Ingenious Iban fable

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 30 — In a land of ancient gods, animal spirits and omens, a war party leaves a child without family. The survivor is adopted by apes, grows up to be a warrior and is pitted against savage headhunters, terrifying beasts, marauders from a foreign kingdom, and the wrath of a vengeful deity.

But Golda Mowe’s Iban Dream is no supernatural Tarzan fable set in the Land of the Hornbill. The world she conjures in this novel is almost as real and vibrant as any computer-generated fantasy world James Cameron can come up with.

After his home and family are decimated by a band of headhunters sent by the warpath god Sengalang Burong, young Menjat is doomed to a similar fate until the demi-god Keling intervenes.

Adamant that the boy should follow the way of the headhunter, the warpath god allows him to grow until adulthood. Tok Anjak, the leader of an orangutan troop, adopts Menjat and renames him Bujang Maias (“ape man”).

Years later, shortly after Tok Anjak’s passing, Bujang encounters Sengalang Burong and passes the warpath god’s test. The deity marks him as his and sets him on a violent path which begins with him slaying the warrior who orphaned him. He would kill several more, to aid the people of a longhouse who eventually makes him their chief. But trouble looms over the horizon...

As real as it can get

Mowe spins this fable like a master pua kumbu weaver, incorporating aspects of Iban lore into this rich tapestry of words. At times, she tends to get carried away with details, slowing down the flow of the story to an uncomfortable level as she demands that we stop and smell the air and taste the water.

From feasts of durian, sweet fragrant rice, and a demon-boar buffet to the clash of steel and spilled blood in life-or-death battles, we walk with Bujang as he goes from lone warrior to longhouse chief and family man.

You can almost smell the cempedak as it comes down from the tree, and the scent of the heady rice wine will drive you to the nearest watering-hole.

To those who have read about or experienced stories of longhouse life in Sarawak, the scenes and rituals depicted here will not feel alien. Iban Dream is probably a misnomer; when it comes to the life of the Iban, it’s as real as it gets in this book. I’ll leave it to the experts to find any discrepancies.

Apart from the attention-grabbing story, the stilted, theatrical prose begs to be on stage; almost everyone, including killers and louts, recite, rather than speak their dialogue with little emotion.

Bujang’s saintliness might also be problematic, even for what is essentially a fairy tale. Raised by apes and almost guile-free, his glowing near-perfection starkly contrasts with his enemies’ ugly characters.

With relative ease, he battles and overcomes bloodthirsty men who have no respect for custom and the will of the gods. A real Disney prince if I ever saw one.

Still, there’s something beguiling about this dream world that kept me going back to revisit certain scenes. I turned a few pages to check if I got things about the book right and ended up losing about half an hour — proof that Mowe’s lavish, colourful Iban dream is one that’s easy to get lost in and hard to wake up from.

Iban Dream
Golda Mowe
Monsoon Books (2013)
288 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4423-12-0

* Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer.