Tropical Madness by Marc de Faoite is an amazing collection of stories set in Malaysia. I find it very challenging to post on collections of short stories. In many or probably most cases the stories were not written to be part of a whole but when people write of them they try to construct over arching themes for the collection. I am not saying this is wrong but I think a post on a collection of stories should look individually at the works and then perhaps generalize.
In talking about a collection of short stories (especially ones I really like such as Tropical Madness) I sometimes compare the reading experience to visiting a forest. Most short story collections are like cold weather forests, forests out of deep rooted European memories. I love tropical rain forests and I see a way to understand Tropical Madness through this. Many of the people in these stories ancestors lived for many generations in tropical forests, living from and in deep harmony with the land and with a love for old Gods and ways. Now in modern Malaysia the rain forest is being cut for timber and to clear the land for industrial agriculture. Young people do not want to live all their lives working a small plot of land and hunting and fishing. They want and now have cell phones, IPads (or knock offs), they would rather work as a waiter or maid in a fancy hotel in Kuala Lumpur, maybe have a car one day and live in an air-conditioned place. The appeal of western gadgets and luxury is hard to fight. There is still beauty, and its friends, decay and death in the rain forest. For generations people from the forests worked as near slaves for colonial masters as rubber tappers, palm oil plantation workers and the women were the dusky beauties in the stories and novels of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Of course Christian missionaries and Muslim clerics tried to educate them away from their old folk beliefs that sustained them for centuries. Now, based on TV commercials for MalaysianTourism shown on Manila TV, the country is marketing itself as a high affluence shopping paradise with exotic meals and beautiful beaches. No mention is made of the teeming slums of the capital full of displaced forest dwellers or the squalor now found in forest communities where the young want out. It is these people that de Faoite brings to life for us in his stories. There is much to be learned about the very diversified ethos and culture of Malaysia in these marvelous stories.
I will talk a bit about enough of the seventeen stories in Tropical Madness to try to convey the feel and real power of this collection. You can grasp very quickly the author's deep unillusioned love for Malaysia and his very serious knowledge of a probably in its last two generations way of life.
"Sang Kancil", the lead story in the collection, gets us off to a great start. "Sang Kancil" was the name of a mouse deer in a classic Malaysian folk tale. Mouse deers are under extreme threat as a species due to habitat loss and from hunting. There is an old folk belief that pregnant women need mouse deer meat to deliver a healthy baby and many believe that if a woman does not have mouse deer meet while pregnant she will have no more children. Our lead character, Ibrahim was persuaded by his father to leave the air conditioned comfort of Kay El, slang name for the capital, to enter into an arranged marriage and move back to his home island. His wife is very pregnant and is no longer the sweet as could be bride of a few months ago. She tells Ibrahim that she wants deer meat, won't listen to any modern ideas on per-natal nutrition and tells her husband if she does not get some mouse deer soon she will no longer share his bed. The man, not really into the old ways, tries to figure how to get his wife what she wants. He consults an older man learned in hunting mouse deer as to how he could keep his wife happy without killing a tiny mouse deer which he is loath to do. The story takes us into the realm of Sang Kancil and lets us see the sadness of a death, we hope it serves a purpose and we admire Sang Kancil and pity the man. I wondered will he regret all his life his decision to marry and leave the big city for his old island home.
"Under the Shade of the Tamarind Tree"
"Under the Shade of the Tamarind Tree" is a very moving story about cultural conflicts, about how greed destroys centuries old temples and how deeply rooted East Indian beliefs are in Malaysia. However that does not stop a corporation owned by who knows who from bull dozing a temple and destroying a way of life just so more of the country can be given over to the multinationals. The story also shows how the beauty and power of a faith from far away can sustain when all else fades. I love these lines:
It was worth reading the whole collection just to experience the power in these words. It is hard to imagine the pain when Balaram, a priest for fifty years, must witness the shredding pain caused by the smashing of old holy images. Accompany his pain, one of the policeman assigned to control the traumatized believers comes from a family who worshipped at the temple.
"Ah Girl in A Relationship" and "Where is Ah Girl"
These two stories really worked for me, maybe because I have three daughters, 15, 18, and 20! As I tried to imagine what Ah Girl looked like, I thought on a great grandfather who worked as a rubber tapper, a grand father who owned a plantation, and a father who speculates on the stock market and manages the family trusts. Great grandma clucks with disapproval at the attire and "fast" life style of her numerous grand children but under if all you know she loves that they won't have to worry where their next meal is coming and they keep her and grand dad young. They are told via Ah Girl texting back and forth with her friends. They are really fun to read and shows, based on a farher's limited knowledge, a good understanding of the mind set of a young high fashion woman in a tropical mega city. I think anyone who reads these two stories would want to learn more about Ah Girl.
