As apparently unlikely a story as it is intriguing, the narrator Sarah Wode-Douglass, who is the editor of a financially failing London poetry journal, is enticed to the Malaysian capital by a poet and family friend. Once there, she stumbles upon a poverty-stricken Australian poet who it turns out is also known to her friend.
Sarah learns the story of Christopher Chubb, whom to spite a former editor friend who had become successful while he served in the war, hoaxes the journal he edits. Chubb creates a body of poetry by an entirely made-up character, Bob McCorkle; McCorkle's work however is deemed offensive, landing the friend in court.
McCorkle then appears in bodily form during the hearing, Chubb recounts, as he tells Sarah a tale of rollicking adventures that ensue through Indonesia — Lake Toba and Yogyakarta make cameo appearances, among other spots — and then-Malaya. The reader is left pondering Chubb’s sanity and the identity of the real author of the book of poetry Sarah becomes desperate to get her hands on to publish herself.
The ribs of the fantastical story — as it becomes — are loosely based on Australia’s Ern Malley hoax. (Malley was the creation of two soldiers.)
The backdrop of a mostly hot, stinking Kuala Lumpur, the echoes of which remain today, is thrown into the mix (it is entirely unrelated to the real life event). Sarah says: “The smells were the most challenging aspect of my tourism, not merely the wet markets, but also the alien mixture of smoke and spice and sewer and two-stroke exhausts and all the sweet mouldy aroma of those broad-leafed tropical grasses.”
Echoes today remain too of the fearful, racist Australian school principal Chubb encounters: “Zinc cream all over his stupid nose, Mem, like a bloody sunburned ostrich. He knew nothing of Malaya but had a great terror of amok. On and on until the bus stopped unexpectedly. What’s this? What’s this? His first thought, of course, was terrorists.”
This is a book where the setting serves the story rather than the story serving to tease out revelations about the setting. It does leave the reader wondering why Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the locus of the story. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to see the capital described in the hands of one of Australia’s best novelists; for readers travelling to Malaysia, or who have already been, the tale is a literal literary page-turner.
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