Monday, July 02, 2012

The Beruas Prophecy -- a review

A fine swashbuckling tale from Malaysia about pirates & buried treasure June 9, 2012
By G. Polley (Reader’s review on
(Dr Polley's full review of The Beruas Prophecy will appear in the December issue of The Asiatic.)

If you enjoy swashbuckling tales of pirates, greedy government officials, secret societies, magic, buried treasure that it took 40 elephants to haul away, and a surprise ending that is sure to leave you wanting (and imagining) more, then look no further. Iskander Al-Bakri's wonderful tale is one book you'll go back to again and again.

The Beruas Prophecy: The Nightmarish Universe of Malaysia
A review by
Ravichandra P. Chittampalli
Professor of English
University of Mysore

Iskandar Al-Bakri’s novel, The Beruas Prophecy, unravels the miasmic world in which Malay(si)a was furled in the 19th Century. It provides an alternative to the romance of modern day slogan, the “One Malaysia” jingoistic reading of the past. The novel at once links the imaginary of Malaysian intellection to the ancient Hang Tuah Epic, of which most recent literature appears to be blissfully amnesiac.

From the outset, the novel tumultuously carries one deep into the vortex of colonial machination, feudal values, revenge, heroism, intrigue, hedonistic life, piracy, avarice, crass opportunism, magic, secret society, struggle for power, betrayal, and loyalty.

The story, on the surface, is about the 16th century hidden treasure of Malik Al-Mansur, and the attempt on the part of Sir Robert Fullerton, the Scottish Governor of the Prince of Wales Island, to acquire that treasure. The event is dated to 20 August 1824, the year of the Anglo-Dutch treaty by which the British established its colonial supremacy over a large part of Malay(si)a.

The villain of the story is a minor, selfish, intrepid character named James Randwick Lowe, and the novel begins in Balik Pulau in 1823. This backdrop serves the novelist’s agenda of installing Malaysia as a land ruled on the one hand by self-centred, weak, sultans who were already marginalized either by their more cunning and resourceful courtiers, or by the colonial forces.

 “ ‘Hey, you black boy! Stop!’ shouts Lowe.” (TBP 15) That is a sentence which sets rolling the entire tragedy of Malaysia’s people under the new dispensation. Iskandar Al-Bakri couldn’t have chosen a better exclamation to set the tone of the novel! A drunk’s intolerant act cuts short the future of a bright and talented youth (Jasin) in an unthinking, impulsive, arrogant act of him shooting down. James Randwick Lowe is one of those common, shiftless types of British citizenry who would have been derelicts in their own country, but end up in certain significant situations in the colonies either due to chance or because of their connections.

Yaakob is a guru of the traditional Malay martial art called silat and has served in the critical position of the captain of the personal guards of the Sultan of Kedah. He represents, in this world, the only instrument of correction and of justice. When Jasin is buried, Yaakob quietly resolves, “Then, it’s my task to find Mr. Lowe.” One cannot help but connect this sentiment with that of Heironymo of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

“See'st thou this handkercher besmeared with blood?
It shall not from me, til I take revenge.
See'st thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh?
I'll not entomb them, til I have revenged.
Then will I joy amidst my discontent;
Til then my sorrow never shall be spent”(II.5.51-56)

The Beruas Prophecy is also a novel about piracy. It provides a fertile meeting point between the old world buccaneer and the modern day plunderer – in the characters of Sabu and Sir Fullerton. Thomas Duncan is the grand facilitator and Lowe the henchman. Piracy in Malaysia was one of the means by which the princelings of Malaysian rulers kept themselves in the pink: “Malay waters become some of the most dangerous in the world. Dutch monopolistic trade practices encouraged substantial black-market trade, and idle anak raja (sons of rulers) supported piracy as a means of income and recreation suitable to their elite status.” (Library of Congress – Federal Research Division Country Profile: Malaysia, September 2006;, p.2)

Iskandar Al-Bakri successfully uses history and myth to reinterpret the annals of Malaya, the perfidy of the white man on its soil, the betrayal of its people by its own sons.  He finally appears to advocate a return to the rural Malaya for values, advocating the cause of the orang asli as against the bumiputras, and finally creates a space for a development oriented intervention of the white man.

(Also read Al-Beruasi, a blog by Foong Thim Leng.)