The Call of Love by Anne Teoh
Let me first say that I was happy reading The Call of Love, starting from the dedication to “books lovers and especially those living through the 70s”, and the biography of Anne Teoh. I know Penang where she was born very well, and I love Malaysia (the wonderful land that I remember before the crazy diffusion of Proton cars and KL’s yellow pollution). I used to have dinner at the Coliseum, where Somerset Maugham spent much time writing in the same leather armchair of the bar where I sat searching for osmotic inspiration. His phrases took vigour and substance after my third beer and my second whisky, when the clouds of dense smoke of the sizzling steaks penetrated from the next-door restaurant together with the growing humidity of the night, until the small bar became a blurred sauna – or maybe it was the effect of the alcohol, I don’t know. Yet, I think that I read and understood Somerset Maugham more deeply after those days, because those typically South-Asian atmospheres soaked my senses and are still under my skin. And, borrowing Anne’s words “I loved the Malay language; its intensively rich varieties of dialects, the names of places with expressive syllables – Kedah, Kelantan, Pattani, Selangor, Malacca were music to my ears.” For the same reasons of atmosphere I like Timothy Mo and I appreciate Anne’s crusade “in search of him”.
So, going back to the review, Anne Teoh is Chinese-Malaysian-British (her ancestry, in fact, goes further back to the Hokkien race in Fujian, in Southern China) and of course this mix intrigues me. Multicultural people have a great asset – even though this is not a condition that is either necessary or sufficient to become a great artist –, that permits illuminations, perceptions and, I’d say, colours that are denied to ‘one-man-one-culture’ individuals. This was my spirit at the beginning of my reading of the collection of short stories. And the opening was immediately catching and effective (the first story is Acorns of the Oak Tree):
My parents had raised me with the assured hand of a bricklayer at home building and I grew up in the security and gentility of their dream castle. Dad was an old patriot, proud to be an English gentleman, a man of his word with good manners and respect for women. He was addicted to smoking cigarettes and reading The Daily Mail every day. He never failed to inflict his acerbic sense of humour against any claim on socialism and made personal quips against Alex, and his wife Nelly, our close neighbours and ardent supporters of the Labour Party.
The first story is very agreeable. It is about regret in face of the death of a loved one, in this case the existential regret of a son whose mother suddenly died, just the night after his visit to her: “Time flows and there can be no reversals, only regrets. We cannot say sorry when someone is gone. Whatever comfort we took to say mum died a snappy death without pain, or prolonged consciousness, I wished she had not have to die alone, snapped into the gone world of no return…”
The distinguishing mark of the prose is a sort of politeness, always present. You feel the author’s respect for the hard job of writing and for the reader, and I have to say that it is a good feeling, which is often missed in everyday literature.
The second account, The Call of Love, which gives its name to the entire collection, is more powerful and derived from a non-fiction story. The plot, historically interesting and compelling, is about an English missionary, a young girl who went to the inland of China, and about a Chinese child, a little girl who, after her father’s death and many family troubles, lives in the mission, a sort of orphanage. It is she who narrates: “‘Now, little child, I am your new mother. You call me mama and I will call you Perseverance. This will be your new home and I will take care of you and teach you all about God and Jesus.’ She spoke to me in a strange stilted Chinese…”
The turning point of the story is the Japanese invasion of China, before WWII. The missionary and all two hundred Chinese children are forced to escape and to face a long and frightful walk to reach the Yellow River and their salvation. “What we saw and went through in those dark years from 1937 to 1945 was beyond human endurance…” “The daring call of love that shaped her destiny to save our children’s lives in China can never be forgotten.” Maybe the story would benefit from a longer development and a less journalistic tone, but the reading is always interesting.
The Translator’s Trousers, the third story, is about living in a neighbourhood, and tells of a weird episode set in London, in a street between two houses one opposite the other, concerning a womaniser who is eventually punished by his lover. The tone here is completely different, funnier and lighter.
A 70s Rubicon is about the last days of university of a group of Malay students of different origins, in 1972. Suyin, a Polynesian-Malay descendant, who “was from a laid back semi-Nonya of Hokkien extract”, chooses to be British, even though “her Malaysian inheritance was a fascinating kaleidoscope of ethnicity, genealogy, history, nations and literature…” She is married to Naslun, who is now posted in Cambodia, but she dreams of a trip to India, following the historical Hippy Trail of the 70s. She plans it with six of her mates. I find this story really emblematic, and, for me, it could be used as input for commenting on the entire collection.
The Dream Guru tells of a man, Tom, who is going to retire and finds new meanings in his future by recalling an old dream of a guru he had while he was in India long ago, and in the valleys of the Himalayas.
The next story, The South Gate Closure, is also about a dream. This time the tale is set in Wiltshire, England, and a young student draws the conclusion that the major decisions we make in life are preordained.
The last story (actually, it is a long short story) is set initially in Goa, India, among the local hippy community, but it soon becomes linked with the plot of A 70s Rubicon, as it involves a group of six graduates and a young Malaysian woman travelling India while her husband is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – only the names are changed. Moreover, some passages refer indirectly to A 70s Rubicon, especially towards the end. Thinking about it, there is a non-fictional thread of the book’s stories.
My comments are that as an opera prima, The Call of Love shows great potential. Reading it is enjoyable; the trip through so many scenarios and amid different characters is always interesting and full of surprises and useful details. You understand the impressive flow of people who moves from one continent to another following the idea of finding enlightenment, on a spiritual quest. And you are also pulled by that Hippy Trail that characterised the 70s in artistic terms. So, your personal journey through the pages of The Call of Love is always safe and enjoyable. Anne Teoh owns a large number of weapons that she could sharpen further during her writing career: great sensibility and empathy, polite prose, the ability to describe different worlds with the same effectiveness, a good command of the structure of each single story. My humble suggestion for the next work would be to discuss the entire piece in advance with a good friend. The strategy of the book may need fine-tuning (is it focused on love or multicultural difficulties/constraints, for example? This choice isn’t well clear throughout the development of the present stories; so the link among the stories – it could be stronger or perhaps hidden; etc.). And speaking about strategy: should it be a new collection or progress straight to a novel? Etcetera. A good friend could help in improving the focus and consequential structure of the whole.
Let me conclude this brief review by saying that I admire Anne Teoh for the quality of her sensibility, her open spirit and readiness to engage in a courageous work, and her intelligence in extracting insights and thoughts. The Call of Love is a gratifying read. All the best, Anne!