Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Magic of Malaya by Cuthbert Woodville Harrison (1910)

Of the personage of Cuthbert Woodville Harrison I could find no concrete information, beyond his having authored books relating to Malaya (before a series of political and colonial reorganisations eventually lead to it becoming modern Malaysia), being the author of an oft-cited refference work, An illustrated guide to the Federated Malay States, and this, together with his name appearing on such works as Some notes on the government services in British Malaya and Council minutes, Perak, 1877-1879 leads one to believe Harrison was a colonial official within the Federation/Protectorate.

His The Magic of Malaya seems to be his only time turning to writing fiction, or at least partly fiction, and on the whole it is a more successfull attempt than those of many writers acquainted with the dull world of nonfiction stepping out uncertainly into the wilds of the romantic market.

The collection contains stories of life in Malaya, usually with a Colonial official holding at least three different posts fumbling about the grass somewhere. There are vignetes that, as they are written in the first person, seem likely to have been at least partly been inspired by real events, or at least had been made from the fabric of real events re-arranged differently. There is nothing that suggests anything out of the ordinary or unreal in tales such as Ah Heng, where a chinese settler takes a woman from a pleasure house to be his wife and very incrimentally increases the size of his land without having to pay extra for it. There is a tale of the inspection of the innards of a dead crocodile after it is suspected of having killed someone, a description (rather than a story, as it lacks any actual plot) of the transport of patients suffering from beri-beri to a remote hospital, and even a lengthy description of the journey undertaken by a Colonial official holding the customary three different offices of Chairman of the Sanitary Board, Collector of Land Revenue and District Officer on his route and the complaints, petitions and explanations given him along the way. None of these, excluding the last one, is very long, and there isn't much incident to relate. The Sinking of the Schooner has a former pirate recount his ambush on a well laden schooner, but that too is brief and cuts away just as the ship is shot for the first time.

Beyond these there are also several diversions which disperse with any trappings of fiction, such as a monologue on the ideal Malay servant, on the psychology of bullock cart drivers, or a summary of the various sieges and conquests within Malacca.

But then you have a short list of tales that actually not only count as fiction, but which are to be classed as supernatural. Pawang Helai, the first of these and the first tale of the collection is the best, dealing with the murder of a chinese peddlar at the hand of a native Sakai wizard who seemingly can change shape and call upon the help of other animals.

The Hallucinations of Mat Palembang follows the title character as he himself follows his dead father up a tree to eat with all his dead relatives, and is also rather impressive in it's description.

Finally, the oddest of the bunch is The Room of the Captain. It doesn't concern Malayans or Malaya, is the only story taking place onboard a ship, and has a MacKenzie, an old, presumabely British sailor as the protagonist. Now he gets promoted to the position of captain after many years of anticipation in a most unusual way: the old Captain simply vanishes without a trace. This sets the crew a-talking and there is some uneasiness about the ship. But MacKenzie keeps getting startled by an inexplicable puddle forming next to the former captain's bed and every night he feels more and more of a tight hold on his shoulder and can more and more clearly hear someone talking to him at night. But no one is ever there and his nerves are always unsettled, until he is forced to clean up the wet stains himself so the crew won't notice, anticipating that each night the situation will get worse after he hears the old Captain ordering him to do something, until.....

And that's where the whole build-up of the story is jettisoned, as Harrison has MacKenzie retire to his old quarters, refuse the Captainship and has the new Captain never run into any perril. The reason for the dead Captain's disdain for MacKenzie's leadership is never explained, nor what actually happened to the former Captain.

If anything, that is probably the biggest disappointment of the book, one can feel that in more capable hands the story would continue onwards and perhaps leave off with a more unpleasant end for the stand-in Captain and his shipmates, but alas.

Now Harrison's writing does include some arrogant gibes at Chinese and Malays alike, written from a colonial perspective and that may irritate the modern reader, though there are a few interesting bits and pieces scattered about the book that may be worth the time.

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