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The Soul of Malaya

HENRI FAUCONNIER (b. 1879 – d. 1973) was a French writer who was best known for his novel, The Soul of Malaya, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1930. He lived in Malaya in the early 20th century, where he was involved in rubber planting and was instrumental in introducing the oil palm to the country.

Translated from French Malaisie by ERIC SUTTON

Editions Didier Millet (New Edition, 2015)
223 pages including Appendices


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The Soul of Malaya tales the experiences of two French planters, depicts various types of Englishmen running plantations in Malaya, and captures the beauty and appeal of the land. This work is one of those rare novels that is on one level an absorbing drama and on another level, a social commentary. Part memoir, part fiction, the novel continues to capture the imagination with its intriguing character descriptions and “murder mystery” plot, as well as its insights into the Malayan society of the early 1900s.

Without prejudging the quality of modern Malayan literature, one may still class this work as among the few memorable novels in the country. Like Swettenham and Clifford, the author was a European pioneer who resided for many years in Malaya; but his experience as a rubber planter ensures a different vantage point. The title has a pretentious ring, as the plot revolves around the plantation, the key figures are ‘somewhat sophisticated Frenchmen’, and the local flavour is imparted through faithful descriptions of the natural environment and attempts to fathom Malay habits. The other characters provide the foil for the Frenchmen and, with the possible exception of Smail, appear too fleetingly to become life-size. Smail, already a latah, brings on a stock denouement by running amok.

The writing is evocative but hardly Conradian. But the novel’s significance extends beyond the plot. The old Malayan hand may find a familiar paternalism, while nationalists may discover the scheming-because-benevolent exploiter. The historian should gain some insights into the working of a microcosmic plural economy and the mentality of some of its members.

Author’s Note


CHAPTER TWO The House of Palms




Illustrations by Henri Camus
Biographical Notes on Henri Fauconnier
Family Photographs
The Prix Goncourt (press reviews)
Malaisie II (The Virgin Forest)
Translation of Malay Pantuns in The Soul of Malaya

Weight0.318 kg
Dimensions21.4 × 15 × 1.8 cm




Year Published

  1. Kawah Buku

    This year, the jury of the Goncourt Prize has been wise and happy in its choice. Malaisie is a delightful book, an elixir to sip, tasting its rare philosophy and beauty. It is not the story we admire—the story is nothing, just a jumping-off place, whence one dives into a sea of remembered loveliness; and the chief merit of this tale of how a gentle youth of the Malay Archipelago, falling a prey to the terrible hysteria of his race, ran “amuck” on a violent death, is that it prompted M. Henri Fauconnier to take up his pen and write. Thus, a pearl is, they say, started by an imperceptible insect, and Malaisie is indeed a pearl, rather baroque, not purely white all through, but still a shimmering gem.

    When M. Fauconnier first thought of his book he had retired to a villa In Tunisia, and to leisured ease; that episode of a young man in Malaya, conspicuous for his gentle and amiable character, overtaken by the peculiar homicidal mania of the Malays, set his mind thinking on old times, on those fifteen years which he also had spent in the Malay Archipelago, planting india rubber at the foot of wooded hills that rise at the back of Singapore. A certain spring was touched, and memory opened the door of her inexhaustible treasure-house, Old scenes (and even things which at the time he had been too busy to remark—or, at any rate, to think that he noticed) revived before his mind’s eye, endowed with a new significance; all the peace and beauty of Insulindia, the phosphorescent seas, the palmy shores, the fertile plains; the mystery of the jungle on the mountain-side where the tiger barks at night. And what a confusion of races—dark, graceful Tamis, vivacious Malays, Chinese overseers and English planters! — Times Literary Supplement, London, December 1930

  2. Kawah Buku

    […] The Soul of Malaya is an extremely strong work, and is the proof of an exceptional mastery and maturity of mind. In the Quinzaine Littéraire of 1 December, we wrote: The Soul of Malaya is a great event in French letters. It gives us pleasure to say so and joy to state it officially. Few books are as completely satisfying as this one. While nothing is more objective than a landscape, that of The Soul of Malaya is foremost a state of the author’s soul. It is like the issue of a union between him and the nature there. […] — Pierre Descaves, Avenir, 10 December 1930

