The Soul of Malaya is one of those rare novels that is on one level an absorbing drama and on another level, a social commentary. Henri Fauconnier won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for Malaisie, the original French title of this novel.
They are an unlikely pair, Lescale, a man who “had lost faith, love, and even self-respect”: Rolain, a risk-taker and lover of life. lt is Rolain who, during a chance meeting in a shell-hole during World War l, tells Lescale stories “of far off lands that he had known”. When the war ends, Lescale joumeys half way across the world to Malaya where, three years later, he has an unexpected reunion with Rolain. Now the owner of a rubber plantation, Rolain takes Lescale under his wing and introduces him to the soul of Malaya: its people.
About the author of The Soul of Malaya
Henri Fauconnier (26 February 1879 – 14 April 1973) was a French writer, known mainly for his novel, Malaysia, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1930. He was part of the Groupe de Barbezieux.
The story is headily evocative and a thinly disguised roman à clef revolving around the interaction of two Frenchmen with their loyal Malay servants. (From our newsletter)
A review of The Soul of Malaya from What! No Tea and Scones?
Setting and Central Characters
The Soul of Malaya is set in British Malay of the 1920s, in a plantation located on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula. This was during the very early and heady days of the great rubber plantations, immigrant workers and the European ‘Tuans’; a pioneering and exciting time which would eventually become the crucible for the Malaysian psyche as we know it now.
The premise of The Soul of Malaya is that the soul of the country cannot be known simply by describing what one sees during a whirlwind tour of the country. To truly know a country – its soul – one must get to know and surround oneself with the people that the country produces; in this case, the Malays.
Lescale meets up again with Rolain, in Malaya, after their brief encounter in the trenches of World War 1, and become firm friends. Lescale promptly gains employment as the manager of Roulain’s rubber plantation. He uses this time to learn and to try to understand Roulain’s seemingly intriguing and cavalier ways.
On a lark, Lescale and Roulain – with their faithful servants (Smail and Ngah) in tow – embark on a trip to the sea where they soon re-discover, and savour the life and ways of the Malays. They also partake in the festivities celebrating the circumcision of local headman’s son. Smail is smitten with the headman’s daughter but his romantic interest in her is rebuked by the father. Crestfallen, Smail returns with his party to their plantation; never to be the same again. After a nasty bout of demonic possession by a ‘badi’, Smail recovers with the help of a healer, Pa’ Dawoud.
Soon after his recovery, Smail disappears. He goes to the village where he was rebuked and goes on a murderous rampage (amok) and kills the father of his love interest. In a botched attempt to rescue Smail from the clutches of the law, however, Roulain kills Smail.
This book ought to be read with the understanding that the plot plays but a minor role in the greater scheme of things.
Though obviously written from a Westerner’s point of view, The Soul of Malaya beautifully captures the gentleness, sensitivities, and mindset of the Malays. Though, taken at face value, some of the words may seem derogatory, at a deeper level, The Soul of Malaya is a celebration of the tolerance and freedom that lies in the Malay heart.
The Soul of Malaya belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who is even remotely interested in the Malays and in Malaysia. It deserves to be re-visited time and again.
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