Intricate postmodern stories plumb the complexities of the Malaysian Chinese experience.
Malaysian Chinese author Ng (Chinese Literature / National Chi Nan Univ.), who incorporates English, Japanese, Malay, and dialects of Chinese into his prose, explores the limits of language, ethnicity, and authorship in his first collection to appear in English. In “The Disappearance of M,” the first Malaysian novel to gain international attention is the subject of debate among Malaysian and Malaysian Chinese writers’ associations, each wanting to claim the anonymous author, M, as their own. Wry humor pokes fun at nationalist and ethnocentric anxieties while slippages from third-person to first-person narration—“Mr. Li said that he had already heard, whereupon I (uh, it’s not me)...he told Li frankly that...”—introduce a metafictional device used throughout the book. This story, and others, spirals in on itself in Borgesian alternate literary histories using real historic authors. The question of authorship arises in several stories, more often than necessary in a single volume. Other stories push the boundaries of realism differently. “Dream and Swine and Aurora” vacillates in an indeterminate dream state. Absurdly repetitive references to pig excrement, meant to show the drudgery of one woman’s rural life, result in a soporific experience. Three dark stories stand out: “Allah’s Will,” about a Chinese exile forced to convert to Islam and to never speak, write, or even think in Chinese again; “Monkey Butts, Fire, and Dangerous Things,” featuring a Japanese anthropologist who disguises himself as a female monkey in order to study a Chinese exile; and “Inscribed Backs,” in which an English Mr. Faulkner aspires to tattoo the backs of a thousand “coolies” in order to write a novel “as great as Ulysses.”
Though some of stories are dense, meandering, and plodding, the standouts burst with absurd humor and a surreal vitality in the face of post-colonial alienation, violence, and ethnic conflict.