Has Somerset Maugham promoted Malaysia more than Shahrukh Khan?
Posted by Oscar the Grouch on November 11, 2008
I have been trying really hard to finish Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth for the past 3 months, without avail. Alas, at this juncture of life, time is not my ally. Even to contribute a blog posting once a week is an almost extreme feat.
But I guess this is a stage of my life, where wealth-making endeavours become paramount, eclipsing other feverous passion that I may so prefer to indulge in. Passion of which, includes the joy of nonchalant laid-back reading. Never mind the fact that Jhumpa Lahiri writes an assortment of easy straightforward short-stories, in plain uncomplicated words and prose; the fact is, there will be other matters-of-the-day, insignificant, yet imperative enough, to rob me of the simple delight of uninterrupted reading.
I remember a time, back in my secondary school days, when I was not yet burdened with the complexities of life: all I had to worry was to exert an effort in passing tests and majors. My parents were not ones who believed in additional-tuition; so in a way, I was a tad bit luckier than my peers, for I had more time to spare in carefree reading.
Back then, and perhaps still now, I absolutely adore classic literature. I know many may find the archetypal works overbearing: – protracted confusing storyline; lengthy rolling plots that go nowhere; sentences that seems to go on and on without an end; minuscule lettering fonts; jaded characters; and pompous presentation.
But one day, within the dim confines of the nook of the school library, the boy in me took curiosity to a paperback, adventurously and exploratory entitled Journey to the Centre of the Earth; and I was gloriously welcomed into the imaginative mind of one Jules Verne. I was aptly hooked.
Of course, I try to avoid the sweeping, but weighty, sagas by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen; then I had not reached the appropriate maturity to indulge fondly in such profound romanticism. But I find reading-delight in more boyish thrilling subject plots: – Mystery / detective crime in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and The Moonstruck; Alien invasion in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds; Sea angling adventures in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; unsettling chilling tales in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and The Oval Portrait; and even a bit of wit politics in George Orwell’s The Animal Farm. Later, I even discovered a bit of cheap thrill in pandering to classic literary soft-porn in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Of course today, some two-odd plus decades later, I find it hard to remember most of the stories that I had once took immense pleasure in. But recollect I do: of curling myself in my wooden single-bed, in the still of the night; and for that brief one hour or two, being conveyed into the creative yet fictionalized world created singly by the author’s own sheer imagination.
But I do remember, with much fondness, of one of the very first classics which I took upon at that initial stage: – short stories by Somerset Maugham. William Somerset Maugham, many would know, is a popular English novelist and short story writer during the 1930s; notable works include Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale; all of which I have not read.
But instead, I have read Maugham’s colonial short stories. During the 1920s and 1930s, Maugham journeyed through India, China, the Pacific and Southeast Asia. His memorable short stories are typically concerned with the lives of the British imperial colonist in the Far East. Interestingly enough, Maugham also wrote several short stories on Malaya and Borneo, which he visited between 1922 to 1925, set out today in 5 volumes: –
· Collected Short Stories Vol. 4 (1951/1975)
· Maugham’s Malaysian Stories (1969)
· Maugham’s Borneo Stories (1976)
· Far Eastern Tales (1993)
· More Far Eastern Tales (1998)
Each volume contains 10 or so short stories, spinning in each, fascinating tales of drama about British civil servants and expatriate planters living in Malaya at that time. It is said that many of Maugham’s narration is presented to him in the stories he heard during his travels in the outposts of the Empire.
For example, in Out East in the Malay Peninsular, the memoirs of Dr. G.E.D. Lewis, then headmaster of Victoria Institution 1955 – 1962: – he recorded an incident in 1911, an English wife of the V.I. acting headmaster, Mr. W. Proudlock, shot and murdered her expatriate-lover, and who she claims tried to rape her in the midst of a romantic dinner sojourn. It was later materialized, that Mrs Proudlock had shot her lover due to jealousy, as he had also kept a Chinese mistress.
Mrs Proudlock was charged with murder and sentenced to death on June 14, 1911 by Mr Justice Sercombe Smith in the High Court, Kuala Lumpur. But public opinion was sympathetic towards the lady, and petitions were organized for her amnesty, the result of which, the Sultan of Selangor granted Mrs Proudlock a free pardon.
The murder trial was a sensation and universal gossip throughout the length and breadth of the Malay Peninsula, news of which were extensively carried out in the Straits Times and Malay Mail. It is also generally believed that the tragedy which took place at the V.I. Headmaster’s house was the inspiration for Somerset Maugham’s The Letter in the Volume of Collected Short Stories Vol. 4 and the Volume of More Far Eastern Tales.
Somerset Maugham’s contribution, albeit indirect by way literary public relations, in promoting and giving exposure to the then Malaya is undeniable. Indeed, in a tourism advertisement, the following advert testimonial was announced to introduce Malaysia as a site of destination: –
“When English author Somerset Maugham spun his tales about the fascinating and little-known Southeast Asian colony of Malaya, he invoked an era of tropical opulence, married to the intrigue and drama of hidebound British civil servants and expatriate planters living in paradise.
Today, Malaysia, independent and free, and one of the fastest-growing developing countries in the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is still that same tropical paradise celebrated by Maugham and a host of other writers, offering a heady mix of cultural and scenic pleasures.”
Which brings to mind, if Shahrukh Khan can get a Datukship by gyrating-in-glory in Malacca (thus making the country well-known to the world), why can’t a posthumous award be granted to Somerset Maugham, by his short stories of Malaya? Surely, Datuk Shahrukh Khan’s one movie partially set in Malacca cannot be superior to Somerset Maugham’s array of classic creative literature in respect of publicizing the nation.