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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Friday, 26 December 2008

Tales from the Court and other stories by Matthew Thomas

December 27, 2008

by Suzan Abrams
in Dublin


Book Review - Malaysia Short Stories


Malaysia: Without the fraction of a doubt, 63 year old Malaysian lawyer and short story writer, Matthew Thomas commands an open ability to pen a high wry comedy befitting its gentle ease and practised verve, and this too; not relenting of a well-served nostalgia in the flushed youth of his suave telling years.

As his travels once afforded keen enthusiasm with comical and satirical observations made from over the high seas, and from motley Malaysian neighbourhoods; this would in turn be recorded with astute diligence and so too would Thomas on retiring from law, secure his first major published work of fiction in Kuala Lumpur.

In Tales from the Court and other short stories, published recently by Silverfish Books Malaysia and easily purchased from its e-bookstore, all of the humoured tales stretch with a supposed calm enjoyment from post-colonial Malaysia's early golden decades of the 50's, 60's and 70's. No doubt, they stay dressed with slight splendour, tailored to a harmonious pose reminscent of the cartoonish Indian-woman-with -her-black-bun-in-regal-sitting-pose on the cover.

In the same like-minded way, it is the writer's gallant mastery over his rib-tickling prose and recounted episodes in the 13 short stories, that make for immediate transparency without discomforture to a discerning reader's intuitive perusal. With each turned page of a playacting clownish maze, narrations cloaked in their jazzy wit, rise from strength to strength, ready to regale an audience with flashy or subdued happenings that may or may not change the course of one's life. Through fictional characters, philosophy is dictated more from the priceless commodity of cleverness shaped by logistics and common sense, rather than a marked sign of inheritance through a scholarly field. This is one of Thomas's storytelling gifts that would add a clear subtle theme to his stories.

How refreshing indeed to read of Malaysian fiction published in its capital city where book production whips up a classy fare and the fluency of the rich English vocabulary itself is held to its generous artistic measure and a high merit, capable of global appeal. In any case, the publisher of Silverfish Books, Mr. Raman Krishnan, is reputed for having produced excellent-quality books that would make a perfect present for any book collector's library. Tales from the Court and other stories, fits well into that perfect fold.

With titles like Comrade Michael Nambiar, Mike Kumar, esq, Cross Road Hotel and The Fortune Teller and where into the heart of these tales, quaint character names like George Kuttappan, Abdul Rahman Kutty, Daisy Mo and Boniface have been eagerly spun; the stories reflect a fascinating Malaysian Indian culture in often perplexing and clumsy circumstances - Thomas's own heritage is Indian - that may have the reader in stitches at odd moments and bid universal appeal with Indian communities worldwide.

Quirky personality traits outline sub-themes.

Rukumani Devi, the prim and prudish court clerk has to deal with a stubborn monkey, that squats on a judges' chair, eager to applaud the waiting cases. The puritannical Rukumani who prides herself on rigid efficiency, scorns and frowns her way into all things even gloating on a perfect prediction for a judge's hesitant fine at a traffic offence. The De Costa and Christie homes, particularly the wives, rival for superior gossip and showy Christmas celebrations that finally go awry. The Very Reverend Verghese Verghese, a Syrian Orthodox Christian has a morbid encounter with a ghost. Jaswant Singh who works in an electronics shop, smuggles goods in his turban with elaborate efficiency and slyly sweet-talks his way out of a dire situation with a suspicious guard. Lucian Sinnadurai, a classic drunk and wife-beater almost get his comeuppance - a good wallop with a stick - from a thoroughly fed-up neighbour called Mr. Petrus. And so forth.

In his writings, Thomas doesn't try to impress anyone. His talent is his own. He is naturally funny in a style similar to Indian novelist and diplomat Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects and one suspects too, a sparkling conversationalist at parties. Thomas writes in a racy fashion, almost as if he is eager to end a newly-begun tale and start a new rush with the next one; the keen lone writer sketching tales without deliberation or delay.

