Fear. Body-sapping hard work from dawn until dusk, day after day, year after year. Ignorance, superstition, envy, the narrowest of horizons. And fear.
Welcome to the life of the poor Asian rice farmer, in fact, the life of most of humankind until relatively recently.
Shahnon Ahmad (b. 1933) was born and grew up in the Malaysian village that is the setting of Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (Traps Along the Way - 1966) before he received a university education in Australia (but not until 1971), was elected member of parliament and became an important author (the most important, according to some sources) in his home country of Malaysia. And so, in this story of a small rice farmer and his family, Ahmad is writing straight from the heart.
Yes, this portrait of the struggles of the small, nay, miniscule farmer against the insects, weeds, giant leeches, white crabs, rats, birds, cobras, boars, weather and other men who continually threaten the sole means with which he can keep his wife and seven children alive is so distant and irrelevant to the lives of Booklikers that I hesitate to bring it to your attention. This man, who can barely read, who lives in a bamboo two-room hut and sleeps with his entire family on a grass mat on the floor, who knows of nothing outside of his village, and who, in order to attempt to master his constant fears, continually tells himself that it is all in Allah's hands - this man could almost seem to be of another species.
Except that Ahmad, with exactly the right tone, with exactly the right distance, with exactly the right sensitivity, with exactly the right perspective, makes that man and his family the center of the reader's hopes and cares. The very few matters of importance in their lives arise again and again, a chant of few words repeated infinitely often. A chant that breaks bodies and spirits.
An intense, excruciating read.
(*) Dato' Haji Shahnon bin Ahmad, to give him all of his titles.