Singapore Adventure

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Long Day Wanes
by venitha

Of the many books set in southeast Asia that I read before setting myself here, ' Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, is the one that looms seductively in my mind. Other excellent and compelling books are somehow impossible to reconcile with the modern day: The Singapore Grip, set during World War II, and even my latest favorite, The Things They Carried, a haunting American memoir of the Vietnam War.

But The Long Day Wanes, its forehead-mopping heat, its shoulder-shrugging futility, its lounge-in-bed-all-day melancholy, struck a chord deep within me, and its utter inescapable truth wafts provocatively through Singapore. Scenes from it whisper, lines from it beckon, thoughts from it caress; for six months, I have almost, but not quite, snatched quotes out of the thick air.

I cursed my imperfect memory and searched the library's catalog to no avail. Even the enormous and glitzy Borders on Orchard Road could not accommodate me - Sorry, lah - without an exorbitant order fee. Still Burgess teased and taunted, pulsed and throbbed, and like a tiger, lay in wait. In the dusty loft of a used bookstore run by an American in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I was surprisingly unsurprised to unearth from disheveled shelves this brilliant book written by a Brit and set in pre-independence Malaya.

I re-read the first book of the trilogy, Time for a Tiger, almost immediately, underlining and starring, boldly jotting in the margins of my pre-dog-eared copy, which will surely live on my bed's headboard bookshelf for the rest of my life in Singapore, if not beyond. I'm not the kind of person who re-reads books, or for that matter, keeps them, so this is both a distinct compliment and a decadent treat, even more delicious now because I understand all of the book's elementary Malay.

How did I love this book so well, how did it etch itself so deeply in my mind, before I knew it to be so true?

The following are my favorite quotes:
The humidity could be blamed for many things: the need for a siesta, corpulence, the use of the car for a hundred-yard journey, the mildew on the shoes, the sweat-rot in the armpits of dresses, the lost bridge-rubber or tennis-set, the dislike felt for the whole country.

He had found the Malay term Tida' apa useful when she spoke like that. Tida' apa meant so much more than It doesn't matter or Who cares?. There was something indefinable and satisfying about it, implying that the universe would carry on, the sun shine, the durians fall whatever she, or anybody else, said or did.

Again he felt hopeless. This was the East. Logic was a Western importation which, unlike films and refrigerators, had a small market.

As she made up her face, cursing the sweat that clogged the powder, she was sick for London, coolly making up for a dance in the evening, or for the ballet, or for a concert. Civilization is only possible in a temperate zone.