I probably don’t belong in the set enamoured by this Malay modern classics. But I could blame it to the nature of this version I’m reading because the English translation from the 70s nearly made it unreadable. And I choose that edition because some ten years ago, my malay language teacher recommended the book to me and pointed exactly on how it was well received outside Malaysia due to the English translation and I’ve been trying to find this exact edition for ten years now. But as disappointment goes, I finally could say I beg to differ. Also I probably need to read the Malay version too but I doubt that would make any difference.
Since the book was considerably famous and the most memorable book by A Samad Said, I do think some probably based their knowledge on city living by this book. Now I know who to blame this stereotypical way of Malay perspective on city folks. The book set around the aftermath of the war in a small village or a squatter settlement in Singapore. Despite the one name novel, “Salina”, it isn’t only about the character Salina. There was the man named Abdul Fakar who lived with Salina in somewhat scandalously as they’re not married and he being unemployed and lived purely on her living as an escort of sorts and also an abusive man. There’s also her neighbours Zarina who Salina often turn to guidance and Zarina’s grown children, Hilmi who Salina taken as a young brother and Nahidah who was forced to start a living as a waitress in a world full with lusty men trying to take advantage of the innocents. There’s also Sunarto who had an almost similar characterizations to Abdul Fakar. The Haji Karman who acted as the religious voice among the social depravities in the novel and often being seen as a one-dimensional hypocrite character who see the world as black and white.
One part a social drama and a part social commentary, one of the most interesting aspect of “Salina” that made it popular for more than half a century was that it transcend through times with its moral caricature on it’s characters. In a way, through the characters, readers could feel some form of realism and surprisingly, feminist elements. Despite being similar to the french novel Manon Lescaut about a girl being caught in an emotional love trap with a young man who by his actions reduced her into a scandalous life much like Salina and Abdul Fakar did. While Des Grieux more often being seen as a love victim to the allure of a woman/girl like Manon, the relationship between Salina and Abdul Fakar was more like a business proposition than out of necessity. From the start, it was obvious that as a sole breadwinner, Salina was free to let go of Abdul Fakar but she couldn’t for a reason known to her and that was what made the rest of the folks in Kampung Kambing view their relationship as unorthodox but not enough to condemn Salina with the way life had lead her to be as she is.
But like I said, only around 30% of the book was about Salina while the rest was about the people around her. Their history, their conflicts, the perceptions and their future. As much as I tried, the book does turn stale in it’s attempt on being morally ambiguous to be
Oh what do I know, did I have family living in post-WWII Singapore?
Actually, yes. Both my grandparents was still together in Singapore in that era before they were separated and remarried. My father lived through most of his childhood in Singapore and became Malaysian citizen in mid-60s in late teens. There was more drama in my family that would have made P Ramlee wish he could have adapted them all but I myself dislike embellishing reality especially with the still living but the relationship between Salina and Abdul Fakar does have some vein of familiarity with my own family. Although none of them work as a prostitute before but yes, some took unconventional work and lead unconventional lifestyle which traditionalists might view unorthodox too or use that favourite term, “unislamic”. I wish I could tell you how damning and childish that was when it was being used by adults who should know better than trying to impose their textbook attitude without understanding the situation without knowing the whole reality of it. So in a way, I could tweak “Salina” and add more characters and stories in it and make them related and it will be my own family history. Fascinating when reality is way more stranger than fiction. But of course, you can forget about knowing much about it because I’m not going to write about it. Ever.
But as stories and realism goes, I could hardly think this sort of reading must be used to justify the general morality of city folks which probably one of the reason it’s popularity even in suburban areas. The main reason why I read it in the first place was because ten years ago, I didn’t get all these references on city living by these bunch of kampung kids in the kampung school I studied in and Salina was a general book they read. But according to this book and to them limited experience outside the hellhole they’re living in, I’m being morally ambiguous as well for not conforming to their lifestyle (actually I’m still wondering what was it about me that make them think like that).
I get why many still love this mildly scandalous book but to be honest, especially to me, the story is quite average and tame. Then again, it did have multiple sex scenes in it and the contemporary language style does carry the same vein as most Malaysian ‘Indie’ publication these days. The switch between fillers, plot and characterizations does get tiring especially when you know some of them remain unresolved and that the final revelations was predictable from the start, but hey, as classics goes. It wasn’t that bad.