Ian Tan on storytelling, loss and the promise of imagination.
Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Lost Nostalgia (Ethos Books, 2017), 198 pp.
In his essay The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, philosopher Walter Benjamin presents the reader with an arresting image of the storyteller: “His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.” Proceeding not from an alienated mode of discourse, which sacrifices authenticity for aesthetic artifice, the storyteller uses narrative to distil the essence of life as lived and suffered by him. The act of storytelling cannot be divorced from the joy and burden of experience as it presses upon the storyteller in the form of his tale; indeed, the story becomes transmissible at the moment when his words body forth a difficult yet necessary understanding of the relationship between narrative and existence, literature and life. In this act, teller and listener are brought together by the proximity of an irreplaceable, unreproducible event, for no act of storytelling leaves speaker and hearer unchanged by the experience. Benjamin stresses the connection between spirituality and physicality inherent in the momentum the storyteller accrues not only by the significance of the tale, but also in the very act of telling: “with these words [of the story], soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection.” The art of storytelling thus signifies a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in which the impulses of theatre, music and literature are wedded to one another, and where the storyteller cannot be separated from the aesthetics and morality of his tale. To paraphrase from “Among School Children,” William Butler Yeats’ great poem of the artistic transfiguration of existence, nobody can tell the dancer from the dance.
The stories in Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s collection Lost Nostalgia amply evince the author’s fashioning of himself as a storyteller in the Benjaminian vein. They are dominated by a central speaking voice, which seems to channel, through the narratives, a distinctively personal vision of the clash between tradition and modernity imaged through the juxtaposition between transitional landscapes and the need for transcendental values. “Lost Nostalgia” takes up this conflict directly through the cynical responses of the narrator’s brother to the erosion of Malay culture in exchange for “speak[ing] the language of progress.” Personal bitterness over lost love is mixed with a larger disillusionment over the possibility of the survival of spirituality in a Singapore given over to reinventing itself. Latiff convincingly evokes the vexed position of the émigré through his impassioned speeches that not only refract the ambivalent response to reified cultural identity common to Singaporean literature, but also become self-reflexive meditations on the relationships which inhere between the individual and his larger community. Elsewhere, Latiff pointedly takes up the question of the role of the writer and whether his art has a restorative or destructive effect on those around him – in “Literati,” the self-loathing of the artist-figure in relation to Western writers betokens a crippling anxiety about the place of Malay literature in a world dominated by soulless commercialisation, and the galling inhumanity of the writer in trying to disengage his writing from the bodily sufferings of his lover is given full expression in “The Last Letter.” It would thus seem that Latiff envisions these stories as performative (re)enactments of the storyteller’s deeply personal investment in questions of culture, identity and belief. Indeed, most of the stories begin in media res, as if the writer solicits his reader into a shared world of characters and narrative situations which become the latter’s concerns through the sharing of the storyteller’s experiences. If Latiff’s accent is not on intricacies of plotting and determined resolutions, but on characters who reveal their intellects and emotions through talking, this signifies the storyteller’s understanding that it is the truth of the story enacted and developed in the process of telling, which guarantees the conditions for narrative communicability to happen.
However, if Latiff’s stories espouse his implicit faith in the narrative to achieve moments of shared vision between author and reader, they are also underpinned by an ineluctable sense of loss and displacement. Perhaps another reason why these stories eschew straightforward linear momentum in favour of revealing mood is that Latiff’s dominant rhetorical mood in Lost Nostalgia is elegiac. Loss cuts through many of the stories in the collection, from the banal melancholy of separated lovers in “K-Love,” loss of faith in relationships measured against selfishness in the ironically-titled “Sweet Home,” to the destruction of home and its debilitating effects in “Ibu” and “Vanished.” The barely concealed hostility, mistrust and antagonism which underlies the interactions of many of the characters in the stories is predicated upon the awareness that something precious, which is crucial in determining identity and a person’s place in the world, has been irrevocably lost, or at least is in danger of being lost. The impact and consequences of loss are emphasized through Latiff’s characters who struggle to come to terms with the reality of displacement, whether it be the disgruntled student Yati in “Scholars” or the older figures of Cikgu Arif or Pak Tasrif. Indeed, so pervasive is this sense of the evanescent and transient that Lost Nostalgia can be read as a collective lament for ways of being and living which have vanished without anything satisfactory compensating for the void left by their disappearance. At his most nihilistic, Latiff dares to imagine the disappearance of God in stories like “Computer” and “A Friend in Need,” which dooms Man to cope with a cold and mechanistic view of the universe in which fate is determined by computer codes and the blind processes of Nature. Here, as well as elsewhere in the collection, Latiff’s scepticism combines with his imaginative reach to suggest the contours of a Thomas Hardy-esque worldview, where human idealism and striving come up tragically against larger forces that ceaselessly frustrate and negate them.