  3. Kawah Buku

    The Soul of Malaya is Mr Henri Fauconnier’s first book. But consider how long he worked on it. A large part was written, significantly, before 1914. And while today the author is “over forty”, he has about him a youthful air that some writers of the post-war generation might envy. […] This book, which is an incessant invitation to travel and which contains vibrant illustrations of the Far East, is not far from being a masterpiece. And it is written in wonderful language, with a richness and density that make one almost dream in a time when so many novels have the tone but no longer have the style. — Le Petit Parisien, 10 December 1930

  4. Kawah Buku

    Here is a truly important literary event. A poet, a writer is born to us. The Soul of Malaya deserves to endure for the delight of mankind. — Frédéric Lefèvre, Le Soir, December 1930

  5. Kawah Buku

    Some writers, in regard to The Soul of Malaya, the work by Henri Fauconnier which has just won the Prix Goncourt, have reproached the Academy of ten for their choice, under the pretext that the book thus honoured is not a novel. […] The Academy should be unreservedly congratulated this year; it has judged very well, and thinking about it, I wonder if The Soul of Malaya is not in fact a novel, a novel whose essence is intimate and rare. […] We are dealing here not with one of those exotic novelists, one of those enthusiastic tourists who pass through a country like a train and jot down what they see through a gate or a palace window, but with a man, truthful and sincere, who, far from looking for dissimilarities with the native people, strives to love them in order to Understand them, and learns their language in order to penetrate the secrets of their poetry, their beliefs, their souls. […] An excellent prize, a very beautiful book. — Jean Vignaud, Le Petit Parisien, 16 December 1930

  6. Kawah Buku

    I see no better book than The Soul of Malaya, nor any that could successfully challenge it. — Edmond Jaloux, Nouvelles littéraires, December 1930

  7. Kawah Buku

    The English version, … now appears as The Soul of Malaya, and it will be read with keen interest by those who appreciate good literature and by those who are anxious to have a bock which gives a more accurate picture of life in British Malaya than any other that has yet been published. M. Fauconnier worked as a rubber planter for fifteen years in the country and the accuracy of his observation is equalled by his literary skill. After a plethora of crudely written and sensational novels of life in the tropics, this one is refreshing to read … It is difficult to put to words the fascination of The Soul of Malaya. There is beauty in it, and interest and humour. The illustrations, taken from photographs, are admirable. — The Times, November 1931

  8. Kawah Buku

    The Soul of Malaya is the most imaginative interpretation of the tropic scene written for a long time. With its subtle portraits of British rubber planters, Eurasians, Malays, and Tamils, and its equally subtle landscapes, it must become a classic of exotic life. Beyond that, it explains so much of France at a time when lovers of France desire that she should be understood. — Compton Mackenzie, Daily Mail, 10 November 1931

  9. Kawah Buku

    Malaisie is a beautiful book. Deep and thoughtful, filled with a manner of rare philosophy, possessed with a quality of art one associates more with modem France painting than with any prose—but this is getting too much of a blurbish quality itself… let us say once and for all that Malaisie by Henri Fauconnier, translated by Enc Sutton, is a perfect honey of a book. — Laurence Stallings, New York Sun, 10 November 1931

  10. Kawah Buku

    Many Englishmen know and love Malaya but their knowledge of it, from the nature of their vocations as planters, traders, government officials, is concern more with material facts of life than the philosophic or the spiritual. It has been left to a Frenchmen who has spent many years there as a planter, to give us a study not only of the country and its life, but also of the atmosphere and the soul of its people. He given it in a curiously fascinating and provocative book.

    There are, of course, innumerable books purporting to describe the life, habits, and diversions of practically every people in the world, but M. Fauconnier has succeeded in producing something different. — Spectator, London, November 1931

  11. Kawah Buku

    While Malaisie does give us a vivid picture of…Malayan life, its…chief interest lies rather in the character of Rolain, a French rubber planter, who has pitched his philosophy in the Oriental mold. It is in the intellectual discussions precipitated by the narrator with Rolain that the book rises above the common ground to rare altitudes. Thus under the strange spell of Malaya are we quickened to new philosophical vistas. New horizons unfold; we are stimulated, disturbed, and, occasionally a light flares forth to penetrate our very innards. Through Rolain and Smail, his devoted servant, we are vouchsafed glimmerings of the eternal, glimpses of ideas alien to the Western mind.

