough. Perhaps because he's not close enough himself.

It goes back to the difficulty in understanding what it's like to be a Malaysian, in imagining what is it's like to feel and believe certain things, and think in certain ways. This is expected, but as the stories attempt to portray the lives of Malaysians and their struggles, one expects a more thorough exploration of the beliefs, practices and attitudes depicted.

At least the author writes with empathy – his characters may be playing roles, but these are flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing parts that the author has imagined quite clearly albeit somewhat shallowly.

De Faoite simply needs to do some burrowing, through their messy guts and down to their throbbing hearts and bare bones. He needs not just to imagine his characters' pain, their desires, fears and joys, but feel all these emotions enough to translate them into words that don't just produce a passing thrill but create a lasting impression.

Malaysia has been, for some time now, de Faoite's home. I would say that he should not be seen as an outsider but considered part of the local community of writers who must carry out the aforementioned work of redressing.

In de Faoite's case, there is really the advantage of having lived on both sides of the divide. His experiences as an expatriate could be fodder for stories that, because he is now resident and has, presumably, deeper insights into Malaysian life, could avoid the condescension and flippancy that are a feature of the work of many Western authors writing about Asia and Asians.

Actually, I wonder at the absence of this point of view in this collection – might de Faoite have feared coming across as patronising? I think this danger is avoidable if a writer is aware of it, and approaches a story sympathetically and honestly.

I look forward to more stories from de Faoite. I look forward to seeing him grow as an author, especially in terms of one who writes about the people he has chosen to live among.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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