“Written with a sense of realism, and laden with elements of local colour in the setting, speech, social structure and custom – Lee’s story is truly Malaysian”
So much has been said of Lee Kok Liang’s writings, during his productive years and after his passing in 1992, that there are few stones left unturned. Still, his works continue to haunt us and we can’t help but keep revisiting them time and again. One such work is the novella The Mutes in the Sun, first published in 1963. Short in length but convoluted in structure, Lee sets the mood by suggesting the reader to not only read between the lines but also to read into them.
Mutes is written from the third person perspective. Despite the title, the story is painted in stygian shades, with characters to match. The plot can be roughly presented as a literary triptych of sorts: beginning with an introduction to the main character, a young runaway who lives in a ramshackled accommodation fashioned from discarded cartons and wood pieces from fruit crates. His companion is a sick old woman, while his grandmother brings him food and other needful things. The second act focuses on a diary owned by Kee Huat, a friend of the protagonist. From the jottings, the reader is introduced to a female character, and how the paths of the three characters intersect. The third part describes the runaway’s strained relationship with an abusive father, a murder and an adventurous quest. The open-ended closing, if the reader so wishes, allows for thoughtful questions and discussions on possible futures.
It’s been said that some of Lee’s writings were based on personal experiences and things that went around him. Characters are often portrayed as “sufferers who are caught in the whirl of life” and some are actually fashioned from people he encountered personally or read about. Written in a narrative method, his works often create a “sense of realism” in the portrayal of characters.
Lee was born in 1927 in Sungei Petani, Kedah. A former politician and lawyer by profession, Lee started writing short stories while studying at the University of Melbourne. The Mutes in the Sun is his first of a series of short stories, written “in an animated and conversational style that is enlivened with local idioms and regional vivid imagery.” Lee’s works are not only wellknown in Malaysia but overseas as well. He passed away on Dec 24, 1992. His other works include London Does Not Belong to Me.