    And the tale, if tale it be, rises in the end to one of the most exciting climaxes in modern literature. All at once the seething tension underlying the tropical calm bursts forth in Smail’s running amuck, and we are carried through an experience which is dramatically terrifying.

    The brief report, I am afraid, does no justice whatsoever to the towering strength and beauty of Malaisie, a French book, moreover, which has been blessed with a translation by Eric Sutton far finer than is the lot of most foreign works. — Michael March, Citizen, Brooklyn New York, 21 November 1931

  12. Kawah Buku

    Last year the ten faithful guardians of naturalist “bibelotier” awarded the Goncourt Prize to Malaisie. It was a just and very plausible decision. More than plausible and fair, it was an amazing verdict for as literary achievement Malaisie stands decidedly outside the Goncourt tradition, and its author possessed no literary credentials, attended no cenacles, took to dinner none of the Immortals.

    For at least fifteen years Henri Fauconnier lived dangerously in the jungles and the rubber plantations of Malaya. His existence became, in more than one way, an inventory, a confrontation of values. His stiff European carapace gradually cracked under the ferocious impact of Malayan symbols: rich mystical folklore, flavorsome rituals, frank and cruel manifestations of Nature. Thus, Malaisie depicts a metamorphosis and a conversion Fauconnier travels the old Rousseau path now darkened on the one end by post-war disillusion and Splenglerian sombreness; radiant, on the other, with primitivism Malaisie tells of the return of the modern sophisticate to the noble savage. In this sense it can be classified among the best works of our rampantly fashionable new-romanticism.

    But despite the de-Europeanising quality of Malaisie, one knows that Fauconnier is not a member of a “group” playing with formulae and cliches. Like the Remarque of All Quiet, he writes because he must, because he has to. One finds in almost every page of his novel spontaneity and intimacy, an urgent confession, a burning testimony. Time and again one senses an adumbration of Gide and Conrad European institutions and behavior codes of fashion and ethics, are constantly questioned with that disconcerting and penetrative effrontery so typically Gidean. And the primeval background pregnant with color, silence and mystery throbs in subtle unison with the “heart of darkness”.

    But beyond these interesting parallels, Malaisie stands by itself—a great achievement unique in its kind, convincing through its fresh ideology and the sheer force of the passions which it contains. — Angel Flores, New York Herald Tribune, 6 December 1931

  13. Kawah Buku

    But what beauty of description, what profound revelation of the writer’s reactions to the mystery, the strange loveliness, the freedom of thought and action which can be lived in this land of haunted, sometimes menacing enchantment. Pierre Loti might have written this book. A book so very much more than a mere account of a planter’s life in a strange land. Work, love, friendship, lust, all woven into the texture of that revelation of a man’s soul, which is, more than anything else, a man’s life. How beautifully the book is written! One could read so much of it again and again. Two scenes especially stand out. The chapter when the author and his friend live for a little while naked, unashamed, unutterably free and happy in a lonely, exquisitely beautiful, palm-fringed bay, with only the sea and the sand and the sun above them for company. And again the chapter which tells of the terrible tragedy of a gentle-natured youth running amok until, hunted and desperate, he meets with a terrible end. To repeat, however, it is not so much the incidents in this book which make it so beautiful, so memorable; it is the reaction of the writer to the loveliness, to the mystery, to the loneliness of his strange existence. The book is exciting—mentally exciting, even physically exciting—because of its lovely qualities, and especially because of the author’s unusual treatment of the development of his own inner life and of the inner lives of those with whom he came into mental contact. — Richard King, Tatler, 16 December 1931

