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Sonorites pour adoucir le souci: Poesie traditionnelle de l'archipel malais.

The title of this florilegium of traditional poetry of the Malay archipelago adapts penglipur lara, Malay for "singer of tales." The lyricism of the French title is equaled by Georges Voisset's translations of sixty-four selections of a wide range of forms, from a classical epitaph (dated 1308) to a modern poem by Firdaus Abdullah (published 1965). Voisset divides the poetry into four sections: "Rythme," highlighting tales of the penglipur lara; "Chants," consisting of enumerations (perbilangan), epigrams, and pious recollections (dhikir); "Poemes"; and "Gestes," primarily charms and invocations. Voisset's translations are of a very high standard and do justice to karang, Malay for both "literary composition" and "floral arrangement."

The translations are flanked on one side by a useful introduction, and on the other by comprehensive notes and a bibliography. (To the bibliography should be added: Southeast Asian Languages and Literatures, ed. E. Ulrich Kratz, London, 1996, pp. 122-32, 241-308; and the works of V. I. Braginskii, especially The System of Classical Malay Literature, Leiden, 1993.) The introduction uses the works of earlier malayologues as a springboard for a more nuanced appreciation of the material. Voisset laments the paucity of French scholarship on the region but notes exceptions in Chambert-Loir and Lombard.

In analyzing the poetry, Voisset notes the confluence of three civilizations: Nusantara (Malay for "archipelago"), India (Hindu, Buddhist, Indo-Iranian, Javanese), and Islam (Arabic, Persian, Indian). Thus, the "Ken Tambuhan Epic," for example, is a rewriting of the Ramayana. The fact of competing models did not, however, lead to dilution or alienation in the literature. Instead - assimilating the influences epitomized for Winstedt by the figures of the Shaman, the Brahman, and the Sufi - Malay literature reworked outre-mer myths into a new mythopoesis. This is how the garuda, for instance, is - and simultaneously is not - both Vishnu's mount and the roc of the Arabian Nights. With the arrival of the latest in a series of Indian-Oceanic visitors, the Dutch, new myths developed (e.g., the Hang Tuah cycle).

Malay mythopoetics depended largely, for Lombard, on Travel and Journey. This is to be expected from a language eighteenth-century Europeans called the Latin of the Orient, and which the Malays themselves called bahasa pesisir, "coastal language." But Voisset notes several other important characteristics: Malay literature is deeply suffused with Sufi-mystical imagery; it emerges both from the court (literate) and the coast (oral); it reflects and sustains an all-pervasive feudalism; and it exhibits "a remarkable absence of the poetic I."

No one extract is, or can be, typical of either the original or the translator, but - following Voisset's criteria, "le plaisir des textes" and "promenade-decouverte" - here is a verse from the fairy-tale-like Syair Bidasari: "Un chanteur entame La fleur qui me tient / A la douce harmonie et aux accents anciens, / Les nobles mains frappent les tambourins. / Les trompettes apportent leur plaintes."

Sonorites's handsome cover, featuring an exquisite ivory-handled silver kris, is the foretaste of a delightful (and laudably affordable) collection.

Shawkat M. Toorawa University of Mauritius
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Author:Toorawa, Shawkat M.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:A Hut in a Grove.
Next Article:Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997.

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