Brunei is a tiny country on the island of Borneo, sharing territory with Malaysia and Indonesia. It has one of the world’s highest standard of livings, thanks to its bountiful oil and gas reserves. It’s largely ethnic Malay population enjoy generous state handouts and pay no taxes (Source: BBC Country profile). It is the first country in the world to have Sheriya law as penal code. The country is known to have low press freedom and women’s rights. Since there are no discos, alcohol serving restaurants and night life, the idea in Brunei is to ‘savor the slow life’.
Literature in Brunei is mostly folk based. A free form poetry called Sajak is practiced here. The number of books available internationally in English can be counted on one hand. For my reading, I choose Written in Black by K H Lim, a coming-of-age story set in Brunei. I will discover for myself how the actual reading turns out to be.
Written In Black is a charming tale of the misadventures of a boy pining for his mother. While this is the worst kind of pain a child can go through, nowhere through the story the reader is made to experience the boy’s misery. We feel his anxiety, hope and desperation but we don’t come away feeling that all is lost for him. I think that’s a clear win for the author.
Jonathan lives with his Brunei-Chinese family of his father, brother and sister and has a heavy case of the Middle Child Syndrome. His mother and elder brother have left the house about 6 months back. He hasn’t spoken to his mother even over the phone in the recent past. The story starts with the death of his paternal grandfather, Ah Kong. The news is received quite unemotionally by Jonathan and his younger brother Aaron. There is an elaborate funeral to attend though, held at the home of his far wealthier paternal uncle, with whom his grandparents have been living. We are slowly introduced to the family dynamics and intricacies of relationships with the background of the funeral.
We learn that Jonathan’s mother’s relationship with their grim and serious father had been sour for a while. But for Jonathan that was not reason enough for her to leave:
‘Had life here with us been truly that terrible? It could’ve been with Pa, but were the rest of us not enough to keep her from leaving? Or was it because of all of us?
Or because of me?’
The affection he feels for his mother is pure, simple and deep:
‘Eating her food always made me feel like I was having a good day, regardless of how terrible it might have really been’.
The day before the funeral he misses her call home. When he realizes this, he gets desperate to talk to her. He comes to know from his spoilt cousin Kevin that his estranged brother Michael is in touch with her. So he decides to go to Michael and ask him to call their mother. This plan however is not as straightforward as it sounds:
‘In a country with practically non-existent public transport and taxi services, the only way I could ever get to Michael’s place was to be driven out of there by my father.’
Since he knows that his father will never come away from a funeral nor let him go looking for his brother, he decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a series of disasters including a ride in a coffin, a weird house in the forest, face-off with a pack of dogs and an encounter with the poklans – the homegrown brand of rebels in Brunei. Finally, even after meeting his brother, he is unable to reach his mother on the phone:
‘I closed my eyes and let the oncoming surge of crushing despair wash over me.’
However the failure of his quest kindles in him an almost zen-like state of mind:
‘It was strange; my quest had ended in abject failure, yet here I was, feeling a strange kind of calm. Why I was feeling so composed after the soul-destroying outcome of my outing was still anyone’s guess. But by now, I was too tired to care. I’d done what I could, and there weren’t any choices I could say I truly wished I hadn’t made.’
He comes out of his ordeal more mature and richer with experiences.
One of the main complaints from other reviewers of this book is that the protagonist does not act his age that is all of ten. While that my be true, in my opinion, the author still managed to convey what he set out to do in this book – the lengths a boy can go to for just a few words with his mother and the complex situations in the family that force a mother of four to step away from all her children. Common themes like the family history and gang violence are not overtly alluded to, but left for the reader to infer. It was one of the better books narrated from a child’s perspective – John Gresham’s A Painted House is another such gem – and I am very happy with my choice of reading from Brunei.
Other Options from Brunei:
Armageddon – Dale Brown
Techno thriller in which Brunei is saved.
Four Kings – Christopher Sun
Political thriller by the Bruneian author