Monday, 21 October 2013

Book Review | The Mouse Deer Kingdom by Chiew-Siah Tei

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The year is 1905 and Chai Mingzhi, an immigrant newly arrived in the port-town of Malacca, takes Engi, an indigenous boy from the tropical forest, to live with him. Trapped in a realm he doesn’t recognize and finding himself caught up in Chai Mingzhi’s bitter personal affairs, Engi quickly learns to take on the shape of the legendary mouse deer in order to survive in the outside world.

Twenty years later, Engi sets out to unravel the mystery surrounding Chai’s past, his tireless quest for the land where the grand Minang Villa is built, and the tragedy that destroyed him.

The Mouse Deer Kingdom is a tale of love and betrayal against the backdrop of a troubled time when hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled poverty and the Qing Empire for Southeast Asia, where their arrival unsettled native life in their new home.


Home is where the heart is, so if you have no home, what happens to your heart?

This is a question Chai Mingzhi will ask himself again and again over the course of the nearly forty years The Mouse Deer Kingdom chronicles. "A run-away official from the Qing Court, which had supported the anti-foreigner rebels" (p.17) during the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion, Chai uses the last tatters of his imperial influence to help his family and closest friends escape to the Malay Peninsula.

At the outset of Chiew-Siah Tei's long-awaited second novel, the travellers trade everything that is theirs to pay for passage on Captain Cochrane's cargo ship, but nothing in Chai's life comes easily, and the journey to Malacca is no exception. As gathering storms lay waste to a vessel never intended to carry passengers, we have, however, an opportunity to meet the Mingzhis.

There's Meilian: a well-to-do second wife, once, before being abandoned by her heartless husband and his hateful father. Left to rot, in short... but she did not. Instead, Meilian and her dear daughter were welcomed back into Chai's foundling family, and though they still struggle, both have new hope for the future. Little Jiaxi fantasises about it, in fact:
Anything was possible in English tales (a frog could become a prince, a maid a princess), anything could be realised in the English-speaking far-off lands, she conjectured, silently harbouring the fantasy. Was that the reason Uncle Mingzhi insisted she should acquire the knowledge? So that she would have aspirations like his? Her mother's descriptions of a determined, diligent brother who worked his way up to shrug off their grandfather's grasp [...] had always fascinated her. The man who became a mandarin at twenty-one was a legend, her hero. (pp.39-40)
Meilian, meanwhile, has attracted another's eye. She and Chai's foreign friend Martin are to be married, in fact. A young British businessman whose know-how helped her benevolent brother through a difficult time, Martin is unfortunately at odds with Chai's other companion, Tiansheng.

A former opera apprentice, "sold to the Northern Opera Troupe as a child by his starving parents," (p.25) Tiansheng was disinherited again because of his formative friendship with Chai, then the heir to a mighty landlord. In the dark days afterward, he murdered a man. Only Chai has stood by him since.

Chai, for his part, "kept only to himself, staying away from his past, the place, the people; their stories were never recounted." (p.221) But though he's put a pin in the past, filed it away for future reference, the present is ever uncertain.

The trip with which the book begins is terrifying, but Chai and his family make it to Malacca at least in one piece. There, they move into a haunted house-on-stilts that the locals want nothing to do with, promising to "find a proper place soon." (p.54) But they do not. They are not wanted in the village, nor would the wilderness welcome them, so they make the most of this ramshackle shelter, turning it into a place they might take pride in with their own spit and sweat. "The way things progressed seemed natural, inevitable," (p.58) such that some months later, the Mingzhi massive are almost happy here.

Could it really be so easy?

I'm afraid not, no. Because one day, their home away from home is taken from them too. The house-on-stilts is burned to the ground by someone with a grudge, and a member of the family dies in the fire, searching hopelessly for the nugget of gold that was to pay for their future.

Torn apart by this tragedy, the survivors go their separate ways after the fire — though Chai stays, vowing that this land the locals will not allow him will be his one day, come what may. He and Tiansheng soon begin a business, with Chai pocketing his part of the profits to invest in an enterprise that will bring him riches. Riches enough to buy back the charred parcel where he lost the one he loved.

Playing this long game leads to loneliness, of course. Chai and his childhood friend become distant and distrustful of one another, thus the former adopts a child from the forest — not as a slave, but as a son of sorts. This is Engi, a boy who becomes a mouse deer of a man, at once quick and cunning, and it is he, as it happens, who narrates the entire tale.
I was born in the forest, so was my father. As was my father's father, and his father. How many forefathers were there before them when the first took his place on the land? That I'm not able to count, but Father told me: 
"It began from the day the world started. When the sun and the moon began to take their turns in the sky, and birds emerged from the horizon, flapping their wings, singing. When the soil spread over the barren land, and green trees and red flowers, animals and snakes, beetles and butterflies rose from the earth and found their territories. Then the land opened up, became a river, and fish and prawns squeezed themselves out from the riverbed and swam freely in the water. [...] There wasn't an outside world during those early days, there was only Our World, the forest that was, and the forest was everything on this land." (pp.2-3)
The Mouse Deer Kingdom is mostly Mingzhi's story, yet Engi attempts, albeit inexpertly, to enmesh his narrative with another's:
I'll let him surface, Parameswara; I'll let him punctuate episodes of the Chinaman's life. On my exercise book, two lines are drawn — one of Chai Mingzhi's life in the early twentieth century; the other, Parameswara's, from the late fourteenth century — with a five-hundred-year gap between them. Only by comparing the similarities between their journeys will the differences in the outcomes appear stark. (pp.8-9)
This is a stretch too far, sadly. The similarities between the pair are unsubtly stressed, and the differences add precious little to the larger narrative. It's a relief, then, that Parameswara's part dead-ends abruptly, just a hundred pages in. As does another potentially fascinating narrative, namely Jiaxi's:
It'd been exhausting, the many roles she played. Like a chameleon, she draped on immaculately tailored skins for the right occasions to perfect her performance, switching seamlessly between a model student, a good team player in the sport field, a patient friend to ignorant school girls, and a demure, well-behaved foster daughter. Rules after rules. What to do and what not to do. [...] What have I become? (p.164)
Sadly, Jiaxi simply disappears at a point. Another story for another day, if I may, for her tale damn-near demands to be told. One can only hope we don't have to wait another six years for it to finally unfold, as we did this sequel of sorts to Tei's multiple award-nominated first novel, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes.

The Mouse Deer Kingdom isn't its equal, I fear. It's episodic, dare I say disjointed. Inelegant in some spots, and in others all too obvious. "The awkwardness of it was equal to that of a forest child in an outsiders' world. Not here, not there. Not this, not that." (p.311) But like Engi, and to a greater or lesser extent the determined man who takes him in, it does discover its purpose before the story's over.

Largely this is thanks to Tei's knack with characters — Chai and Engi, Martin and Tiansheng, Meilian and Jiaxi... all come to life like few figures in fiction do, and develop dramatically over the years The Mouse Deer Kingdom chronicles. The narrative is no slouch either, aside some structural strangeness and an intermittent pacing problem. Indeed, the cruel and unusual denouement squeezed a tear or two out of yours truly.

This is a beautiful little book, to be sure; a tragic family saga along the lines of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life about outsiders in a land that seems set on smiting them. The Mouse Deer Kingdom may be less affecting overall than Chiew-Siah Tei's debut, but it has its heart in the right place: at home with Chai and his fantastic family.


The Mouse Deer Kingdom
by Chiew-Siah Tei

UK Publication: October 2013, Picador

Buy this book from / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

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