by Amir Muhammad
LET'S face it: There
are many people in this world who are perplexed,
perturbed or plain screwed-up. One of the joys of writing this column is
that I can help solve some of the problems that my gentle readers choose to
periodically shove my way. For the benefit of us all, I enclose a few recent
samples from my life as the "Dear Thelma" of the literary world. Happy
I have a problem. I find dead people incredibly sexy. Whenever a
good-looking celebrity dies by crashing, hanging, shooting or drowning, I
experience the most intense and delicious paroxysms of delight that course
throughout my shuddering body, tingling my nerves, making me moan and
leaving me bewitched, bothered and bewildered. I'm too ashamed to admit
this to anyone but you, since I have a gut feeling that you're a guy who
would appreciate this sort of thing. Any literary thoughts on the matter?
Morbid in Mentakab
Thank you for your charming letter! Necrophilia as a literary theme has
certainly been well-documented in Romantic literature such as Emily Bronte's
Wuthering Heights, which features Heathcliff digging up Catherine's grave to
quench his unbearable longing, and the Keats poem 'Isabella and the Pot of
Basil', where the heroine keeps her boyfriend's severed head and wets it
In pop culture, the
whole corpse-as-fetish phenomenon can be observed in
Hitchcock's Vertigo, Lynch's Twin Peaks and most blatantly in the Canadian
movie Kissed, about a female morgue attendant who takes certain unusual
liberties with some of her male charges. I suspect that the Dionysian mass
ecstasy over dead celebrities is, at the very core, a subliminal religious
impulse connected to the veneration of saints and martyrs. Dead people
cannot disappoint you; they exist entirely in the realm of "what might have
been". And possibilities are always dead sexy. So shudder away!
I have this problem. Whenever something goes wrong with my life, I blame it
on evil foreigners. It's a knee-jerk reaction that I've had for years. It
has served me well so far, but some people are getting tired of it. Do you
suggest I change?
Blameless in Bangi
It's never too late! For a balanced perspective on foreigners I suggest you
read Louis de Bernieres' runaway bestseller Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It's
a novel by an Englishman with a French-sounding name, set on a Greek island,
with an Italian guy in the title. That alone should give you an idea of how
it effortlessly transcends petty national boundaries.
Set during World War
Two, it tells the extraordinary story of how the
Italian Army occupied Greece and then how a few of their soldiers rebelled
and actually tried to defend the country against Germany. The point is that
although the Greeks initially reacted with hostility to the Italians, the
latter turned out to be pretty decent after all.
Why has this book sold
so well? Aside from the fact that it's marvellously
written, I think people react positively to its implicit theme: rigid
nationalism favours only demagogues; the real story is always more
complicated than merely us-against-them. Read it and weep!
I have a friend who's a playwright. He is one of the sweetest, kindest and
gentlest people you've ever met. Well, I recently heard that his new play
could not be staged because it wasn't good enough; no actor or director
wanted to touch it. Some of the words used to describe it were
"subcretinous" and "intergalactically stinky" while others were even less
generous. These attacks should have saddened me but instead they cheered me
up considerably. I actually enjoyed seeing my friend fall flat on his sweet,
kind, gentle face. I wanted to shout out my joy to the world. Am I abnormal?
Kiasu in Kuantan
Don't worry! The Germans have a word for your condition: schadenfreude. It's
perfectly healthy to affirm your self-worth by contrasting yourself favourably
against folks who've fallen on hard times. Martin Amis wrote a whole novel
called The Information on the subject.
And Gore Vidal once
said: "It's not enough that I succeed; my friends have
to fail as well." Look at it this way: If the tables were turned, your so-called friend would
be the one gloating inwardly at you, so live it up!
I'm a writer who's hoping to get published by this influential local firm,
headed by a man named B. At an international gathering of publishers, there
was a thunderous dinner speech given by the head of a much larger foreign
firm (let's call him C).
Well, C made a few
sharp criticisms of the way B runs his own firm. I was so
caught up in the excitement of the moment that I spontaneously applauded at
the end of the speech. Silly me! B noticed my gaffe and now I don't think he
will ever publish me. Please help.
Despairing in Dungun
Don't worry! I know a handy way to get back into B's good books. Spend lots
of money printing thousands of leaflets denouncing the temerity of C. Call
him all sorts of names. This will eventually come to the attention of B, who
will be touched by the vehemence of your about-turn and also by the quality
of the leaflet's prose. This combination should be enough to get you a
publishing contract from B's firm. In the meantime, keep your hands in your
I am a decent law-abiding citizen who has always believed everything I read
in the mainstream media. But recently I have been troubled by doubts. Could
some of the things I've read recently be a teensy weensy bit biased and
inaccurate? Should I seek solace in the alternative media like Detik, Aliran
and Harakah? And will you hold my hand while I do it?
Timorous in Tampin
Shame on you! There is nothing in the least bit biased or inaccurate about
the mainstream media. The prayer times are redoubtably correct, the weather
forecasts are normally spot-on, and the line-up of TV programmes is almost
always exactly what you will get. So I honestly don't see what you're
whining about. Get a life!
I have for years been one of the most conscientious and accomplished
lecturers in my field, but my university recently fired me. I am convinced
that the motivation has more to do with office politics than anything else.
What do you suggest I do?
Aggrieved in Ampang
Your letter reminds me of the fate that befalls Clarice Starling in Thomas
Harris' brand-new novel Hannibal, the sequel to his wildly popular
fright-fest The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice was for years one of the
brightest sparks in the FBI, but this made her colleagues feel jealous.
There ensued a vicious campaign of bodek, back-stabbing and jockeying for
power, which effectively sidelined her. Clarice got back by changing the
rules of the game, thanks to her troubling kinship with the serial killer
Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. I hate to give away the plot, but I suggest
that you read the book to find out what Clarice did to her tormentors. It's
got something to do with gastronomy ...
A few years ago I was hired to judge a poetry contest. I was supposed to be
impartial but I was actualy bribed by some very powerful people; the outcome
was never in doubt. So I would add irrelevant lines to good poems to make
them sound horrible. And I would go out of my way to promote some very
mediocre and dubious efforts. As a result, the wrong person won. No one
created a fuss over this, but my conscience continues to trouble me. Any
Solemn in Sepang
Congratulations! You're lucky enough to live in a society where people don't
give much of a toss. The principles of fair play as embodied in books like
To Kill A Mockingbird, or the tones of moral outrage against corruption as
illustrated in Dante's Inferno, are obviously alien to your surroundings.
Until the people around you change, there's no reason to feel bad. You're
just keeping up with the times.
* Amir Muhammad's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org