The first pages of Carles Casajuana’s Kuala Lumpur (2005) succeed in introducing the reader into a nation-state that is often only entered through the glamorous and picturesque propaganda of international sporting events (Formula One, the Commonwealth Games, etc.) or feats of record-breaking (tallest buildings in the world, etc.). The novel is particularly taken by the role of space in the construction of modernity, centering the plot and its characters around the Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, and now a spatial metonym of the topologic approximation towards Western modernity in the global South. It is no coincidence that the title of tallest building in the world has taken on a rotation among countries vying to establish themselves as modern global destinations. The recent riots in Brazil concerning the FIFA World Cup exemplify this political and ideological strategy, as it is not consistent economic growth and a politically and socially enlightened middle class that defines modernization, but the fixation on the construct of magnanimous spaces and their resulting series of events that systematically and conveniently locate such formally disparate topographies such as Kuala Lumpur and Dubai on a global mapping of development.1 This facet to the politics of development is repeatedly alluded to in Casajuana’s novel, as the Catalan writer-diplomat develops a cogent, calculated, and critical text that pulls no punches in delving beyond the simulacra of modernity that the nation-state projects through the populist slogan “Malaysia Boleh” by then-prime minister [End Page 67] Mahathir Mohamad.2 Instead of portraying the made-for-tourism places, faces, and cultural idiosyncrasies of multiracial Malaysia that the government has repeatedly disseminated through diplomatic and corporate channels, the novel chooses to peel away at the façade of racial harmony, political stability, and unmitigated economic growth, ironically, through the very space of Western mimicry, that is, the Towers.
Written in a noir style, Kuala Lumpur traces the efforts of Jordi Sureda (a Spanish diplomat) to find the killer of Miguel Cuadrado (a Spaniard employed by a subcontractor in the Towers). Cuadrado is murdered in the basement of the Towers, and the police are quick to blame Andrés Miñambres as a suspect. The latter maintained a clandestine relationship with the former’s wife, fueling the police’s hypothesis that this is a crime of passion. Facing this situation, Sureda must navigate the corrupt local and foreign authorities to exculpate Miñambres.
The novel is not the first Spanish-language text to locate its diegesis in an East/South/Southeast Asian space (and neither will it be the last), but it bears special consideration in that it is the first to exclusively concern itself with contemporary Malaysia, though colonial and 19th-century pieces have mentioned the Malayan peninsula. Unlike contemporary works that profit from the editorial and market fascination with a generic, sterilized, and enlightened Orient through the depiction of clichéd cultures, characters, and places (see Santiago Roncagliolo’s Tan cerca de la vida, for example, which is more an encyclopedia of contemporary Japanese culture than a real foray into its underlying mechanisms), Casajuana goes beyond simply locating his text in Asia. This can be evidenced by how the novel opens with the plotline of Ravi Subra, an Indian-Malaysian contractor who guides the narrative towards a critical reading of the racial politics of the nation. By introducing the reader to Kuala Lumpur via the figure of Subra, Casajuana subtly destabilizes the political myth of racial harmony and its politics of favoring the ethnic Malay. This critique is repeated through different characters in the novel, and signals [End Page 68] to the reader the text’s aim in destabilizing official narratives of the country.
This is primarily done through the investigation surrounding the murder of Cuadrado within the underground parking of the in-construction Towers. This diegetic element proves ominous, as the place of the murder, within the space of varying political/social/economic projects, comes to the fore, as the narrative process of finding the villain is intimately linked to the construct of spatiality. The protagonist, Sureda...