Books I wish I’d written


There are three books that are of such consuming interest to me that I wish I had written them: Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colours, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound.

Mishima’s novel involves a talented but ageing writer, Shunsuke, and Yuichi, a handsome gay young man who is engaged to marry a prim woman from a rich and conventional family. Shunsuke, who has grown cynical with age catching up on his fame, wants to take revenge on the female sex, which taunts him with its eternal power to captivate the minds and imagination of humans both young and old. So Shunsuke cunningly advises Yuichi to go ahead with the marriage for reasons of financial security, but to have as many affairs as he likes with men and women by exploiting their emotional weaknesses.

What fascinates me in the novel is its triptych of themes based on the clash of elemental opposites, as scholars have noted. First, there is the opposition between beauty and ugliness (handsome Yuichi is contrasted with Shunsuke, who believes himself to be ugly). Second, there is the contrast between Yuichi’s youth and Shunsuke’s age. Third, there is the contrast between life and death (Shunsuke’s obsession with death is set in relief by Yuichi’s affiliation with unfolding life).

I came away from the novel as if to a life reborn. I understood how variations of sexuality (I am straight), economic position and aesthetic power mould the lives of individuals and societies. Mishima’s anti-romantic anarchism threw me out of my comfort zone and forced me to view individuals in the full strength of their agency as humans who write their future into being in spite of their constraining social circumstances. I would not want Shunsuke as my neighbour, but he has enchanted my world with his quest for freedom, if only freedom from the gendered power of women over men.

Then there is Marquez. His novel raises love to a height that is unattainable for most men and women but one that they cannot take their eyes off, if they must stay safely on earth at all, berthed by the gravitational power of life. Rather than provide a summary of a long and complicated plot, let me say what gripped my sense of myself.

Essentially, Marquez metaphorises love as an illness, a plague akin to cholera. Just as cholera is a reminder to love before dying, love is a reminder to live before going. Even in English translation, the Spanish energy of Marquez’s erotic worldview bursts forth in lines such as these: “Moreover, Hildebranda had a universal conception of love, and she believed that whatever happened to one love affected all other loves throughout the world”. Now, replace “love”with “cholera” and the meaning is clear: whatever happens to a cholera-infected person affects those around him. To cure him is to save others. In the case of love, the cure consists in accepting the biting reality of love. The embrace of two lovers enfolds the rest of the world within those clinging arms.

I re-read the novel during the Covid years, replacing cholera with the coronavirus. We all wanted to live but were afraid to die. To fall in love during that time was to make the defiant statement that even the pandemic could not stop love — because love itself was a kind of pandemic. Gosh, how well Marquez had written his novel. It is as if he had written it for me. There are wry references in the novel to “livid women, degraded by arthritis and resentment”, and a trip to Europe is described laconically thus: “It is impossible to know if it was Europe or love that changed them, for both occurred at the same time.” For me, the crowning lines of the novel are: “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves… “The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

Living for love: dying for love — that is what life is.

So is it in Kurniawan’s book, an epic literary examination of Indonesian life during a time of colonialism and war. The tragic story of the Indonesian-Dutch prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, along with others, relives a national history marked by an anti-imperial war, communism, and the struggle for independence — with love present as the ultimate witness of history. Fairy tales and legends give these struggles a place in Indonesia’s imaginative history and geography. I am indebted to this book as a person with enduring professional and personal ties with Indonesia. It taught me to see Indonesia through the eyes of the colonial victims who made today’s Southeast Asian powerhouse possible.

So, these are three books that I wish I had written. I did not.

But reading them was good enough — because they showed me who I really am.

The writer is the founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.

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