Lee Kok Liang, London Does Not Belong to Me,
Petaling Jaya: Maya Press, 2003, 332 pp
Susan Alice Fischer
London Does Not Belong to Me can be a frustrating, but intriguing read. The reader gropes to get a handle on what is going on in much the same way as the unnamed Asian narrator struggles to understand London and the relations he develops there. Set in the 1950s, but unpublished until now, the novel by the Malaysian author Lee Kok Liang (1927-1992) examines the narrator’s experience in the western capitals of London and Paris.
We are first introduced to the narrator and three young women, Beatrice, Cordelia and Arlette, when he calls at their London flat. Although initially a guest of Beatrice, he finds himself drawn to Cordelia with whom he develops a relationship of sorts until she disappears. His quest to find her becomes the thread of the novel until he leaves London for his country of origin. As this loose plot develops, more characters arrive on the scene. Gradually the female characters give way to greater attention to the narrator’s uneasy interaction with a series of male homosexual and bisexual characters. As his association with them is explored, so too is his relationship to place, culture, sexuality and power.
Despite great attention to detail, the relations the novel explores remain murky, perhaps deliberately so. The narrator displays the hyper-awareness that often accompanies the experience of being an outsider. Particularly in the early chapters, the narrator heaps details one upon the other. Some of these are quite evocative of the specificities of place and culture. While finely observed, they form a fragmentary picture. The subterranean motivations of the characters are influenced by relations of culture, race and power-and gender and sexuality — and remain out of the narrator’s — and the reader’s-grasp. While the reader is tempted to give up at various points, the novel does gel, particularly around the halfway point, with the focus on the narrator’s search for Cordelia and on his relationship with the male characters.
Tristam, about whom the narrator has ambivalent feelings, is at the centre of a group of mostly homosexual men, who attract and repel the narrator. During this time, too, the narrator’s relation with Beatrice becomes explicitly sexual. On one level his pursuit of Cordelia parallels a search for a place in London. It would be perhaps oversimplifying to read the men in his life solely as predatory western colonisers of his eastern body or his sexual relations with Beatrice only as a misogynistic attempt to counterbalance that power. While these aspects are present, the narrator’s attitudes to women and to gay men are complex.
Most of the other characters in the novel are western expatriates from Ireland, Australia and the United States. One exception is Gopal from India, who has a mental breakdown caused in part by his uncomfortable relations with women, particularly in the English context, and triggered by a group of girls laughing at him because of his manner of dress. Though the narrator scrutinises him with characteristic detachment, one senses that he understands something of Gopal’s experience that the others do not and that he recognises that Gopal’s fate could be his own. Indeed, his obsession with finding Cordelia, which appears to be his sole driving force throughout the rest of the book, parallels Gopal’s own difficult relation with place, sexuality and identity.
In the end, the narrator remains unconnected to London and to the other characters. One never has a clear sense of how much any of the characters, except perhaps Beatrice, care about one another. Rather, they bounce off each other at the points where their vulnerabilities lie, but the connections are tenuous, and this can be read as a critique of western society. Most of the characters live in isolation in their various London bed-sits, hooking up with each other for brief moments before moving on to bounce off someone else’s loneliness. The narrator’s desire for connection is thus never fulfilled. Once Cordelia disappears, the narrator tries to maintain his link to her through others. He sees Beatrice in the hope that she will keep him informed of Cordelia’s whereabouts, and they develop an unbalanced relationship in which Beatrice seeks love, while he seeks connection to Cordelia through her. He also forms an awkward alliance with Tristam, who is searching for Cordelia’s friend and his occasional lover, Steve. Each thinks the other may lead to the love object. Instead, Tristam’s French friend Guy and unreliable evidence of a Cordelia-sighting lead the narrator to Paris, where rather than finding Cordelia, he experiences a subdued current of attraction to Guy and his wife.
This is a sombre novel, with few moments of light. The London portrayed is cold, damp, dark, alienating and inhospitable. It is also impenetrable: no matter how closely the narrator observes London and its inhabitants, he cannot enter London, much less own it. Indeed, the narrator meets hardly anyone who is a long-term Londoner; rather he exists in this loosely connected group of expatriates. Moreover, his connection to the city itself remains tenuous and fragmented. Most of the scenes in the novel take place in the interior spaces of the characters’ lodgings. Indeed, as the narrator says early on, ‘London was full of rooms. I went from one to the other’ (p. 9). In these fragmented social spaces, the narrator only partially enters the lives of others. These characters remain as closed off to him as he is to them. The map of London he carries with him at all times does not help him navigate life in London. For him, ‘London life was so abrasive, the human mind locked up in its loneliness ground away emotions, flinging them off like filings’ (p. 229). Cordelia’s attraction was that she had represented a ‘magnet’ for these ‘filings’.
This first edition of the novel is accompanied by worthwhile material about the manuscript, the author and his other work. The ‘Introduction’ by K. S. Maniam focuses helpfully on the narrator’s ‘witnessing’ or ‘watchfulness’. Syd Harrex provides a useful overview of the author, the process of editing the text of the novel and the novel’s connection with the author’s London and Paris journals. While attention was clearly paid to editing the novel and interesting details are given about why the novel was edited in particular ways, a number of typographical errors have crept into the book-minor faults that will no doubt be corrected in subsequent editions. Bernard Wilson’s critical essay, entitled ‘Submerging Pasts in London Does Not Belong to Me’ — a version of which appears in the first volume of this journal — throws light upon the themes in the novel and their relation to the life and work of the author.
To Cite This Article:
Susan Alice Fischer, ‘Review of Lee Kok Liang, London Does Not Belong to Me Petaling Jaya: Maya Press, 2003, 332pp’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2004/fischer.html. Accessed on [date of access].