He adopts an almost classic American thriller style when recalling a glib talker in Mike Kumar, esq. The story reminded me distinctly of the late Erle Stanley Gardner famous for his Perry Mason books. Mike Kumar, esq, held that bewitching quality about it.

'...He then abruptly ended the meeting. Addressing me, he said, "Meet us at the Planters' Inn Bar at the Hilton at approximately 7pm tonight." I rushed home to take a shower and change before keeping my appointment. En route to the Hilton, I weighed in my mind, the possibility of being let down by MK... ...On the other hand, the presence of Mousieur Mauclair... - Matthew Thomas, Tales from the Court

One of his slick techniques lay in an ingenious show-not-tell episode in Cross Road Hotel, a recollection full of sarcastic quips. The narrator holidays with a friend at a small hotel in a tidier part of London. However, they pay a fortune for a modest housekeeping style and room service. Nothing appears to work. Everything is either unavailable, shabby or may have broken down. Thomas writes of Gabriel, the handsome pony-tailed Argentian manager who offers soothing consolation for every unfortunate encounter.

At first, Gabriel professes nothing short of integrity, honesty and a religious modesty. He confesses to pure worship and one gathers, the highest respect of the hotel 's owner, Mrs. Yavari from whom he would eventually announce that he had industriously been taught Islam. Over this slice of education, Gabriel claims utter devotion. After all, Mrs. Yavari had been kind enough to give him a poor emigrant a job and to this, he feels highly indebted. His only ambition was to visit Egypt for which the narrator thinks, he may have meant Mecca instead. The facilities in the hotel turn out to be be a poor show and none of Gabriel's soothing promises come about to make the narrator's life suitably comfortable. At the end, without revealing too much, the narrator discovers that far from being engrossed in a religious discipline, Gabriel instead survived a somewhat vigorous occupation as a striptease dancer in a club and is known to have lured 20 girls all at once.

It is Thomas's absolute sensitivity and respect towards the reader's imagination that provokes sophistication for this story. He allows a skilled manouvering of incidents to play in the reader's mind. This encouraging the fact that that individual conclusions may be found without Thomas being preachy or comparing notes in retrospect.


The story of a haunted house narrated in a semi-tragic classical style and coated by dry overtones, proved to be one of the most amusing of all of Thomas's tales.

Also, one of the simple reasons that Tales from the Court works admirably with nostalgia and history, is because the writer writes from a life well-lived and remembered and such expertise will always dissolve the works of another writer, who may rely solely on the imagination. Malaysia's early tradition of using Good Morning towels and buying Big Sister fruitcake at the ancient MS Ally & Sons shop, for instance, is a clear indication of each story's full-bodied flavour.

This reader's only problem with the stories were that many did not hold commas and it was difficult not to want to pause but to settle for collecting too many thoughts all at once. The lack of necessary commas made some of the lines overwhelming in their conjectures. Also, while many of the Malay words were famously scattered about the stories that any foreign reader would have been able to grasp the meaning of those words easily enough, the very first one on the first page, that started with Banguun, did not. Thomas goes on to describe the judge and to talk about the court occupants, rising in unison, only much later in a different paragraph. Unless he had specifically said, they rose, before jumping to the next thought of description featuring the judge's entry, no foreign reader is likely to understand that term offhand.

Again, it depends. Is this book written solely for a Malaysian audience? If it is, then it doesn't matter. But if it's published for a world well-locked in a swift digital age, the international reader would expect to know the meaning of words all at once. In an age of instant gratification, for many things, a glossary is more important than ever, failing which the intended paragaph will simply slide over the reader's head without further thought.

Another captivating quality about Matthew Thomas's Tales from the Court and other stories are the delightful illustrations sketched throughout the book, with which to define a fictitious character or plot. These b/w doodles and the cover of exaggerated but homey pencilled figurations were produced by Thomas's son, Aaron Thomas. His attentive drawings superbly complemented his father's savvy writing craft.

Further Reading:

A photograph of writer Matthew Thomas may be seen Here in this personality story featured in Malaysia's national weekend newspaper, The New Sunday Times.

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