In a Hot Country: Novels and the Exotic

Michael Vatikiotis
Jan 10th, 2014

Does the realism of literature become debatable in exotic settings? Do unfamiliar locales and characters notionally give writers license to invent and dissemble? Did Conrad or Maugham find it tempting to cut corners on truth, knowing their readers were unlikely to visit the Sulu Archipelago or The Moluccan islands?

I tend to think not, for such writers travel and immerse themselves in such places, with all their foreign myths and customs. Or, as Conrad so eloquently put it in Karain, they are: ‘not yet so dim-eyed as to miss in the befogged respectability of their newspapers the intelligence of various native risings in the Eastern Archipelago.’

Nevertheless, it is tempting to deploy the tropical as the backdrop for the bizarre, or the irrational. If you want to liberate the Western soul, you set your characters free in the chaos and complexity of post-modern Japan or the tourist beaches of Thailand.

In my own first novel, The Spice Garden, I used the remote Indonesian island of Banda to set the scene of diabolical religious conflict. And like other writers before me, who rely on their imaginations as much as their passports, I first stepped foot on Banda only after I had finished writing the book.

Is it a cliché to inject occidental madness into oriental settings?

When accused of missing the fact that Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a mere ‘fantasia’, the critic G.W. Fraser responded: ‘I would have thought that somebody…who has worked in Egypt, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, would know how much intrigue, conspiracy, deception, multiple motivation, are a part of Asian life, and how much also Englishmen, in a hot climate, tend to behave sometimes like characters out of the commedia dell'arte.’

Such stereotypes persist, in both fiction and reportage. Airport bookshops are littered with the works of foreign correspondents who’ve discovered themselves on the margins of human tragedy in Asia.

And despite the fact that English is the common language of prize-winning literature in South Asia, the English sensibility of the language is rarely used. (There’s a hilarious moment in Polish travel writer’s Ryszard Kapuscinski’s account of his first journey to India, his first ever outside of Poland, when he turns to a dog-eared copy of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls to learn English.)

Asian writers now find themselves in the same quandary about exotic settings. The modern Indonesian novelist Leila Chudori uses the city of Paris as a mis en scene for Pulang, her passionate chronicle of Indonesian nationalism and identity. Pulang’s characters are political exiles, and it is through the eyes of one of them that Chudori shows us Indonesia. The French setting allows Chudori to enhance the narrative’s dramatic dimensions, and highlight the strength of Indonesian national identity through the longings of these exiles. This is realism of another kind, borrowed and detached; there are still so many things in Indonesia that can’t be said directly.

On the other hand, the great Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer managed to inject so much realism into his writing that it became almost unbelievable or, worse: banal. Something is lost in the true portrayal of grim realities, perhaps because without overt heroism what remains is only the mundane.

But then it’s not the sole purpose of the novelist to convey reality. As Albert Camus reminds us: ‘we all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.’

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Michael Vatikiotis
Singapore
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016

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