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Friday 27 September 2013

A Triography - A Review of Three Biographies

Random Reviews 8-10


A Review of Three Biographies

(PB) (SNP Publishing, Singapore, 2008. ISBN: 9789812481863)
(PB) (Irenic Publications, Duranbah, NSW, Australia, 2012. ISBN: 9780646579092)
(PB) (Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. ISBN: 9789814408202)

 **The Penang Bookshelf has two main websites, one for shipping within Malaysia and the other for shipping elsewhere. If you live in Malaysia, please click on the link attached to the book title. If you live elsewhere, please click on the (PB) link which follows each book's title. **


It so happened that my random reading list consisted of three easily readable biographies.  So I’ll attempt to review all three of them at once. All of them are light quick reads and all of them are entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that they’re without depth.

I'll start by declaring an interest and a disinterest. I have met all three authors, but they're more acquaintances than friends. Also I’m not a reader of biographies or autobiographies by choice. Now that I’ve read three of them so close together I know why. The words of TS Eliot come to mind – ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ I’ve come to the conclusion that biographies can often be frustrating as, for one reason or another, they seldom give a full enough picture for the inquisitive reader.

Brinsmead’s biography of Dr Sam Underwood came nearest to satisfying me, i.e. I ended up with fewer questions at the end. This was quite a feat since, like the other two works, it’s  a relatively slim volume. Underwood’s definitely one of Malaysia’s unsung heroes. (Most people I have spoken to had never heard of him.) Normally this would qualify him for a hagiography. However his biographer mostly avoids this trap. He’s equally happy to deal with his subject’s unhappy love life and his gullibility when it comes to investment as he is with dealing with Dr Underwood’s significant successes. 

However, like No Bed of Roses, Brinsmead’s biography contains a considerable amount of padding. In the case of Laugh and Tough it Out, the padding comes in the form of jokes which Underwood sent Brinsmead in the course of a twenty year correspondence. I laughed or at least chuckled at most of them. It’s a clever technique of giving the reader a hint at the humour which has sustained a man who was sentenced to death by the Japanese, later worked with them, then was hunted by the Communists as a collaborator and ended up being one of their few trusted sources of medical help in the ‘Emergency.’

In the case of No Bed of Roses, the padding, roughly 179 pages of a 279 page book, comes in the form of recipes for Rose Chan’s favourite foods, some of which are meant to be aphrodisiacs, and long chunks of imagined dialogue, in the style of Roddy Doyle, illustrating various events in her life. Rajendra captures Malaysian English well and in a saucy rambunctious fashion, but in the end I found myself skim reading some of the later sections. I felt the book would have benefitted from fewer of such sections which could have been replaced by more succinct passages of prose. If you’re a foodie, which I’m not, the recipes may serve the same role as Underwood’s jokes. Cooking and food were obviously very important in Rose Chan’s life, so this could be a way of illustrating an aspect of her character.

All three of the authors have distinctive styles, Brinsmead’s is a well controlled and a no nonsense one and, as befits a published poet, Rajendra’s is certainly the most flowery of all three, but not oppressively so. Winston Lim’s style, especially considering that this was his first published book, best conveys the gentle ribbing relationship between author and subject. All three biographies had the co-operation of their subjects, but in Lim’s case the author intrudes more than do Brinsmead and Rajendra. This is appropriate because Car, Castello & Quill, besides giving one an insight into Raymond Flower’s life, also charts the changing relationship between author and subject. Flower’s a VIP  at the hotel where Lim worked in guest relations, but as the book progresses, a friendship imperceptibly develops even though Lim finds it hard to drop the respectful, “Mr Flower” as his form of address.

In fact, Lim’s biography which includes an account of how Flower tutored him to start writing, is the most gentle, even genteel, of all three biographies. Both author an subject are gentlemen which is conveyed by Lim’s relaxed and unobtrusively polished style. Flower is one of a dying breed of cosmopolitan Englishmen, who seem to glide effortlessly from running car businesses in England and Egypt, racing cars in Europe, dealing in and enjoying property in Italy and holidaying in Penang to writing best selling non-fiction including one of The Penang Bookshelf’s Bestsellers, (PB) , The Penang Adventure. (PB) Rose Chan and Sam Underwood appear to have seen more of the rough and tumble of life.

In contrast to the biography of Flower, where nothing shocks the gentle flow, both Laugh and Tough it Out and No Bed of Roses have plenty of drama and not a few shocks as well. The centrepiece of No Bed of Roses is undoubtedly Rajendra’s  erotic description of the bawdy party organised by Rose Chan to raise funds for UMNO, Malaysia’s the ruling party, at the time of Malaysian Independence. It’s described in meticulous detail with a few of Rajendra’s poetic frills. In Laugh and Tough It Out the two chapters on Underwood’s views about Malaysia’s politics and about religion generally may well be the most startling. None of it hasn’t been said before, but because Brinsmead deftly steps aside and allows his subject to do the talking, we get a better glimpse of the passion that drives this remarkable man.

Indeed it was passion, or rather the absence of it, that was the main unanswered question in all three biographies. If I can’t get to grips with what drives a person, I find it difficult to understand them. In the case of Car, Castello & Quill, I had the most questions. However I don’t think Winston Lim intended to ask such questions in a book which is primarily a narration of a relationship with biographical frills. It never claims to be more than that. Nevertheless I was left wanting to know more about how Flower supported his lifestyle and who were his intimates. He hasn’t ever married, so with whom does he really share his deepest thoughts and emotions? Maybe there isn’t anyone.

As for Rose Chan, she was obviously a consummate artist at titillating men, but what on earth titillated her?  She had five husbands and scores of lovers, but No Bed of Roses hardly gives us any hint of those relationships. Maybe her consuming passion was food. That’s why the book has so many recipes.

With Sam Underwood one assumes that it’s mainly his work for the community that drives him. He was the first foreign trained plastic surgeon in the country, once ran the largest private medical clinic here and is more qualified and experienced than most medics in Malaysia who make far more money. Yet he devotes himself to the community around Kuala Kangsar in Perak in relative obscurity. That said, there must be something else in his life other than providing scholarships for the underprivileged to study overseas.

So all three biographies have something to recommend them. If you're a reader of biographies, I would recommend all three. Their contrasting styles and the devices the authors use to engage their subjects, may help should give you an instructive insight into this form of writing. If you're looking for a good story, with chuckles on the side, I'd choose Laugh and Tough it Out. If you're looking for an amusing and charming read, try Car, Catello & Quill. If you're looking for a glimpse of bawdy Malaysia just before and after Independence, choose No Bed of Roses.


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