  14. Kawah Buku

    It was a happy circumstance that made M. Fauconnier embody fifteen years’ experience of life in Malaya in a work that is a blend of memoir and fiction, and it is significant that, like other European writers who are familiar with the country, he found his greatest interest in the Malays themselves. They are almost always in the foreground of his book. Their charm and courtesy, humour and indolence are depicted with unswerving fidelity, and it is the tragedy of a hysterical young Malay that provides an intensity of dramatic interest which the book would otherwise lack. The importance of The Soul of Malaya does not depend upon incident. Its unique value lies in the author’s genuine and perceptive knowledge and in his great literary powers. His love of beauty is evident in all that he writes. Malay rites and customs, legends and superstitions, are put before the reader without an unnecessary word. The English at their club, the urbane District Officer, the daily humours and annoyances of life on a rubber plantation, the vagaries of a peculiarly unattractive Chinese “boy” are all to be found. […] It would not be fair to say that the Malayan scene dominates the book, but the reader is always conscious of it. Its majestic beauty, vivid colour contrasts, and endless charm are to be glimpsed on every page; and, above all, there is the impression of timelessness that seems to strike most Europeans who have lived in Malaya. — The Times Literary Supplement, 17 December 1931

  15. Kawah Buku

    M. Fauconnier has given us a book of rare quality and charm. Written in the first person, it is undoubtedly autobiographical to a great extent. At the same time, there is a story and there are real characters, white men, and natives, who play an important part in the story and, one suspects, have played an even more important part in their influence on the author. For the real value of the book lies in the account it gives of the reactions of a fine mind to the personalities of others and to the host of influences, good and bad, real and unreal, physical and spiritual, which life in the tropics generally, and in Malaya in particular, brings to bear on the white man. It is impossible for one who has not lived In the tropics to apprehend these influences in any but the vaguest way, but it is easy to realise that only by absolute integrity and sincerity can a man record frankly his reactions to these influences and retain the respect of those to whom he is revealing himself. Fundamentally this is a book of self-revelation, and for this reason the enjoyment or otherwise of the reader will vary according to how far he finds himself in sympathy with, or interested in, the outlook of the author. It is probably safe to say that many people will enjoy this book, although some may be offended by the implicit denial of accepted moral standards. For besides sincerity, M. Fauconnier shows great sensibility and a power for common-sense reflection when it is needed. — Listener, December 1931

  16. Kawah Buku

    …I find myself at a loss as to what to say of it. It is a baffling book. When the author writes of his life as a rubber planter on the Malay peninsula he is amazingly vivid. Alternating, however, with these objective pictures are passages of speculation on the meaning of existence, always beautiful, often profound, but occasionally wrapped in an obscurity I could not penetrate.

    The author is French, and in the contrast between his mentality and that of the British Planters around him one sees the basic differences between the two races. He quotes an Englishman’s remark that “I like the French. They are a people without opinions, who always argue as if they had some.” It is characteristically French that he can quote such a remark, and agree with it, yet go right on arguing over non-existent opinions. […]

    Malaisie is not a book that I would recommend to everybody. True, I was absorbed right up to its mysterious and dramatic conclusion. I was startled and charmed by the torpedoes of wit over which one stumbles in his passage through prose that is alternate jungle and sunshine, such as: “Have you ever noticed that men have settled ideas only on subjects they have never thought about?” I was captivated, too, with such jewel-like passages of imagery as this: “Sometimes a long snake glided into the ravine like a thin cascade of oil.” That is exquisite! But how wide the appeal of all this will be, I frankly do not know. – Daily News, Chicago, 23 December 1931

  17. The Manchester Guardian

    It is a strange thing that the first satisfying picture of British Malaya should have been painted by a French rubber planter … To the European, life in the tropics can be glamorous or irksome. A mean between the two is rarely found. M. Fauconnier’s Frenchman, stationed on a remote rubber plantation in the Federated Malay States, was virtually compelled to choose between his own society and that of the Malays, and he found them as fascinating as many other Europeans have done … Among the most delightful things in the book is a spell of idle, primitive life on the lonely east coast, but to anyone who knows Malaya every page is a prompter to recollections of a loveliness that was once merely a commonplace of daily experience … It is no part of a critic’s duty to indulge in a welter of superlatives, but personal experience may be allowed to vouch for the accuracy of The Soul of Malaya. The excellence of the characterisation and the economy observed in the writing speak for themselves. – The Manchester Guardian, 30 December 1931

  18. Rosita Forbes, Sunday Times

    If Kipling had known some of the French administrators in Indo-China, he could not have written of East and West that “never the twain shall meet,” for a certain type of Frenchman understands the unsophisticated Eastern as if he shared his bewildering birthright of subtlety and simplicity.

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