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Between regret and revenge

After a decade’s silence, Tan Twan Eng fills in the blank pages of his new novel. The metaphorical empty space on one’s shelf is now occupied by a 20th-century tale of scandal and tragedy; of love, regret and revenge. The Malaysian-born writer and lawyer, in his third and latest book, The House of Doors, presents pieces of colonial Asia — in its final few decades of glory and decline — and brings back political and literary personalities of the period, forging something deeply personal out of a collective remembered past.

The story, set in the island city of Penang and later in the hustle of Kuala Lumpur and the dry desert air of South Africa, shifts between events that occurred in 1910, 1921 and 1947. The House of Doors is not one story but an intersection of many. At the centre is the cynical writer-physician-traveller William Somerset Maugham, who visits Robert and Lesley Hamlyn in 1921, with his secretary/young, secret lover, Gerald Haxton. The Hamlyns live at Cassowary House and it is not unusual for them to entertain politicians, diplomats, writers and artists at their home. Maugham — “Willie” — however, is an old friend of Robert’s. Lesley and Willie are narrators of the story as much as they are the subjects of it.

Secrets are kept, shared and revealed between and around them. During Willie’s short stay, Lesley, uncharacteristically, confides in him the secrets of her close friend, Ethel Proudlock’s marriage and her own. Proudlock’s marriage, however, faces a different conclusion, following her trial in the court for shooting her alleged lover. Sun Yet Sen — the Chinese revolutionary fighting the Qing dynasty for a Republic cause — makes an appearance in her recollection of the past. Freedom — social, political and financial, is a silent but prominent motif throughout the novel. Lesley’s introduction to socialist causes, mentions of latent homosexuality, the perils of “white privilege”, and the pretences of happy marriages, are but some examples.

“A man is more willing to open up to you once you’ve revealed something personal, something shameful, about yourself. If you want someone to confide in you, you must first offer him some private morsel of yourself.” Somerset Maugham was known for his sharp eye and his knack for finding the secrets behind one’s silence. He observed, listened and let others take off their masks temporarily. This collective albeit veiled shame is the glue that binds humans; it is what prompted Lesley’s confession to Willie. Perhaps the secret to secret-keeping is to know when to reveal it. In an act of delivering some sort of poetic justice. Eng reveals Maugham like he revealed others, through his writing.

Speaking of justice, Eng conveys the cause of the colonised — the Malays and the Chinese — through elite European eyes, which may seem strange at first, given his own cultural heritage and Straits Chinese lineage. On second thoughts, it seems like an act of revolution, to be able to let the oppressor narrate his tale of oppression by being oblivious to it at the same time. Eng’s novel wears a fancy, flawless coat of history and culture, but beneath it, is an old vest with holes, indicating the colonial exploits of Malaysia, China, Africa, and India — exposing the immoralities of history and its people. Beneath the illusion of an elite society lies its tragedy. Lesley, Robert, Ethel, Maugham, and even Gerald, are the messengers of this tragedy, in Eng’s novel, giving it almost a Freudian touch.

The book opens with an old Maugham quote from his memoir, The Summing Up: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” Eng follows suit, as he reinvents Maugham’s 1926 short story The Letter, which appeared first in The Casuarina Tree, as if restoring an archive, bringing it back to life. He makes some adjustments on the way, taking creative liberties to fill the gaps. 

In an interview a few years ago, Eng said: “For some reason I have only been writing books set in the past. I like to tell a story about how the past affects us today.” However, it must be said, his two previous novels The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) have more things in common than a mere recollection of the past. 

The House of Doors — longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023 — is Eng’s ode to Maugham, to Asian history and to the very spirit of literature. It reiterates that literature must be rescued from the streets and kept alive, instead of being orphaned in time and forgotten.

(Published 11 November 2023, 21:50 IST)

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