In the Center of Authority is a distinguished modern classic in the study of 19th-century Malay texts. While most readings were concerned with historiographical themes, Hendrik Maier goes a step further—he reads the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, a well-known traditional history of Kedah, a small state in Malaysia, from a Barthian approach. This approach believes that a work is a tissue of many other works, that in turn were derived from other texts. Thus, a work is an intertextual apparition of other works that it has benefitted from. This is the cultural practice of intertextuality that Malay literary culture (and other literary cultures) is known for, as it is a part of a big ocean of practice, which shares its waters with those who live by its banks. This, Maier argues, is so because of its oral-aural character and literary culture of Malay literature, and the writer depends on it for his 'construction and signification.'
Hendrik M.J. Maier (1960 - ) is Professor, Literature of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, at the University of California, Riverside. He received his PhD in Indonesian from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, where he held the chair of Malay and Indonesian Language and Literature before moving to UCR in 2003.
Khairudin Aljunied, Associate Professor, National University of Singapore wrote:
This path-breaking study is so much more than an exploration of a Malay indigenous historical text. It is an exemplar of how to use primary sources of all kinds to re-trace the paths human minds have taken as they construct their pasts. What Amin Sweeney did for our appreciation of Malay oral literature, Hendrik Maier has done for 19th century written texts. This is an essential work for appreciating the complexity of Malay studies and the richness of Malay inventiveness. May it inspire more research by the current generation.
Anthony Milner, Australian National University, and author of The Malays (2008, 2011, 2019) wrote:
This is a classic study of a monumental text in the history of the Malay world. An erudite and versatile scholar of comparative literature, Hendrik Maier uncovers the shifting significance of the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, both by insiders and by outsiders, by admirers and detractors of all things Malay. He shows the ways in which orientalists’ rendering of the text altered what was once an organic and dynamic oral heritage into a textualized and ossified canon. Clearly, the project of decolonization is far from complete. By uncovering the fragments of colonial legacies that haunt us till this very day, Maier provides us with new ways to read and re-read Malay traditions. A gripping analysis of cultural imperialism that offers hopeful possibilities of resistance. A seminal work!
Muhammad Haji Salleh, Sasterawan Negara wrote:
The most exciting study of traditional Malay literature for decades, with wide theoretical implications. Circling around a single pre-modern text—looking at how that text has been read over time by British scholar-officials and modern Malaysians—Maier argues that colonial learning brought a break with the past, undermining the authority of heritage. Advocating ‘strong textualism’ and ‘intertextual’ methodologies—and the exploring of ‘strangeness’—he suggests such texts could assist in creating a new type of knowledge, less dependent on the West.
In the Center of Authority is an eye-opening book, with explores the heart of how literary culture is naturally shared and how composers absorb from that culture, and at the moment of composition, consciously or unconsciously, draws from other oral or written texts to write his story. Besides a close reading of the text, the personages, and the events, in the unfolding of the hikayat, Prof Maier also gives space to the contributions of British scholars like Hugh Low and Richard Winstedt and how their readings may also give some light to the reading of Malay classical texts. The study further looks at the various editions of manuscripts and the printed works themselves, along with analyses done on them, their possible function in a British colonial curriculum. However, in the end, Prof Maier finds order, though the thought of indeterminacies still lingers on.