Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (author), Nazry Bahrawi (translator), Lost Nostalgia, Ethos Books, 2017. 200 pgs.
One of modernity’s defining conditions has been the persistence of nostalgia. As its pre-modern Greek roots reveal, it is a longing to return home, a spatial and temporal homesickness that frequently manifests itself individually and at times collectively. In this search for home—however constructed or misconstrued—there is a turning away from contemporary experience, a sense of estrangement in which the past is made present through memory. And yet if we agree with Svetlana Boym’s assessment that the twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia, then what would it mean to have lost that sense of nostalgia?
In his short story collection Lost Nostalgia, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed explores the many challenges facing individuals unmoored by the swift currents of modernity, especially as these challenges relate to ethnic Malay minority culture and identity in post-independence Singapore. Variously poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist and essayist, the prolific Latiff is regarded as one of his country’s most important writers in part for his commitment to social justice on behalf of his fellow ethnic Malays. The present collection brings together twenty-one of his short stories, many of which bear one-word descriptive titles, and none of which run longer than ten pages in length. Such an economy of style surely reflects Latiff’s background as a poet, and the imagery and narratives that he employs are by turns grotesque, provocative, phantasmagoric and prosaic.
In “Creepy Crawlies” swarms of ants and flies blanket the story’s passive Muslim protagonist, as he silently bears witness to his body’s gradual invasion, his mind’s mute talk (to borrow a wonderful phrase from an Eleanor Goodman poem) teetering between reality and “ghastly fantasy.” Elsewhere in a story such as “The Slip” people in an unnamed district gradually and irreversibly lose their physical foothold: “Everyone is obsessed with one thing—slipping. From the newborn to people who are dying, this preoccupation and fear is on their minds. They have slipped. They are slipping.” In “Carcass,” a poor student, Dollah, walks along the banks of a putrid river with his more privileged friends, who spot a bloated pig’s carcass floating downstream. They throw stones, strike open its upturned belly, and stage a swimming contest to the other side. Of the three boys, only Dollah fails to make it to the other side, slipping into the festering river’s oblivion—”nowhere to be seen.” Indifferent and often unexpected—death, it seems, has an uncanny way of quickening consciousness.
In the collection’s opening stories “Rats” and “Bovine,” the amalgamation of animal and human life is used with great political effect as anthropomorphised cattle and rodents struggle to free themselves from the burden of human subjugation. In the former, a group of rats convene around their leader, but it is the persuasive rhetoric of a female—Mother Mondok—that reverberates beyond Latiff’s pages, urging his readers to reconsider essentialising attitudes towards underprivileged minorities. In the latter, a male and female cow manage to unshackle themselves from their human overseers and set out in search of Pancasona, a joyous, idyllic utopian world in which cows are revered. Accompanied by herd upon herd “whose members decided to join their march to freedom,” the two cows soon morph into thousands of “thundering hooves.” Chaos ensues with many human deaths leading to many more cow deaths, and yet “a few [cows] manage to escape the brutal backlash” as they rushed breathlessly forward to their collective utopia. This is less l’art pour l’art, and more art for the sake of life.
Despite the snapshot concision of his prose as well as his localised concerns of space and place for ethnic Malay minorities, Latiff’s pronounced commitment to the vagaries of chance, uncertainty, fear and fate mark him as a keen observer of the human condition. After all, his stories are the stories of our collective experiences, stories of ambition and conflict, technology and freedom, religion and politics, love, disability and, ultimately, death. If he has lost the modern understanding of nostalgia, then he has managed to replace it with what Boym has described as the “off-modern,” and his prose beckons us off the beaten path and into the back alleys and side streets of history and progress. In the collection’s eponymous story, which follows “Rats” and “Bovine,” a native-born Malay returns to Singapore after years of living abroad in England, only to feel out of step with his country’s breakneck transformation, as if “suffering from the grave loss of something amorphous. Something no words could capture.” This sense of lost nostalgia can be found in Latiff’s poetry, too. Take, for example, the poem “Dreams”:
The city is in heavy slumber
silent and still
now I begin to visualise
my dreams in the air:
———–first, as a wild wolf
———–I howl down all woes
second, for a nostalgia
to be young with you
in moments of beauty and love
———–third, for my own dreams
———–those lingering in the shades of the sun
fourth, for a dream yet to come
to clear all oppression away
———–my dreams are too high
———–even for the sky
the sky is in a mist
the earth also missing
and my dreams shatter
the hands of life.
Here, as in his stories, Latiff readily embraces the deeply felt human need for individual and collective nostalgia, while nevertheless critiquing the tendency to dwell too long in its idealising light. It is, after all, but one step among many along a journey in search of a home that in many in ways no longer exists. Ever attuned to how likely and how often people’s “dreams shatter / in the hands of life,” Latiff’s fiction urges his readers to avoid the stasis of nostalgia’s sentimentalism in favour of confronting society’s many shortcomings (in his case, the inter-ethnic tensions, among other things, within Singaporean society). In his translator’s afterword, Nazry Bahrawi emphasises, “Writing from Singapore, Latiff brings to bear the unique experience of life as an ethnic Malay minority in a region largely made up of Malay majority states.” And yet Latiff’s writing seems so compelling because there is something of the impersonal in it. As Bahrawi writes of Latiff in his very next sentence, “There is much that his narratives can offer the world.”
Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. His writing on Asian literature and music has been appeared in The Guardian, South China Morning Post, and Asian Review of Books. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD in German Studies and an MA in English Literature from the University of Warwick (UK).