Majestic Dreams Sunk by Lofty Ambitions
Novel about Sang Nila Utama buckles under the weight of too many ideas
By Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
Krishna Udayasankar's novel 3 is an exercise in multidisciplinary influences. Her previous work, The Aryavarta Chronicles, was a trilogy of mythological-historical novels set in ancient India; but although the founding of Singapore by Sang Nila Utama has often been told as legend, Udayasankar has decided to frame 3 from a socio-political angle. By combining history, geography and anthropology, she transforms the local myth of Singapore's founding into an epic narrative of kings and princes.
Udayasankar's attention to historical detail is admirable. The novel begins with a family tree and a map of the Southeast Asian region. There is also a translated excerpt from the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals), a seminal work on the development, history and traditions of the Malays. The novel even ends with a brief bibliography that lists works such as Nicholas Tarling's A Concise History of Southeast Asia. The meticulousness of the research is impressive.
The title 3 refers to the protagonist Sang Nila Utama's official style as "Central Lord King of the Three Worlds". The three worlds are Palembang (his homeland where he was prince), Bintan (his wife's homeland), and Tumasik – the last being the island where he caught sight of an unknown creature resembling a lion. Viewing this as a good omen, Sang Nila Utama built his new city there, naming it Singapura (Lion City). Fittingly, the novel is divided into three sections, "Palembang", "Bintan" and "Tumasik", with each section taking place at its namesake locale.
Unfortunately, the novel is bogged down by its attempt to transverse genres. One part bildungsroman and one part historical epic, 3 is ultimately conflicted and unsure of its identity. At certain moments, the novel seems more like a historical period drama: one of the many subplots is the struggle between Sang Nila Utama and his brother-in-law, the Majapahit emperor, for control of the region. At others, the novel becomes an exposition on the geopolitics and economics of the region. Then there is the romantic subplot involving Sang Nila Utama and his wife, Vani. Not to mention the fact that the novel is also trying to act as a biography of Sang Nila Utama himself as he matures from reluctant prince to regal monarch.
Udayasankar's attempts to keep all the plates spinning robs these elements of any in-depth development. Chapters are overcrowded with details as they oscillate from serendipitous encounters between characters to heavy discussions on politics and governance.
The forced changes in tone and subject happen so frequently as to be jarring. For instance, chapter four from the second section of the novel condenses Sang Nila Utama's nuptials with Vani into a brisk 12 pages. The chapter begins with Sang Nila Utama's discussion with his father before segueing into his conversation with Vani. It then concludes with his observations of his brothers-in-law (both emperors themselves) utilising the wedding as an opportunity to engage in diplomatic discussion. The shift from politics to love and back to politics again takes place rapidly. The novel rarely feels like a complete whole but as disparate episodes pieced together. Like a soap opera trying to balance a huge cast of characters, 3 struggles to bear the weight of Udayasankar's ideas. The reader can barely enjoy one of these elements before being introduced to another.
It might have been better to expand the book into a trilogy, rather than just having three sections. That way, there would have been sufficient space to develop all the themes and ideas.
The characterisation of Sang Nila Utama is also hit and miss in terms of appeal. Udayasankar presents Sang Nila Utama as a figure averse to monarchy and governance. The refusal to take over the reins of leadership in favour of finding his place in the world makes his tale relatable to modern readers. Udayasankar presents his thoughts in a very serious, sometimes monotonous tone, with mixed results. When it works, it does showcase Sang Nila Utama's unflappable resilience and magnanimous leadership. For instance, Sang Nila Utama articulates his ambitions and drive to build a better society: "We build slowly, but with precision and clear intent, and each structure has purpose of trade as well as defence. We build ourselves; hewing rock, working sand and straw into brick. Each hand toils that much harder for the dream that drives it."
Here, the serious tone highlights his wisdom and love for his people. However, Udayasankar seems to rely too much on this style of writing. When it is used in inappropriate areas, the passages reek of self-seriousness and pomposity. For example, Sang Nila Utama muses on growing up: "The apprehension of adulthood, I conclude, is itself proof of its existence. I would like to treat this unremarkable epiphany with the same indifference I have shown to my long-lived youthfulness, but my relatively short experience has taught me this much: Regret is inevitable."
This is perhaps Udayasankar's attempt to connote stoicism, but the suffocating use of such formal language makes the novel laughable at times.
This is not to say that the novel lacks merit. The attempt to weave in the theme of self-discovery is one of 3's strong suits. Sang Nila Utama's encounter with the indigenous people of Tumasik in the third section is handled very well. Originally, Sang Nila Utama had viewed the monarchy as a distant, benevolent ruler. The collection of taxes was to him a fair exchange for the protection his navy would grant against piracy. Sadly, the poverty of the indigenous people has trapped them in a double bind. They are unable to pay the hefty taxes and have to weather attacks from both the navy and the pirates.
It is only when Sang Nila Utama is confronted with the indigenous people's troubles that he realises the error of his prior thinking. The failure of the monarchy to empathise with the people's struggles has robbed it of its legitimacy. The melting of his misplaced sense of self-righteousness and indignation comes about naturally. His tacit enlightenment as he comes to terms with the difference between subjugation and leadership is a high point of the novel.
Udayasankar's clear, simple language here triumphs over her heavy narrative ambitions. Her writing injects authenticity and believability into this particular episode. Sang Nila Utama goes from having his face "redden with shock" to then being at a "loss for words" with "mute acceptance". This episode unfolds naturally, building up in intensity without being wrapped up in an obsession with politics and economics.
Such successes only highlight the lost potential of 3. The novel is held back by its strained attempts to maintain several subplots and themes. The whole is sadly less than the sum of its parts. Maintaining its focus on a select number of themes would have made 3 a riveting journey. The novel really comes to life when it takes itself less seriously and lets the characters breathe and interact within the pages.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016