Hernando's Struggle between Fear and Desire for Change in A Candle or the Sun

Maureen Grundy, Class of 2000, EL119

In his novel, A Candle or the Sun, Gopal Baratham attempts to depict the struggle of the seemingly ordinary Singaporean man living under a repressive government. As the story unravels, we see this man's hesitant emergence from complacency. While by the end of the novel, Hernando ultimately helps Su-May and Peter to escape persecution by the Singaporean government, he never ultimately becomes a symbol of revolution. He is intrigued by the defiance of the streetpaper, yet he never develops a firm political ideology. He waivers easily in his decisions and actions, one moment feeding the government information and the next he is aiding in the escape of the suspects. Instead, he comes to symbolize the common man caught between fear and a desire for change. The way in which Hernie juggles these two emotions makes him an identifiable character, a character to whom many people, not just Singaporeans, can relate.

With his character Hernie, Baratham makes a statement about the way in which people who are afraid to stand up for change construct their lives to create their own, safe reality. As Hernando constantly escapes into typing room to write stories and concoct fantasies, he escapes his dilemma between change and fear and creates a world where it is easier to think and to act. "While unhappy about the way in which Singapore was run, I was disturbed at the prospect of upheaval and uneasy in the company of people who proposed it. This was partly due to a natural conservatism. But there was a more important reason for it. In writing, I snatched images and sequences from my head, matched them against a well-ordered world and between the two concocted a reality essential to my well-being. Anything that threatened this process frightened me" (132). Here, Hernie's admission of his own uneasiness and conservatism explicitly demonstrates both his thoughtfulness and his almost instinctive apprehension to become politically involved.

Such apprehension feeds into Hernie's compulsion to remain stationary, to find security in the present without looking at a broader picture. "I am increasingly conscious of living in an eternal now, an unending present that makes tense meaningless. The events we see in sequence are with us all the time: an enormous canvas upon which we dare not gaze. Instead, we snatch glimpses of it and with piecemeal impressions impose sequence and a sense of time upon our lives" (140). Here, Hernie claims that people ignore what is actually in front of them; people ignore what is actually occurring around them and reconstruct a reality that is safest for them.

One of the most important impressions Barantham hopes to leave with his readers is that fear of action, fear of change, and fear of risks are powerful forces dictating the lives of thoughtful and unsatisfied people. Hernie struggles with this fear throughout the entire story, as he takes small steps out of his safety net and into his political environment. "'Fear is a strange and mysterious thing . . . To begin with, it's dazzling, painfully bright. A fierce and unavoidable force. Then we grow used to it, make ourselves excuses and find room for it in the secret places of our lives. Yes . . . we are indeed a flexible and accommodating people. We swallow our pride, we swallow our self-respect, not with difficulty, not as though it were broken glass, but smoothly, like shark-fin soup'"(133-134).

Does Hernie's struggle represent the human struggle between change and fear or is this struggle very specific to living under a post-colonial government? Do people really have a "natural conservatism"or is this conservatism imposed on them? Does Hernie ultimately escape his fear?

Baratham, Gopal. A Candle or the Sun. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991. {Note: Serpent's Tale, the publishers, are located at 4 Blackstock Mews, London N4, England.)

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Gopal Baratham