Empire Writes Back

Dear Mumsy,

You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen here in the big city. KL-ites (as they’re not so fond of calling themselves) are always on the move, always crossing each other’s paths, dredging up some kind of muddy puddle – just like the city’s namesake! And I’m caught up in the flow of it all, like a little paper boat washed in from some distant shore, just whirling around (wheee!) in my little eddy. I only hope I won’t get crushed by some two-bit reviewer’s galoshes. (Pray for me!)

Last night I watched this play at The Actors Studio Bangsar called Five Letters from An Eastern Empire starring this actor called Edwin Sumun. You might have seen him in Spinning Gasing, that Teck Tan movie. He’s the tall one who wears make-up. No, he’s not as foppish in real life, although he can be a bit self-possessed. But he’s got a nice smile and can be quite friendly. And, oh yeah, he likes Kylie. I remember how you would put on ‘Shocked’ and dance around in your underwear. That was a whole load of fun. Ha ha ha…

Anyway, the play is adapted from a short story of the same name by that Scottish author Alasdair Gray. Do you remember him? He wrote that novel about that lesbian sculptor called Something Leather which I can recall you said you found interesting. Or maybe it could have been Auntie Theresa. Well, this story’s just as quirky. It’s about Bohu, an imperial poet in the service of this Emperor of some unspecified Empire; although it’s kind of based on those old Chinese or Persian dynasties, where the rulers employed poets to glorify their so-called achievements.

Just imagine: as the haunting introductory music (by Adeline Wong, that delightful composer who was featured in the MPO Malaysian Composers Forum earlier this year) ends, Sumun walks onto the stage (bare, except for a set that looks like a gazebo with a slide, above which looms a white disk onto which cryptic icons are projected). He is clad in flowing robes of burgundy and sulphur, and what looks to be a tight-fitting leather vest (very-the­-Dalai-Lama-meet-the-Gaultier).

Under minimal stage lights (rather uncommon for good old Mac Chan, that light tweaker!), Sumun indeed looks the part of Bohu. Although Bohu claims to be the “son of a corpse-handler,” you don’t really see any of that. That’s because it’s explained that he was picked by the Emperor’s men and groomed for many years (cue those scenes from Farewell My Concubine) to become the greatest tragic poet of the Empire, which is doubly ironic since Bohu lives in rather un-tragic circumstances and has yet to write his first poem. How can anyone call himself a poet if he hasn’t even written a couplet? I mean, it can’t be that hard, no? Not like brain surgery or changing tampons.

The Emperor, it seems, has it in his head that Bohu’s talents are so precious that he forbids the poet from wasting his words. Instead the Emperor tells Bohu to simply luxuriate in a walled garden complex, where the poet is temporarily housed while the Emperor builds his new palace in the new capital. In the garden, which you can imagine looks like some kind of Maharishi retreat, Bohu frets about boredly while fantasising of the day the Emperor would commission him to write an ode about the grandiosity of the new palace.

You can imagine how much damage a fretting poet can do to himself. (They didn’t have Astro or xanax in those days.) But not to worry. Not wanting to aggravate Bohu’s anxiety, the Emperor tells him to write letters to his parents in the old capital as a way to pass the time.

Hey, kind of like what I’m doing now, except I don’t really have an Emperor telling me what I can or can’t write. Instead, I get Pang (You remember him, don’t you? He was the one who used your laptop to surf porn! Yes, the one you liked!) hounding me to write reviews for Kakiseni.com. Have you been to the website yet? Some people say it’s become too queer and I guess that’s kind of true – I mean, there’s a bit more mincing than before. But all the better for it, you know. The world could do with a bit more mince.

Anyway, back to Bohu and his strange Empire. Bohu’s like some expensive exotic bird in a gilded cage – and although he kind of suspects it, feeling trapped and all in that garden (where he can order the birds to be silenced!), Bohu is proud of being the Emperor’s favourite poet.

The tone of Bohu’s letters – which harbours, in between its witticisms, melancholic grime – grow increasingly distressed as he’s hit with the double whammy realisation that his beloved Emperor is nothing more than a puppet controlled by government ministers and that his hometown, the old capital, has been destroyed – along with his family – in order to make way for the new. (Sumun does the Emperor quite well, BTW. Kinda reminds me of Bert on speed.)

And so, like someone who’s been told he has terminal VD, Bohu blooms into his tragic poet persona, drinking and smoking, lamenting the loss of his hometown and his wasted life – for which the Emperor gives Bohu permission to end as he wishes. But not before he produces the best and only poem of his life – about the destruction of the old capital, about the emperor’s cruelty.

Gray’s text is wholly amusing and full of drama. Sumun was talking about it before I saw the play and he went on and on about the beauty of the text and I must say I agree with him. It’s a meaty piece of allegorical fiction. And, as you know, allegories are kind of allegorical themselves: that they’re fictional truths. The truth lies in the illusion of the truth, and so forth (double mirror effects and all that).