Benjamin writes that the true source of authority from which the storyteller is able to transmute his experience into narrative form springs from life’s dialectical Other, which is death. Seen in this light, Latiff’s focus on loss and emptiness is taken to its extreme in his concentration on death and the process of dying. This dark impulse forms the basis of an extraordinary story in the collection entitled “Creepy Crawlies.” In it, the nameless narrator is relentlessly assailed by insects such as ants and flies which slowly destroy the integrity of his mind and body. Latiff evokes repellent images of the flies “manag[ing] to submerge [themselves] into [the narrator’s] wound” to emphasise the utter passivity of the physical body to corruption and degradation. This leads to a frenzied questioning about the boundaries of the self, and how the abject quality of the images associated with disintegration ironically confirms the uniqueness of the individual:
I am unsure if my own rights have been violated. Has my existence as a human being been sullied? Perhaps they exist to prove I exist? What other explanation can there be? Should I continue sharing my sustenance with them? At which point so they go about their ways, and I mine? Is it destiny that my very body is to be their sustenance? What other explanations can there be? Do they exist to prove I exist?
It is this morbid economy of parasitic consumption that functions as a metaphor for characters in the other stories whose beliefs and values systems are slowly being eroded by the forces of time and change. Latiff exposes the scabs of the collective consciousness, exploring the trauma behind the festering wounds of the isolated self who is forced to cope in a world defined by anomie and alienation. What is more astonishing about “Creepy Crawlies,” however, is the political inflection Latiff brings to the conclusion of the story, by seeing the decaying body of the narrator as “the symbol of a Muslim repelled by his own image.” If Fredric Jameson is right to read postcolonial literatures as allegories of national consciousness, the acerbic nature of Latiff’s analogy between self-loathing and cultural self-image betokens a critical look at how, to quote from William Blake’s poem “London,” the manacles enslaving the mind of his people are indeed self-forged. It is perhaps only in the extremity of a death-like experience that the seeds of political awakening can be sown.
The sobering truth of this assertion is most strikingly demonstrated in Latiff’s animal-tales, “Rats” and “Bovine,” which open the collection. In the philosophy of Hegel, the world of objects of desire is opened up by the struggle between two consciousnesses who ironically affirm each other’s intersubjective experience in the fight to claim possession of these objects. This awareness is suppressed in the master consciousness that emerges the victor in this fight, due to his enslaving of the slave who is the victim of the struggle. The rats and cows in the stories struggle not only with the desire for recognition from their human masters, but also with how they have been ideologically conditioned to view themselves as servile and grovelling. Latiff’s use of anthropomorphism thus signifies how the animals (and by extension the disenfranchised and marginalised) grapple with the birth of a nascent consciousness ready to transcend the conditions of its existence, underlined in “Bovine” by a utopian state of being. To read Latiff politically is to recognise the revolutionary potential inherent in a collective able to imagine and narrate alternative possibilities for living and creating. What the storyteller passes on to his listeners must not only be the wisdom gained from a lifetime, but ways of understanding and interpretation which enables them to read the present moment not just critically, but with a utopian impulse. This is the kernel of Benjamin’s Messianic consciousness, which sees the events of history as doorways into which the revolutionary spirit breathes its life. By entrusting his text to the translator Nazry Bahrawi, Latiff’s experience and vision of life becomes the translator’s own, which in turn becomes ours in the act of reading. Lost Nostalgia thus ultimately reveals that the absence at the centre of its vision is the necessary precursor to conceptualizing the ideal which draws us onwards in its promise of a deferred yet-to-come.
Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Eunoia Junior College. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film and literature have been published in the journals Literary Imagination, Studies in European Cinema, Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has written two student guidebooks on Literature texts and has won the Inspiring Teacher of English Award, a nationwide award given to outstanding teachers of Literature.