THE WELL-READS | Ah… the Fragrance of Durians by David Leo

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Looking to bite into fleshy, pungent and provocative tales that support the pillar of Singapore’s literary scene? Ah.. the Fragrance of Durians is a book that needs no further persuasion. A quiet antique from the 1990s, it is time to celebrate stories that do Singapore literature justice.

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You know satire has been honed to a fine edge when, even in its absurdity, the people are provoked to debate about it. Mufti News, a local satirical website, that is mysteriously uncontactable now, recently triggered a sensitive public outcry by posting a notice declaring durians haram. Though the dusty messiness of it has now been cautiously settled, a cold case of social and cultural turbulence that still remains unclosed comes to mind.

David Leo’s collection of short stories, Ah… The Fragrance of Durians, comes packaged with a moist and succulent durian-temptress all ready to turn durian lovers’ eyes glassy. Passersby may take a glimpse at the book and laugh it off as a durian season ad.

Behind the façade lies unsettling stories of poverty, injustice and hypocrisy. Indeed, an unaware reader may be caught unprepared by the emotional and mental storms that rob him of words.

From the very first tale, “Ah… the fragrance of durians”, Leo gives us a glimpse of his unpredictable prosaic hand. Expecting a celebration of praise of local culture from the deceiving title, I was dumbfounded to find that Leo wryly weaves a tragic, “I-was-almost-there” tale. The climax peaks, ironically, in the loss of everything old Madam Moh has:

“Just as she took it out, a quick hand from behind snatched it away.”

It refers to her purse that she needed to buy her beloved durians with.

But it can also refer to her missing adopted daughter that she had raised painstakingly;

it can also refer to how society has left her behind despite her life-long worth of hard work;

it speaks of the small, uncompromising optimism she always had but is now also robbed from her.


Liu Kang, Durian Vendors (1957) paints a scene that uncannily reflects that of Madam Moh’s obsession with durians. From shaking the durians, sniffing the durians, examining their thorns | Image Credit: Liu Kang Family Collection at Singapore Art Museum

Fast forward to the last chapter, appropriately titled “Finale”, Leo constructs an entirely different scene of a pastor attempting to console, yes, console a girl whose mother she assumed was dead, but miraculously survived, after all the funeral preparations are finalised.

“Finale” ironically ends with a perplexing cliffhanger when Rev Anthony suddenly loses his voice and does not answer his churchgoer. His entire presence disturbingly fades away from the story. What are we to make of it, I cannot say.


Gifeon Mack
Similarly, Scottish author, James Robertson, rewards his avid readers with a spectacular novel on the fantasies and hypocrisy of a possibly insane pastor who eventually meets an unexpectedly charming devil.

Complement this precious gem of a book with its potent contemporary counterpart, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe. Both are treasures that build the foundation of Singapore Literature. For singular short stories, Alvin Pang’s What Gives Us Our Names  offers a profound reflection on life and Chew Chia Shao Wei’s The Rock and the Bird is a beautiful timeless read on friendship that caters to both children and adults.

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