Tag Archives: michel houellebecq

Outsiders on the SEAN: Depictions of Southeast Asia in Western fiction

22 Mar

Southeast Asia has been inspiring Western writers for hundreds of years. As the region has changed socially and politically, so the themes and concerns of its fictions have altered. From John Dryden to Alex Garland, Joan Didion to Joseph Conrad, the canon is too diverse to sum up in the space of an article this length, but we shall try.

In the early modern period, Europeans had a false conception of Southeast Asia as a land of permissiveness, exoticism and extravagance. However, he Portuguese adventurer, Fernao Mendes Pinto, found the people of Malacca, Patani, Sumatra, Aceh and Siam (now Thailand) not to be like this. Instead, he decided they were more tolerant, charitable and respectful than his fellow Westerners whom he castigated for their greed and violence. Even so, after resisting pirates in the South China Sea, he became one himself. These experiences are fictionalised in Peregrinacao, published in 1614 after his death.

John Dryden’s 1699 play, Amboyna, concerns the real-life slaughter of English traders by Dutch soldiers on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Writing at the beginning of the colonial era, Dryden portrayed the indigenes less charitably than Pinto, as one-dimensional, animal-like beings. The play was poorly received.

Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler’s 1689 Baroque adventure, Banise the Asiatic, is set in southern Myanmar and uses travelogues written by Pinto as source material. In a rousing, happy ending, the hero, Banise, successfully defends the Pegu Empire from conquest by the evil tyrant Chaumigrem. In real life quite the opposite happened.

Dryden’s and Ziegler’s oversights are partly explained by the historians Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush’s observation that ‘no piece of South or East Asian fiction was available in a Western language until the eighteenth century’. This somewhat precluded Westerners from fully understanding and writing validly about Oriental culture.

By the late 1800s, novels were addressing Western colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric, albeit in contradictory ways. William Carlton Dawe’s Hong Kong-based potboilers The Mandarin (1899) and The Yellow Man (1900) may have been attacked by contemporary critics for being ‘unpatriotic’, but there’s an ethnocentric streak to his characterisations. The non-white men are amoral and vicious, the women exotic but unattainable. Dawe warns against interracial relationships (‘the love of the white for the yellow’) while salaciously describing it. Jack Curzon, or, Mysterious Manila (1898), by the American author Clavering Gunter, is also full of derring-do but set in The Philippines. Published in the same year that the United States wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, the novel has an undertone of American supremacism to it, not to say an unflattering take on the indigenes. As a contemporary reviewer put it, ‘an important part is also played by a semi-civilised Tagal native, who possesses in common with all his kind, so the writer assures us, a sense of smell equal to that of a bloodhound.’

The colonial adventure genre reaches its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s series of novels set in the Malay Archipelago. The first, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), is about a Dutch trader in Borneo whose marriage to a half-caste girl is as disastrous as his harebrained schemes to make money. Lord Jim (1900) begins with a young British sailor abandoning a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from the Malay states. Jim redeems himself as a raja-style ruler of a fictional island in the South Seas, winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants by defeating the tribal king Tunku Allang. This may seem like a thinly-disguised celebration of colonialism, but Conrad’s outlook is more complex than that. Both Almayer and Jim are flawed antiheroes with questionable pasts and who symbolise misgivings about the legitimacy of the imperial project.

The twentieth century was perhaps the most eventful in the history of the SEAN. A World War, a Cold War, decolonisation and revolution all appear in Western novels of the era, many of which cast a sympathetic eye over their subject matter. Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell tells of a British police officer in Myanmar with an affection for the native culture and a distaste for the colonial administration he works for. Just as Orwell learned the language during his time in Myanmar, so Anthony Burgess became fluent in Malay while working as a teacher during the Emergency. He conducted painstaking research into its history and culture for his Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), intending to become ‘the true fictional expert on Malaya’. Graham Greene’s early Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) seeks to understand the Vietminh while critiquing American CIA intervention in the country. Greene was appalled when a slushy Hollywood adaptation of the novel tried to graft a pro-American, anti-Communist message onto it. In a comparable vein, Joan Didion’s cleverly experimental Democracy (1984) exposes the profoundly anti-democratic policies of the US in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Of all the Western novels about the Pacific World War II, James Clavell’s King Rat (1962) is perhaps the darkest. Based on the author’s incarceration in Singapore’s Changi Prison, the novel shocks with its representation of the squalid conditions, the barbarism of the Japanese guards and the Darwinian rivalry between the POWs themselves.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has come to occupy a different space in the Western psyche, as a tourist destination affording pleasures and experiences unavailable at home. The biggest-selling novel to engage with this is of course The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland. Richard is a seasoned backpacker in search of an authentic, off the beaten track experience in Thailand. His discovery of an idyllic beach commune comes at the price of his own descent into madness and murder. Described as ‘Generation X’s first great novel’, The Beach is ultimately a meditation on how our perception of reality is mediated by so many fictions, from videogames to movies to commercial tourism itself. Also set in Thailand, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Platform (2001) addresses the behaviour of Western sex tourists in Pattaya and other such resorts.

Southeast Asian society has changed radically over the years. Western fiction has tried to keep up with those changes, sometimes getting its depictions right, sometimes wrong. We can’t predict what the novels of the future will be like, but we can be sure that the region will continue to feed the Western imagination.

First published in Quill, 2011