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Continuity and Change in the Itinerary of the Malay Novelist, Shahnon Ahmad

  • Laurent Metzger (a1)

Among the numerous Malay writers of our time Shahnon Ahmad stands as one of the most famous. Several points can be mentioned in that respect. First, he has published fourteen novels in twenty-five years apart from dozens of short stories. One of his novels, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (translated into English under the title “No harvest but a thorn”) is a household name in Malaysia as it has been for years a textbook for secondary school children. He has been awarded numerous literary distinctions such as Hadiah Sastera for his novel Srengenge (the sun) in 1973, Hadiah Pejuang Sastera (Prize for Literary Fighters) in 1976 and, finally in 1982, he was awarded the most prestigious literary award in Malaysia, i.e. Anugerah Sasterawan Negara which is the Writer Laureate Award and he was among the very first Malaysians to receive it. His most famous novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan has been translated into several languages such as English, French, Dutch, Russian, Japanese and Danish. Dozens of articles have been written about him not only by Malaysian critics but also by foreigners. Finally several theses have been written on Shahnon Ahmad. So it appears that this writer is probably the most talked about author in Malaysia at present.

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1 A complete list of these novels is appended to this article.

2 Mas Keris was the very first author to become Sasterawan Negara in 1981.

3 Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan has also been made into a film.

4 These include A.H. Johns from ANU (Australia), Edwin Thumboo of NUS (Singapore), David Banks of the US.

5 For instance, Hassan Muhammad Yusof, “Bahasa Daerah dalam Karya-karya Shahnon Ahmad” (Tesis Sarjana Pusat Ilmu Kemanusiaan, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 19751976).

6 In an interview with Majid Rosnah, published in Minguan Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur on 22 03 1981 when the writer was in the process of writing his novel.

7 Probably just by coincidence, most of Shahnon Ahmad's titles start with the letters P, R, S and T.

8 For instance Dharmawijaya in his book, Intisari Sejarah Kesusasteraan Melayu Moden (Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti, 1986).

9 Hikayat Patani or Patani Annals relates the history of the Malay Kingdom of Patani and has been edited by A. Teeuw and D.K. Wyatt published in two volumes by Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, in 1970.

10 He wrote, among other books, the superb novel, Immolation (Singapore: Heinemann, 1977), an interesting novel about the war in Vietnam. Actually according to Shahnon Ahmad himself the association is purely coincidental.

11 By a strange coincidence, the three main settings of the writers rural novels are on a straight line, linking Penang to Patani via Banggul Derdap.

12 This point has been raised by Jassin H.B. in Tanggapan, p. 119.

13 Sometimes the world is even smaller and can be limited to one house. This occurs in Tok Guru in which the whole world consists of one house.

14 Kemelut is the only rural novel written by Shahnon Ahmad in which the characters are not farmers but fishermen.

15 Protes starts in the same way as Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, by the famous question: is life worth living?

16 Though rejected by its author (because the writer was not free in writing such a book since he had to follow the suggested theme) Perdana is however an interesting novel. In it we can discover how the Malay party UMNO was set up. A few characters are the real founders of that political party. For instance the hero Lokman is Dato' Onn Jaafar and Abdul Rahim is in fact Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaya (Malaysia).

17 I have mentioned this point in a conference on Malay studies held at the University of Malaya in August 1989.

18 The reader is kept reminded that the cow will have “a pure death” (mati murni).

19 On the other hand novels written on the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation often portray fatalistic characters who do not have neither the will power nor the strength to carry on. We can see this feature for instance in Sungai Mengalir Lesu by Samad Said.

20 Shahnon Ahmad's world is a complete one with several and different characters interacting with one another.

21 In an interview with the writer of this article in the writer's office at the University of Penang on 26 July 1975.

22 Ahmad Kassim, “Pesimisme Sapanjang Jalan”, in Tanggapan, ed. Hussain Safian, Thani Mohd and Abdullah Ahmad Kamal (Kuala Lumpur: DBP, 1984).

23 Metzger Laurent, “Keazaman dalam Watak-watak Shahncn Ahmad”, Dewan Sastera (10 1976).

24 Violence is not unknown in this part of the world. Malays can run amok. School-girls can become hysterical, as this has happened in several residential schools in Malaysia. Thai people who appear most of the time quiet and soft-spoken can be quite ruthless at sea, for instance. The Vietnamese boat-people can vouch for that. And no one can forget the horror created by the Khmers Rouges.

25 His leitmotiv concerning the hills reminds us of the “Delenda est Carthago” (Carthage has to be destroyed) of Cato in the Punic Wars.

26 A few years ago Shahnon Ahmad became a member of Darul Arqam whose members wore colourful robes. But later the author left that organization.

27 Repetitions can be quite difficult for the translator of modern Malay novels. If they are maintained in the target text, the foreign readers will think he or she is reading twice the same event, but if they are left out, an interesting feature of Malay writing will be completely ignored.

28 A common feature between these three communities, i.e. the rural Malays, the Thai Malays and the Indian Muslim community in Penang is their Islamic religion.

29 It may be worth pointing out that the present Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir bin Mohamad, is, at least from his father's side, a member of this Indian Muslim community. Like Shahnon Ahmad he was born in the northern state of Kedah and Shahnon Ahmad makes use of his name for one of his characters as we have mentioned earlier.

30 He is the author of 30 books on Islamic studies.

31 Actually this is a problem faced by Singapore at present. Oral Chinese is often mixed with English words. It has been said in the newspapers that there is a tendency of choosing the English word at the expense of the proper Chinese term and, in the long run, many specific terms will be completely forgotten.

32 Tun Abdul Razak (1922–76), Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1970 to 1976.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
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