Corruptions of Language as a Theme in "A Candle or the Sun"

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

At several key points in the novel, the narrator presents people who use language to disguise some unpleasant fact or hide from it. Whereas his parents try to use borrowed narratives to enable them to shape their lives and to get through particularly painful parts of them, Dr. Chan, the cancer specialist treating Hernie's father, uses professional language -- jargon -- to avoid having to deal with painful matters or to act in a more humane, feeling way. When the doctor's jargon bewilders his mother, the narrator steps in at her request and asks, "Is my father's case terminal, Doctor?" To which the oncologist responds:

"Terminal?" he said, turning the word round his tongue as though unused to its taste. "Terminal? He cocked his head to one side and looked into the distance. "I think I see what you mean, but these crude, lay terms never give you the true picture." He smiled at my mother, a benediction. "We don't think like that any more.I would say that Mr. Perera's case is advanced. I would say that it is a single organ problem. I would say that had he come to me earlier I would have been able to do more for him. I would say that, as things now stand, my therapeutic options are limited." [47

Ignoring narrator's annoyed question, "How long has he got?" (47), the doctor instead addresses his mother, "Terminal is such an ugly word. An unnecessary word" (48). Unnecessary, one wonders, for whom? Unwilling to convey bad news, unwilling to admit the limitations of his physican's power, Dr. Chan uses periphrastic language to keep away unpleasant aspects of reality.

Baratham's bitter, heavy-handed satire, which continues for several more paragraphs, here has no obvious political elements or targets. It does, however, follow much the same method of exaggeration he uses in the second chapter when Baratham mocks Samson Alagaratnam's parrotting of the political party line (17-18). The satire in Sam's case appears far more ambiguous: whereas the doctor's evasive language clearly makes a point about how professional jargon deforms language as a means of avoiding having to deal directly with painful situations, the target if Sam's jokey slang seems, in contrast, not as obvious. Is Baratham chiefly making fun of Sam -- that is, does his language work primarily as a device of characterization? -- or is the author using Sam to mock repressive political policies?


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.)

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