Four from Brunei

Hi folks! It’s time for my roughly annual blog post about obscure books that you have never read and probably never will read that have nothing in common except a loose association with one particular country (in this case, the Sultanate of Brunei)!

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I read four books from Brunei, which was, in this case, both too much and not enough. I don’t think I really got much of a feel for the country, but then again, these books were just barely readable. In order of enjoyment (from most to least), here they are:

Written in Black, K.H. Lim, 2014

  • Brunei, #5
  • Borrowed from Berkeley public library
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 3/5
  • This was far and away the best book I read from Brunei. It takes place almost entirely among the Chinese community of Brunei, and feels like it takes place in a completely different country than the other modern novels on this list (both of which are written by members of Brunei’s Muslim majority). Its protagonist Jonathan, a young child who cannot figure out why his mother suddenly moved to Australia and seems unwilling to talk to him, among all his siblings, when she calls (spoiler: this mystery is never cleared up in any way), ditches his grandfather’s funeral to search the country for his older brother. The cover shows a picture of a kid rowing a coffin down a river, and the description says that he “escapes in an empty coffin” so I was looking forward to a surreal Heart of Darkness style journey but, disappointingly, the empty coffin in which Jonathan stows away is actually in the back of a van, and there is no coffin boat trip at any point.

The Forlorn Adventure, Amir Falique, 2013

  • Brunei, #4
  • Hardback, $4.30 from Amazon
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 2/5
  • A creative premise, but unfortunately this book reads as if it were written by someone who has never had an actual conversation with a human being before. It was fun to read just because it is so utterly preposterous. A’jon Emir, a Bruneian computer programmer, has been chosen to join a manned space flight to install some software. In space. This might be because he wrote the software that needs to be installed, or it might be because Brunei is literally the last country on earth to send a person into space; both explanations are offered. While he is in space (after completing an extremely abbreviated training program, which for some reason includes a wilderness survival course in the Arctic), a world war breaks out on Earth, the ship is almost hit by a missile, A’jon accidentelly gets stabbed in the heart with a free-floating knife, and his shipmates decide to stick him in the handy cryogenic freezer they have on board in the hopes that he can be resuscitated and healed when the war ends and it’s safe to return to Earth. And that’s just the set-up.

A Decade in Borneo, Ada Pryer

Generally I hate to start off with a book by a colonizer, but this seemed to be my only option for getting a glimpse into 19th century Brunei. It was dry in the way these early travelogues often are, but offered some fairly fascinating descriptions of the edible birds nest industry, as well as heartbreaking depictions of the diversity and abundance of wildlife on the island before Europeans came along and wrecked everything. I have a separate post on this book, so I’ll put it up sometime soon.

Jewel: A Sweet Romance, Aisha Malik, 2017

  • Brunei, #6
  • Kindle edition, $2.99
  • Read January 2019
  • Rating: 2.5/5

Oh this one made me so mad. I found it chauvinistic, improbable, and totally lacking in insight. Yasmin, an independent, smart, driven Eurasian girl falls in love with a fellow college student who turns out to be a prince of the realm, third in line to the throne. He falls in love with her too, but he can’t marry–or even confess his love for her–because she’s not Muslim and he doesn’t think it’s fair to ask her to convert. Luckily for everyone there’s a literal deus ex machina, because Yasmin is in a car crash and somehow spontaneously becomes a Muslim, despite no apparent previous exposure to Islam (it’s mentioned that she’s been “reading” while in the hospital; and sure, people sometimes find god after a near-death experience, but the whole thing just struck me as oddly, improbably specific). Then there’s a lot of lowering of eyes and covering of skin (on both sides, to be fair) and they all live happily every after. Look, romance isn’t really my jam so maybe I don’t have enough practice suspending my disbelief in this context, but even in the most wild sci-fi epic I like the characters to act the way people act, and I just didn’t believe this one for even a minute.

Overall these books from Brunei gave me the impression of a peaceful tropical country, where most people are Malay or Eurasian and everyone reveres the sultan. I don’t know if it was just the books I happened to read, but there was an innocence about them that was kind of sweet. I can’t remember why I decided not to read Time and the River, a memoir/history by a member of Brunei’s royal family, but maybe it would have been interesting to get a bit more about Brunei’s history and politics; as it was I jumped from the 19th century to the 21st and thus missed quite a bit of context.

Some Changes to the List

I’m always making changes to my great master list, and I thought perhaps you guys might be interested in an update. First, a fellow blogger suggested Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound for my Indonesian list. I love it (though I did find it problematic in some ways, which I will write about when I get to that blog post) and it made me worried that my methodology was unsound, since I had read a bunch of not-very-good Indonesian books, and had somehow missed that one. Kurniawan was on the Booker International longlist for another work, Man Tiger, so I thought perhaps adding all Booker nominees to my list would be a good start. I am also increasingly concerned about gender parity, so I’ve been trying to adjust my lists a little to make sure I have, wherever possible, equal numbers of male and female authors. Additions and subtractions are detailed below. Continue reading