(From the New Straits Times, 21 July 1999)

 Your problems solved
                                                                  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

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Morbid,
 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!

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Blameless,
 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!

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Kiasu,
 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!

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Despairing,
 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


 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Timorous,
 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!

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Aggrieved,
 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 ...

 Dear Amir,
 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

 Dear Solemn,
 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 amirmu@hotmail.com