The House of Doors, in a way, is a sort of reverse engineering of The Letter by William Somerset Maugham,” says Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng about his latest novel, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize.
The Letter (1927) is that legendary short fiction based on the Ethel Proudlock case in erstwhile Malaya. Tan uses this play as the building block for his third novel in 16 years, completing his Malayan trilogy. “I read The Letter as a teenager, and found that Maugham had based it on a real murder trial based in Kuala Lumpur. That started my lifelong interest in the English author,” he says. “I wanted to imagine how Maugham ended up writing The Letter. So I took these elements from The Letter and sort of put it back. And it started at The House of Doors.”
The House of Doors has an intriguing structure. Three story threads meld into a fast-paced yet literary narrative, inhabited by a few real celebrities and events. The narrative explores the lives of the protagonists in terms of love and betrayal, silence and regret, truth and fiction, 20th century morality and the power of storytelling. And there’s a fourth thread — a strand of her own life by Lesley Hamlyn, one of the narrators. The plot is mostly set in the 1920s in colonial British society in Malaya, but leaps back and forth in time.
The first of the celebrities to appear in the text is Maugham himself. Known for travelling for his story ideas, he visits Malaya twice on this mission, accompanied by his long-time secretary and partner Gerald Haxton, who also appears in the novel.
Then there is Sun Yat Sen, the revolutionary and founding father of China, who lived for some time in Penang, to raise money for his cause. It’s these two connections to Penang, Tan’s place of birth, that he has recreated, adding a fictional offender from the Proudlock murder trial.
‘Maugham’s novels haven’t dated well’
Tan’s prose has been lauded for its lyrical quality, especially his metaphors from nature. And he works tirelessly on that part of his creativity. He does extensive research, collecting postcards, photographs, books, essays. Then, to a first draft where the research steps back and he simply tells the tale. Moving next to numerous edits, it’s close to a decade when Tan emerges with a novel — one worth waiting for, as his readers will vouch.
Tan mentions Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie as influences. “Also, Penelope Lively, whom I discovered a few years ago, her Moon Tiger is a masterpiece.”
What about Maugham, I ask. “Yes, he did, in a way, influence me, but not his writing style. His short stories are masterpieces. Some of his novels, I find, they haven’t dated well,” he says.
The last, obviously, is Tan’s primary concern. “I want my books to be timeless, to be here long after I am dead and gone,” he says. His books have been translated into multiple world languages — a dozen or two, including Marathi, for the first two books, and half a dozen already for The House of Doors.
This year, Tan was Chair of the International Booker Prize, which was awarded to Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter, translated by Angela Rodel. Did the experience change him? “Among a lot of things, it changed our perception of what constitutes a novel. The idea of a novel is such a western construct, isn’t it? It really opened up the horizon for me and my fellow judges.”
The writer, editor, trainer and translator works in English and Malayalam.