Well, what can one say? The guy can write. Joshua Kam’s How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World is quite the debut, accomplished, deft, unabashed and exuberant.
There is little to be gained and much to be lost in detailing the plot: it starts when Gabe (for Gabriel) stumbles upon the resurrection in a mosque of an opposition blogger by a man dressed in green robes and turban who vanishes in a flock of pigeons:
No photo recorded the moment… More than a few [present] claimed to see the revived blogger borne aloft like a cherub in the cloud of pigeons, each one lifting him by his drenched clothes up into the air and out of sight. At any rate, once the birds had fled, the sun was back on people’s necks, the forecourt was plastered in shit, and the green man and his patient were gone.
The man in green later hijacks Gabe and his borrowed car for a mission to save Malaysia, if not the world, from all manner of evil, via a trip across the peninsula to Pahang. This is interwoven with a parallel story about Lydia, an academic back from the US, whose recently deceased grandaunt had, she discovers, been involved in the Communist Emergency.
On the magic realism scale, The Man in Green is well toward the magical end of the range. The man in green is Khidir (occasionally al-Khidir), presumably the same immortal al-Khidr of Muslim lore. Numerous figures from a mix of Malay, Thai and Chinese history and myth, make their appearance, all to engage in a boisterous, somewhat videogame-like fight between good and evil, with the by this time incongruous participation of local Malay policeman and politicians. Potions coexist with kopi, palaces and museums with roadside kopitiams.
Religion, a sort of syncretic combination of Russian Othodox Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam and spiritualism, permeates the book, as pointedly do multiple ethnicities—Indian, Malay, Chinese, Arabic. The dialogue and any prose that approximates thought or dialogue is liberally sprinkled with the inflections of the English common in Malaysia, along with Cantonese, Malay and bits of other languages. The long-term resident of East Asia may know enough of these languages and dialects to be able to read along more or less normally (albeit with the possible need to read the words out loud, since recognition, “hai mai?”, may “oso” come with the sounds and cadences that Kam has captured so well), but the meaning is in case almost always clear from the context. The dialogue includes stretches of philosophy that would normally fall foul of the “show, not tell” dictum, but Kam pulls that off as well.
The result is an over-the-top flamboyance that, along with a certain “look at me” braggadocio, may not be to everyone’s liking. The plot, much like the characters’ wild dashes on various motorized conveyances though city, countryside and sky, teeters on the edge of loss of control. But such is the confidence of Kam’s writing and characterization, that one can just suspend belief and go along for the ride.
Some of the references are decidedly the sepak takraw equivalent of “inside baseball”, while a small number—those to such contemporary political realities as former prime minister Najib and the 1MBD affair—are specific enough to temporarily yank the novel out of its Malysian version of Marvel Superheroes-like layered-on-reality fantasy world. There is even a (deserved but somewhat out-of-place) dig by a still-very-much-alive Cheng Ho (otherwise known as Zheng He) at Gavin Menzies and his book 1421.
The Man in Green is written in alternating chapters with Gabe and Lydia until they join forces somewhat beyond half-way in. Those with Lydia, somewhat more down to earth, and rooted in her emotional attachment to her grand aunt’s memory and thence to her partner in a suppressed love affair, are—for all the glitz and clever banter that feature in the chapters feature Gabe and Khidir—the more appealing.
The supernatural razzmatazz is dazzling, but can be as “wafer-thin” as the roadways and bridges of gold-leaf that appear in the novel. The 75-year-old letters that Lydia comes across both evoke a life of jungle insurgency and weep with tenderness. Still waters, as they say.