Friday, June 23, 2017

TIGER ISLE ~ A GOVERNMENT OF THIEVES (BOOK REVIEW)

“If religion is the opiate of the masses, as it pretty much is in most of Asia and the Middle East, then Tiger Isle was the drug capital of the world. It did not help that most Tigerists lived in a state of denial, in particular about their religion.”

First-time novelist E.S. Shankar: encyclopedic erudition

E.S. Shankar is an erudite, articulate, Renaissance Man of multitudinous facets. A UK-trained accountant and management consultant by profession, Shankar also maintains a satirical blog called Donplaypuks where he lampoons local politics with a generous dollop of schoolboy humor laced with sagacious insight.

Recently he published his first novel, Tiger Isle, A Government of Thieves – a highly engaging 380-page study of the evils of kakistocracy (defined as “governance by a clique representing the worst elements of society, from the Greek, kakos, meaning foul, or filthy”). I don’t know if he has found a local distributor yet but the book can be easily ordered online. I can assure you, nobody will begrudge Shankar the $13.49 price tag, considering the massive amount of brilliance and sheer hard work the man has invested in this epic read, replete with evil machinations, murder, sex, and apocalyptic mayhem.

Shankar’s spicy fiction is based on depressing facts anyone who has been monitoring Malaysia’s political milieu since 1969 will be familiar with: the bureaucratic apartheid created by artificially imposed racial and religious boundaries; the boundless avarice and power lust of a privileged coterie that wields a deadly stranglehold on the national psyche through absolute control of the mass media; the audacious and systematic plunder of a nation’s wealth and the methodical hijacking of its destiny for private gain and ego gratification.

Indeed, while the events and characters depicted in Tiger Isle appear to be broadly inspired by actual events and characters in Malaysia, the scenario is easily modified to fit any post-colonial Southeast Asian nation. As such, Shankar’s lovingly crafted debut novel sheds valuable light on the nature and internal workings of corruption, hubris and megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur – and deserves to be prescribed as supplementary reading in any meaningful political science curriculum.

It’s no mean feat to construct a parallel universe populated by doppelgängers of clearly recognizable personalities - and yet allow the characters sufficient autonomy to generate the tension and drama necessary to animate this fictional domain called Pulipore, or Tiger Isle. There is enough narrative momentum to keep the reader turning pages – although one requires a photographic memory to keep track of unwieldy names like Rekha Krishnasamy Roshan Prasad, Adhi Sri Dr Bhairav Oak Broad Leaf Sivan, Kapalin Blowfish Black Panther Chandran, Maitreya Blue Dolphin Suryan, and Sri Sanatkumar Mutthiah Muralidharan. Those in the know will smile at the inclusion of a few “ascended masters” in the colorful cast of characters.

Not only are the names extended, Shankar gleefully provides genealogies for a few of them, going back several generations – in the process adding a wealth of side commentary on the fascinating diversity of cultures to be found in the region. Place names like Pulijayam, Chandrapore, Shaktipore and Suryapore evoke a subcontinental aroma – hinting at the lingering influence of ancient civilizations like the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires.

With an accountant’s eye for detail, Shankar delves into a morass of financial shenanigans conducted under the corrupt aegis of UNTA (United National Tigerists Association). Indeed, one might conclude that Shankar is merely making it all up - were it not for the fact that most Malaysians are already aware – thanks to the internet - of the endless list of dubious deals signed behind closed doors and labeled Official Secrets.

I couldn’t help but smile wryly at the irony of it all. Whenever Shankar relishes his role as novelist and puts effort into fleshing out his fictional characters, he succeeds in giving his narrative a measure of realism; however, his intimately reconstructed accounts of high-level wheeling and dealing come across as pure fiction because their outrageousness simply boggles the mind. We shudder at the realization that Shankar didn’t have to invent anything – merely switch a few acronyms and names around.

And, just as happens in real life, we are confounded by a plethora of acronyms: PACC (Pulipore Anti-Corruption Council), CCCP (Chandrapore City Center Plaza), PPC (Pulipetrol Corporation), PSA (Patriot and Security Act), PSB (Police Special Branch), and PITS (Pulipore Information Technology Service) – so much so the reader is at times compelled to refer to the acronym list on page 382.

As a writer, E.S. Shankar occasionally suffers from what may be called “the fisheye lens” syndrome – in effect, his omniscience and encyclopedic knowledge compel him to throw in too many asides and insider jokes. This slows the pace down – but only minimally. On the whole I was impressed by Shankar’s fluid syntax and flashes of literary virtuosity, for instance, when he begins a chapter with a killer line like: “The economic picture was pretty from far, but actually far from pretty.”

The story acquires a hint of Ian Fleming towards the end, when Shankar conspires to put all the biggest crooks of Tiger Isle together on board a private jet – and then leaves them at the mercy of seven female amateur ninjas and a couple of renegade pilots. Regime change through the ballot box is simply too banal and boring, I suppose. Or too unlikely. Or perhaps the eternal child in E.S. Shankar just felt like giving the plot a tiny twist of Quentin Tarantino.

Regrettably, Shankar’s magnificent effort will not qualify for the epithet “The Great Malaysian Novel” – simply because it’s all about Tiger Isle, heh heh, not Malaysia.

GOOD NEWS! Shankar has found a local publisher, Gerak Budaya, and Tiger Isle ~ A Government of Thieves will be officially launched at the Royal Selangor Club at 7PM on 20 November 2012.
[First posted 28 September 2012. Reposted 23 November 2014, 28 May 2015 & 23 June 2016]



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