And Five Letters is an allegory of deception: about the ways in which we are deceived by the powers that be, and how we succumb to that sort of thing by deceiving ourselves, in our ignorance, to be of service to ‘them’. I’ve always kind of wondered what happens to poet laureates, you know, how they are like celebrated conscripts of a propaganda war. The state uses them to legitimise its sovereignty, sometimes indirectly directing poets to skew the light of history to cast the atrocities of the establishment in a heroic light. Such information manipulation may be horrifying, but what’s even more horrifying is that people seem to lap it up, believing the lie not only without question but regarding it as true as God’s word (which, incidentally, is something only men can think up).

Of course, not all laureates are ass-kissers. Some of them are actually rather cool people, who do give a damn about the affairs of the real world and the fates of those who luxuriate in it. And they do write about the illusory carnage with conviction. Long since have we lauded the likes of Yeats, Neruda, Tagore and Ginsberg; soulful poets whose political convictions were not blindsided by the wiles of the bureaucratic monster. It is to such poets we are indebted. No matter how much the education department whores itself to service the ego of the empire, the poets always speak the truth, regardless of how much physical and mental torture they are subjected to.

But is there a worse deception? When the government actually encourages poetic dissidence as a way of maintaining status quo, that the worst and most truthful poetic ejaculations aimed at the beast actually improves its complexion. The idea may seem preposterous at first, but think about it. We actually hold a state in higher regard if it allows (and even endorses) antagonistic discourses. We netizens live comforted by the knowledge that, yes, we are afforded the luxury of information free flow. But when the freedom of speech is no different from the freedom of information manipulation, does truth still liberate? It’s like knowing deep down in your heart that Dubya must go, but then voting him back in anyway; because it’s better to have a self-professed idiot parasite as the boss.

(Burst of static interference noises.)

Whoa, Nelly! Where did that come from? Sorry, mum, I must have accidentally intercepted a message from Mars. I’m sure you know how crafty those Martians can be. (Snigger.)

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, I was sort of prattling on about the play. Anyway, while Bohu suffers at the hand of the Empire in more ways than one, the audience was made privy to the full extent of Sumun suffering at the hand of the entertainingly heavy tale.

Somehow, while Sumun’s portrayal of Bohu improved as the poet became more despondent (unintended irony), the adaptation of the story was far too woodenly straightforward to really hold much interest, and at 1 hour 45 minutes, you can imagine how anaesthetising it was – I kind of dozed off somewhere between the second and third letters. There were parts of the play that could have been truncated or better portrayed with action. As it was, Sumun relied too much on Gray’s torrent of words to conjure theatre magic – it didn’t happen.

Still, while Sumun’s performance and adaptation were flawed, I don’t think the play sank like lead as some might’ve wanted it to. Credit should be given to Sumun for his conviction to Gray’s text – even though that same conviction was most likely the cause of the play’s less than stellar outcome. What really baffles me, though, is the fact that the play had no less than four directors (including Sumun) at the helm – Zahim Albakri, Reza Zainal Abidin and Rohaizad Suaidi – all of whom are frequently mentioned in the same breath as Theatre Gods. Why none of these Four Heavenly Directors seemed to notice the play’s shortcomings are beyond me. Then again, maybe that’s why I’m not a director. Chuckle.

Anyway, isn’t it rather queer that Gray would have written something like Five Letters? It’s almost like a textbook case of Edward Said’s Orientalist discourse; the Occidental fascination with the exotic Oriental Other – like looking into a telescope, thinking you’re looking at some distant planet, but finding out that it’s actually trained on the backyard. But Five Letters is anything but textbook. It’s in fact, self-aware in its adoption and portrayal of the Other Empire. It’s the Empire of Fantasy creeping upon the Empire of Reality, like a shadow overtaking the one who casts it. Was not Bohu blind and ignorant, even as he received his moment of epiphany and delivered a ‘just’ verdict of history? He could not see that’s what the bastards wanted him to do in the first place.

Which brings to mind what Pang said: he thinks that the play missed out on being that much more powerful because Sumun failed to ground it, to go beyond the surface of the text’s fantasy façade to make a comment on Malaysian society and government. It would have made the play more interesting, at least, because there are parallels (albeit subtle) between what happens to Bohu and Malaysian writers who have been emasculated because they dared to suck on the government’s teats and wrote about the rancid milk – intellectual rigour in a neo-feudal capitalist society comes at a high price. Caused by the rising price of petrol, no less.

It’s hard, isn’t it, this whole art thing? Where does politicising stop and art begin? It seems there’s no way of separating the two, is there (like ‘dadu’ in ‘dadih’, or Mork and Mindy)? But artists, poets, writers, everyone should be able to see at least how the two must co-exist in an uneasy alliance – lest we allow ourselves to be victimised by the system we have sacrificed so much for. Forty seven years of Merdeka from what? The truth?

“The truth? You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Yours truly,


P.S. Please find enclosed an autographed copy of Jerome Kugan’s photo. I had to sleep with him to get it, OK. So show some gratitude and bake your son a pie.


Jerome Kugan is an imperial ghost writer.

First Published: 24.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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