Queering Malaysian folklore in a fantastical modern day romp.
As the youngest, and first non-Singaporean winner of the annual Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Malaysian writer Joshua Kam has a lot of expectations placed upon his debut novel. But as it turns out, How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, meets those expectations as one of the most wildly original and entertaining regional works in recent years.
Whether it’s ‘borrowing’ artefacts from a museum or fending off demonic ministers, there’s never a dull moment in Kam’s novel. Opening rather innocently in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, a chance meeting between protagonist Gabriel and the titular man in green leads to a flurry of action, including but not limited to: an impossibly large flock of pigeons, the resurrection of a dead man, and a citywide manhunt. And to think all this happens in just the first chapter. Needless to say, the rest of the novel follows suit, with a constant flow of action and introduction of fantastic characters that keeps the narrative exciting in every chapter.
For all means and purposes, How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, is a work of fiction that shouldn’t work, considering how many ideas and myths it attempts to blend together. While it may initially feel like a lot to take in, once readers get used to the novel’s unique brand of chaos, they’ll come to appreciate how Kam makes all these different elements gel naturally. Saints adopt colloquial slang, the Communist Emergency is seen through the heartfelt letters exchange by a pair of lesbian lovers, and deities drive Proton Tiara cars. Somehow, as incredulous as it all is, Kam’s balanced use of emotional language, casual sense of humour and vivid descriptions of the Malaysian coast make it work (there’s a particular magical scene where Gabriel dives into the sea and comes face to face with ancient coelacanths).
At its heart, Kam’s novel is an exercise in audacity, experimenting how far he can push the remaking of Malaysian myths and history. Right from the beginning, in presenting an unconventional, unwilling protagonist, there is a strong sense that the Malaysia of today is being reimagined as one that accommodates all kinds, to create a sense of identity not dictated by the stories one grew up with, but retelling it in a way that interrogates why these alternative voices and viewpoints cannot be a part of the Malaysian story. Kam’s characterisation is often brief, but sufficient to make us understand enough about each of their backstories to root for them.
But honestly, even if you don’t see it from that very nationalistic, history-changing point of view, Kam’s novel is just fun. There’s a level of camp and whimsy that follows every chapter, with characters often ricocheting witty comebacks at each other, and good situational awareness that makes the jokes land. When it’s time to get serious, Kam steers the tone towards it, and makes the novel’s epic battle climax when it needs to.
In essence, How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World acts as a love letter to Malaysian folklore and history, showcasing an impressive degree of representation and imagination that never feels shoehorned into the narrative. With this novel, Kam has more than proven to be deserving of this year’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and certainly, is a portent of even greater things still to come.
Recommended for: Readers looking for a fresh, Gaiman-esque take on Malaysian mythology in a well-written urban fantasy adventure.
How the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World is published by Epigram and available here