Book review: NAZI GORENG

In a remarkable debut novel, Marco Ferrarese writes about Malaysia’s skinheads, the country’s ethnic tensions and drug smuggling

By Bradley Winterton  / 

Thu, Mar 06, 2014 - Page 11

Half way through this finely-written, perceptive and intelligent thriller, a shocking scene occurs that’s hard to get out of the mind. Two provincial Malay skinheads, Malik and Asrul, are in the Malaysian island city of Penang. After attacking two foreign workers as “immigrant scum” who are taking jobs they show no inclination themselves of wanting to do, they find themselves in a car with two policemen. Together the four of them pick up two Burmese men and two Vietnamese women who are out on a date. The police, after abusing the Burmese in terms similar to the ones Malik and Asrul had used earlier to their victims, tie them up and drop them over a cliff. The Vietnamese girls are then ordered to perform oral sex on the policemen to avoid prosecution for visa violations.

In a parallel development, Malik and Asrul become involved in methamphetamine-smuggling for some rich Iranians. They then move up that particular hierarchy by setting out on a mission to bring back to their boss’s house a Chinese barman and drug-distributor who has started extracting a portion of his consignment and increasing his profits by cutting it with chemicals.

After encountering a rival drug-smuggling gang run by gun-toting Nigerians, the pair are moved by their new employers out of Penang, Malik to Johore Baharu and Asrul to Taipei. This last is described as clean, modern and attractive, and, perhaps significantly, the book’s only sex scene takes place there.

Nazi Goreng is a grim but haunting debut novel by a maverick author who’s very understandably described in the blurb as being set on “bringing danger back into literature.”

In a radio interview, author Marco Ferrarese has said that Malaysian skinheads generally have no knowledge of what European fascism was all about, and that most of them don’t see themselves as modern Nazis anyway. But he does claim an insight into the non-Malay worlds within Malaysia, something his Malaysian-Chinese girlfriend helped him achieve. This aspect of the country, he says, has up to now been insufficiently portrayed, and his “sub-cultural-inspired crime fiction … screamed out to be written.”

The novel’s central tension is between the two young Malays. Whereas Malik is hard-bitten and cynical, Asrul is shocked by violence, and in so far as he expresses anti-immigrant feelings, he does so in imitation of his colleague. He also falls for an attractive Indonesian girl, Siti, and Malik’s antipathy to the budding relationship on racial grounds looks as if it’s going to provide the engine for the plot as a whole. Things turn out differently, however, in ways it would be wrong to reveal.

The book is extraordinarily well-written for an author writing in a second language (Ferrarese, though having spent a long time in Asia, is Italian and was born in Milan). High-heeled shoes are described as “foot-binding torture towers,” and the text contains words like “cyanotic.” Everything is very well-crafted, with, for example, the variation between neutral scenic description and emotive dialogue confidently managed.

Ferrarese comes from a background where Nazism and Fascism were once serious things. Instead of writing yet another historically retrospective novel, however, he deals with the movement known as “Malay power,” kuasa melayu, something he says extends from Malaysia itself to Indonesia and the Philippines. Ferrarese, who’s also a punk-rock guitarist, first saw into this scene at his various gigs, though he admits that the movement’s followers proved hard to talk to.

He also recalls that he used to sell CDs, and remembers that white-supremacist music sold well everywhere. Malay supremacists aren’t white, of course, and Ferrarese also notes a contrast between his native Italy (ruled over by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini from 1922 to 1943) and modern Malaysia. Italy has always had one main race, one religion and a unified culture, whereas Malaysia is by contrast multi-ethnic and diverse.

There’s no sympathy for fascism in any form in this book, and Ferrarese is clearly an educated thinker of a liberal persuasion. Even so, he ended his radio interview by saying he had been in Malaysia long enough to know that there were certain things that couldn’t be said there.

What he’s perhaps referring to here is the government policy of ketuanan melayu, or Malay supremacy, that reserves a special position for Malays (bumiputra, or sons of the soil), notably in education, allowing them to enter into universities, for instance, with lower qualifications than are required from the Chinese or Indian minorities. This policy of positive discrimination for the majority was supposed to be in place for only a limited time, but has to date remained unaltered.

Nazi Goreng — a title that plays on the popular local dish nasi goreng, or fried rice — is a welcome addition to the literature on the region. Maybe it took a foreigner living in the country to shine a flashlight on the racial tensions, police corruption and adolescent fascist sympathies that characterize some areas of Malaysian life. The novel certainly appears to have been well-received by the Malaysian middle-classes, many of whom, of course, owe their position in society to the favoring of Malays enshrined in government policy, a state of affairs of which punk-rock neo-fascism is at best a grotesque parody.

I found this novel easy to read and engrossing. It contains a Chinese character, a “mule” who carries drugs over borders (including into Taiwan) tied up in condoms deep within her digestive system. Both Asrul and, you feel, the author are disgusted by this, but it’s a part of the world Ferrarese seeks to portray, and the novel as a whole presents that world with no holds barred. He’s to be congratulated for balking at nothing in doing so. My only reservation is that it would have been nice to have had more evocations of punk music in the text. It is, after all, obviously something Ferrarese knows a good deal about.