Review: Dongeng by Anna Tan

Dongeng[This review contains spoilers]


By Anna Tan

Publisher: Pronoun, 214 pages

The prelude to Dongeng by Anna Tan sets the scene and fulfils the promise of the book’s title: This is a story set in the world of fairytales. Sang Kancil makes a brief appearance, confirming that, as the title suggests, the fairytales will be those of the Malay world.

The title also seems to remind us that the world we are about to enter, via the story, is an imaginary one. While we may be expected to suspend our disbelief as we immerse ourselves in Tan’s words, the title stresses that this is a fairy story. Or is it? Certainly, as I read more, I began to see that the book’s title might allude to the doubt and skepticism felt by the novel’s protagonist about what she encounters. Indeed, the title seems also to cheekily reference the reader’s own assumptions that the story being told is pure fantasy.

‘Chapter One’ plunges us into the thick of things: Sara, the protagonist, finds herself in the middle of a forest, on a moss-covered dais no less. A city girl, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, she is immediately aware that something really odd is afoot, and so, one of her first observations is that her handbag has travelled to the forest with her and that nothing in it has gone missing — as it would be inconvenient to have to apply for a new identity card and cancel her credit card. This response is rather incongruous, but not entirely implausible, I suppose, considering how traumatised Sara must be to find herself whisked away to another world.

For those of us interested in Malay folklore and mythology, it’s obvious that Sara has been kidnapped by Orang Bunian. However, this chapter establishes a few things about the character, including that, for a Malaysian, her ability to speak Malay is shockingly poor (she struggles with ‘terima kasih’, a phrase that trips off even the most redneck American tourists’ tongues. However, she inconsistently offers to play Malay-to-English translator later on), her knowledge of myths is Eurocentric.

In fact, Sara’s responses to her kidnappers shows just how colonised her mind is. She thinks that the forest folk are ‘beautiful’, and this translates to describing them as Pan-Asian, which, although it suggests an appearance that incorporates various types of Asian features, has come to be associated with the half-white models favoured by the casting directors at Asian television and print ad agencies. Furthermore, Sara later tells her friend that the Bunian are ‘almost Malay. But very good-looking’ as if the two things are mutually exclusive.

So, what do the Bunian want with Sara? They explain that they have been forgotten by the people of Malaysia, so much so that they have ‘faded’, practically out of existence. Thus, the Bunian need Sara to revive their stories — tell them into being again.

Sara’s response is hasty and abrupt. She flat-out refuses to entertain their requests, declaring that she must be dreaming. The King and Queen of the Bunian are disgusted by the young woman’s disbelief and dismissal and promptly disappear. Frankly, I can relate to their annoyance even if I feel they should have tried harder, told her more, and not have expected immediate understanding and agreement. However, Sara must seem like an irritating child to these ancient beings. They call her a Penglipur Lara, but for a storyteller, she seems strangely apathetic about this adventure she’s in.

And here’s the thing — although Sara’s status as a storyteller keeps being mentioned, the reader is not told why she is seen as one. She doesn’t seem to be a writer by profession (apparently she’s a clerk who ‘file[s] papers) and we don’t see her writing on the side, as a hobby, or aspiring to be published. At one point, she says that storytelling has got her in trouble in the past and her love interest, Helmi, responds by declaring that Sara has a way with words. Neither statement is expanded on though, and it’s never made clear (to me), why Sara, of all people, is the ideal candidate for the job the Bunian have in mind.

I feel that one of Dongeng’s biggest flaws is that Sara is not a fully-fleshed out character. We never learn much about her apart from the fact that she loves European fairytales (even then, her knowledge of them seems patchy). The chief problem is that her character is never fully developed.

Personally, I prefer character-driven stories and for some reason I thought this book would be a coming-of-age tale incorporating and examining attitudes towards local myths and how they are less celebrated than European ones; the search for identity; and the conflict between various worlds: the Malay and European; the supernatural beliefs and beings of the West and the East; the old ways and the new; Sara’s and Helmi’s different ethnicities and upbringing.