De Faoite is a very visual, cinematic writer who can bring a seen vividly to life for us in just a few lines. Just like in the Philippines older men can be addressed as "Uncle" ("Tito") even if you are not related. It is a mark of respect, not familiarity. In this short story we meet a number of uncles, all Chinese immigrants. They meet most everyday in a clean well lit place to drink tea or maybe something stronger. They talk about the past, their kids, and flirt with a pretty girl. The story was a lot of fun to read and I cannot imagine anyone not liking it.
"All I Want to Do is Play Football"
"All I Want to Do is Play Football" is a brief very interesting story that shows us an all pervasive worldwide prejuduce against people with darker skins shades. The central figure in the story is a young man from Zimbabwe who came to Malaysia to play football. He does not understand why people fear and hate him. In one really horrifying totally credible incident he goes for a swim in the pool at a country club and in minutes everybody else gets out of the pool. A friend tells him people are afraid he is a rapist.
"Trip Reviewer", one of the longest stories in the collection is told by the manager of an elite resort on a tropical paradise type island in Malaysia. Seemingly a marvelous job. He gets a very good salary, a free room, and a nice bonus based on profits. He has been a hotel manager many years and he knows the business. Over his three decades plus in the business, Internet reviews have become more and more important in getting new customers. I pretty much always check multiple trip reviews before I book a new to me hotel and even do it on restaurants in Manila before I decide to go there or not. If the place as more than one or two one star reviews, I normally won't go and that is how the hotel manager knows most feel. For a long time his hotel and his elegant restaurant got glowing five and four star reviews then he started getting slammed with many one star reviews with insulting comments about the resort. Business slacks off big time and he starts to try to figure out what is happening as service at the resort has not changed. He finds there is a sleazy side to reviews and learns you can buy good reviews. Soon he notices a common writing style to all the bad reviews. Now the story begins to get really exciting and takes a very interesting quite unexpected turn. I will leave the rest of the story untold. I was kept very interested by this story and was very surprised by the very creative close.
"The Rubber Tapper's Mangle"
"The Rubber Tapper's Mangle" is the story from a man who went from a young boy living in a village of rubber tree workers to an internationally famous very wealthy painter. A mangle is a press the rubber tappers use press the raw rubber into thin sheets which they can dry for further process and sale. There was a time when rubber tappers were little more than slaves. The artist's most famous painting is titled "The Rubber Tapper's Mangle". The account of how the man got out of the village and got his start as an artist was really intersestingly relayed. You can feel the horrors of the life of a rubber work in his work. Of course the cosmic irony is they are bought by very wealthy people who can in no way relate to what the pictures are about. The artist is still after decades a bit baffled by the huge amounts of money people will pay for his paintings. I really like this story a lot and greatly enjoyed learning about the life of the boy who sent from rubber tapper's son to world famous artist.
Not too many years ago Gurkas from Nepal were the most feared fighting men in the British Army. They would enlist for twenty years and return home to Nepal rich and highly respected citizens. Now days they go to Kaula Lampur to work as service help in food courts. When we meet the central figure in this story, he is getting ready to leave on a three year contract. He is very sad to be leaving but he consoles himself by saying when he returns he will have enough money to marry a beautiful village girl. De Faoite takes us along on his flight, lets us see him meet his boss, get settled in at his rooming house, and go along on his first day on the job. He is a virgin and he cannot help but notice the much more revealing way women in KL dress than they do back home. Ok some very unexpected things can happen to a country boy in the big city and they sure do. There is one of those did you see it coming or not closes to this story. I really liked how the man dealt with something totally foreign to his culture. This is a first rate story.
All of the other stories are very intriguing and deal with people in transition from old ways to new, people dealing with the undercutting of values, with a need to escape in a conflict with a desire to cling to the past. Along the way we learn a lot about contemporary Malaysian society and older folk ways.
I highly recommend this collection to all lovers of the form.
Author supplied bio
Marc de Faoite was born in Dublin, but has spent more than half his life abroad, living in England, Belgium, France, India and currently Malaysia, where he leads a quiet, reclusive life on Langkawi island. He reviews books for The Star newspaper and has had several of his short stories and essays published in anthologies in Malaysia, Singapore, France and Ireland (Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, Fish Eats Lion, Readings from Readings 2, KL Noir, Love in Penang, Esquire Magazine, The Irish Times and Revue Pyrénéene). A collection of his short stories - Tropical Madness - was published in November 2013 and launched at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang in December 2013.
Besides writing short stories, he likes to drink tea and listen to the frogs singing in the paddy fields at night.
You can learn more about Marc and his work on his web site
Marc has agreed to do a Q and A so look for that shortly.
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