Text, Power, and Control in Gopal BarathamÕs A Candle or the Sun

Valerie Braman, class of 2000.5, EL 119, Brown University

The act of writing, the role of text, and the impact of stories appear consistently throughout Gopal BarathamÕs novel, A Candle or the Sun. The protagonist, Hernando Perrera, takes refuge in his writing. Although he holds a position as the head of the furniture department at BensonÕs, a local department store, it is clear that it is not this, but rather, his time alone with his typewriter, that comprises his true vocation. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that HernieÕs conception of himself and his role in life is closely tied to his understanding of himself as an author.

Hernie uses his stories not only as an outlet for creative expression, but also as a means of facilitating his understanding of and progression through the events in his life over which he increasingly feels he has no control:

My stories were indulgences. They were my designs for experiencing an inaccessible world in the only way possible: with words. They were discoveries, not parables. (p. 82)

It was then that I decided that I would begin writing the story of Cornelius Vandermeer; that I would pin his life to paper, and in the process remove him from mine. I was reluctant to do this. The Captain had for such a long time participated in the goings-on of my life that it was difficult to imagine him enjoying a circumscribed existence on a few pages. My fatherÕs dying was but one of the several things happening to me. I knew that in CorneliusÕs life I would find answers to some of the others. (p. 147)

Repeatedly, the reader becomes aware that Hernie feels either out of control over or unable to fully comprehend the developments and changes taking place in his life. As we may see from the second passage mentioned above, the reader also learns that Hernie considers the characters in his stories to transcend their fictional roles to the point that they become almost more real to him than do the people with whom he actually interacts in the novel. Hernie imagines an exchange of responsibility between himself and his characters, most prominently, the captain, for making decisions and taking action upon them. (In reference to the Captain, Hernie says "It meant that he would enter into one big decision in my life but would be denied participation in all the others that lay before me." (P. 147))

Finally, Hernie overcomes the writerÕs block he experiences as he tries to tell Cornelius VandermeerÕs story. The way in which he does this speaks to the way in which he envisions the concept of control as it relates to both his writing and his life:

It had finally dawned on me why I was unable to write about the CaptainÕs last days. I had had, for some time, the feeling that the events in my life had been taken out of my control, that a path existed along which I was tracing some pre-ordained course. This was correctÉ.In elucidating [the CaptainÕs] life fully, I was taking control of my own. (pp. 157-158)

What does it mean that, in a text which calls attention to its own status as a story, the main character seems most alive and functional only when he is engaged in his own process of storytelling? What might Baratham be trying to say about the role of text in Singapore, in countries existing in totalitarian conditions, or postcolonial nations in general? Is there a certain element of power and control inherent in holding the pen, or is one always subject to editors, either known or anonymous?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Gopal Baratham