I think these themes could have been explored through Sara’s own struggle to learn about the Malay supernatural world and reconcile her ignorance of a culture physically close to her, while identifying and sympathising with one that is foreign.

Interestingly, when she eventually agrees to help the Bunian, her chief worry is that, in telling Malay folktales and myths, she will be appropriating a culture and stories that are not her’s.

‘We are not Americans to be worried about such things,’ replies Garuda, the first time Sara raises the issue, and I thought this was an excellent way to begin an exploration of cultural appropriation, and why most Malaysians either don’t see it as a problem, or don’t understand what it means in the first place.

Unfortunately, although some excellent points about privilege, ally-ship and advocacy are raised in the exchanges that are a result of Sara voicing her concerns, the discussions are too superficial and brief to offer any satisfactory answers. They do, however, present some food for thought: Can non-Malay Malaysians claim ownership of stories set in these lands? Why do we feel more affinity to European myths than Malayan ones? Is it purely a case of familiarity, and is greater exposure the solution?

Apart from these very relevant questions, there are also those that Dongeng’s overall premise provoked me to ponder: questions about identity, otherness and belonging, and even colonialism and racism. But, once again, the story provides no meat to chew on, just a whiff of a rich gumbo of ideas and issues, stirred, but, frustratingly, not dished up.

For example, I feel that Sara’s race is significant, as is Helmi’s. She mentions not being wanted, being excluded and being a stranger in her ‘own’ land. So, claiming ownership is not actually what this Chinese girl is worried about. Sara knows where she belongs. The real difficulty, the frustration, is getting others to acknowledge it too. And then there is the fear, the vulnerability, the desire to be accepted. When Helmi declares his feelings for her, it’s like affirmation. If only he spoke for the country too.

So, although Sara’s quest and what stands in the way of her completing it is quite clear; and although I can imagine a rich rendering of Sara’s personal journey and how her attitude, expectations, decisions and actions might shape events and, in turn, be shaped by them, what we get instead is something frustratingly vague, hurried and unconsidered.

On the whole, Dongeng seems rushed and even unplanned. Scenes and plot points are undeveloped, left hanging, or are alluded to but not explained. For instance, there’s the idea that Sara, just by being present in the alam dongeng, causes it to attach itself to the European ‘fairy kingdom’? The concept of different mythological universes annexing themselves to the European one is interesting, but there’s no convincing explanation as to why this happens. Personally, I think it’s just a convenient device to introduce Western mythological beings into the story, and I bristle at the idea of alam dongeng being seen as secondary to the European mythological world. Also, why are Inuit myths not considered worthy of a universe of their own? And why should centaurs lord it over at a trial held at the Bunian court? Sang Kancil speaks of the European mythological world as ‘old and well-established’, ‘strong and powerful’, but is it necessarily older, stronger or more established than other mythological worlds based in the Asian, African and American continents?

Sara is, ostensibly, the hero of Dongeng, but turns out to be a red herring. For magical beings, the Bunian seem shockingly incompetent in their selection of a ‘saviour’, but it seems to me that it’s the author who’s to blame for saddling alam dongeng with someone so ineffectual. If I’d edited this book, I’d have suggested that Sara be re-written, or else removed entirely.

As it turns out, although she is not the book’s ‘chosen one’, she is linked to the person who has the knowledge and will to save alam dongeng, but is unwelcome in that world. His story and Sara’s do not fit together well — it’s not that their agendas are different; it’s that he has one, but she hasn’t. Thus, what we have is mostly a story that meanders along without clear direction thanks to an ignorant, indifferent misery guts of a character who wets her pants at the mere mention of elves. As for the book’s true champion, he’s too much of an after-thought to save the story.

Dongeng needs a tighter plot and characters with better personalities and more purpose. Anna Tan, please get yourself a good editor.

This honest review was written in exchange for a free e-book provided by Story Cartel.

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