BAD ODOUR FROM SHITLAND*
By: Kassim Ahmad
Have you ever visited Shitland? I loath to take you there, but under the present circumstances, visiting it is better than not, because everybody is taking about it, thanks to Shahnon Ahmad’s creative talent.
According to the national laureate’s newest novel, a political satire, by his own claim, we Malaysians are living in Shitland, ruled by an old, corrupt, senile, power-crazy dictator, called Shithead, but, fortunately, by a stroke of Shahnon’s inky genius, we are just leaving it for a better divinely-ordained world of “beauty, faith, justice and purity”, brought about by the hero’s (Wirawan’s) reformasi people’s power movement. Wirawan, by the way, is the erstwhile close collaborater of Shithead, sacked by Shithead for plotting to topple him, but now repentant and cleansed of Shitland’s filth, and enthroned to power to bring about the new Malaysian millennium.
That is the gist of the story. It is a 240-page boring, nauseating (because of the insufferable odour from the filth of Shitland), repetitive narrative, that is typical of Shahnon, and only enlivened by Shahnon’s mastery of the Malay language. As a political satire, it fails on two counts. Firstly, it presents a distorted reality, an outright anti-Mahathir, pro-Anwar propaganda, a reality that exits only in the minds of editorial writers of mainstream Western media, like the Washington Post , and our own PAS’s newspaper, Harakah. That is because both these disparate groups vehemently dislike our Prime Minister: the Western media for his critical attitude towards the West; PAS because of his modernistic approah to Islam. It is good that we stand for independence and national sovereignty against IMF’s neo-colonialism. It is ridiculous that PAS should oppose this policy, but PAS, in upholding its narrow, fanatical, reactionary religious ideology, is really opting for a policy of non-development that chimes in nicely with Anglo-American hegemonic desire to control the world. Hence, they now opportunistically collaborate with each other to bring down Mahathir.
Shahnon’s predilection to distort reality is nothing new. The novel which propelled him to international fame, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan, published in 1966, began this trend in his writing. In that novel, he overstates and exaggerates the problems faced by Malay peasants in a village in Kedah and sends the whole Lahuma family into limbo, defeated. I wrote a critical review of that novel when it came out and significantly titled that essay “Pesimisme Sepanjang Jalan” (“Pessimism All the Way”) In a few of his novels, Shahnon too easily solves the problem by the method of deus ex machina. He repeats this trick in this novel. The novel is, therefore, falsified, even before it gets off the press!
Neither is the pornographic strain in Shahnon’s writing new. One finds it in almost all his novels. He certainly has a creative impulse for the pornographic expression. On finds it in abundance in his post-Arqam novels, especially Tok Guru, Ummi dan Abang Sheikhul dan Tivi. In this unmentionable novel, he certainly has out-Shahnoned Shahnon himself!
Reading this work, one cannot but be aware of the close correspondence of the events of the story to the so-called Anwar saga, in spite of the normal disclaimer that the story is not connected to anyone dead or living. Shahnon takes a definitely partisan view of the events. The story is unashamedly anti-Mahathir and pro-Anwar, because Mahathir is old, dictatorial, building wastesful mega projects and corrupt, and Anwar is the people’s champion, working quietly and bidding his time to take over and cleanse the filthy system, strangely missing Mahathir’s long anti-colonial and anti-feudal history and Anwar’s short-lived and obvious opportunism. The story is almost a day-to-day journalistic report of the events up to the sacking of Anwar, but after that the writer’s imagination takes over to make the reformasi movement unseat Mahathir and his ministers and enthrone Anwar. This unbalanced and partisan representation of reality is nothing but propaganda and is a major weakness of the novel.
In any work of art, the aesthetic element is important. It is not altogether absent in this novel. In fact, it is the only element that sustains the narrative, however bad the odour is from Shahnon’s Shitland and however propagandistic for Shahnon’s utopian ideology. It is not worth a review. The excitement it has produced is not due to its internal worth, but rather reflective of the acute struggle between the forces of patriotism and reason and neo-colonialism and unreason that is currently going on in our country.
Both the bad odour and the propaganda have done irreparable damage to Shahnon’s reputation as a serious writer.
In his 33-year career as a writer, Shahnon has travelled through the ideological universes of Malay nationalism, culminating in his “Malay power” literary slogan in 1969, then turning to a form of “Islam” in the decades of the 80-s and 90-s, annoucing his conversion in a booklet on Islamic literary theory, entitled Kesusateraan dan Etika Islam in 1981. This witer criticised the booklet when it came out and it led to a major literary polemic between the two of us until Shahnon gave in. It was at at this time that Shahnon joined the missionary organization, Al-Arqam, but later left it and wrote one or two novels to expose it. Now Shahnon has announced himself a life-member of PAS. Following this pattern, one should expect Shahnon to leave PAS and denounce it in the future.
* The Sun, 5 May, 1999.