Searching for Redemption

Heather Sofield

Hernando Perera of Gopal Baratham's A Candle or the Sun, is, at first reading, a rather pathetic character. He seems to look at the world from a withdrawn and slightly disapproving perspective. He does not exude any apparent passions for his job, his family, or his marriage -- to which he is actively unfaithful. Yet without any particularly likable qualities, we, as readers, are drawn into him. We connect on some level and hence become involved and caring, however difficult it may be to explain why.

Hernie isn't traditional hero material. So what are those connections between our own lives and this literary life? Do we sympathize with his apathy? Do we sympathize with his mockery of his parents affection? Do we sympathize with his adultery? Certainly such aspects of Hernie's existence are mirrored in the lives of many. He is not the first or only person to sneer at his parents or cheat on his wife. Yet it is not this which draws us to him. In fact, what we recognize in Hernado Perera is something greater -- a seed of something we all can understand. The desire for nobility.

Deep down in the soul he pretends not to have, Hernie Perera is obsessed with a desire for greatness. He isn't completely aware, but he wants to be a hero. On the surface he is satisfied with his life. There is nothing "wrong" per se with his life, and yet in the course of the novel he becomes more and more involved with situations which bring an intensity to his life. Whether these situations are good or bad is not the point - they serve to provide sharp contrasts within the topography of his heretofore bland and ignoble emotional landscape. What pulls Hernie into such positions? I do not believe he is the victim of bad luck or random unfortunate situations. Instead, his own subconscious desire for something greater creates a magnetic pull he cannot escape.

The publication of the first street-paper evokes a surprising response in Hernie. He trembles with unease and anticipation before reading it. He claims that although he himself is not bothered by the rigorous governmental control in Singapore, it is indeed possible that others might be affected. Therefore he felt himself to be

"beginning vicariously to share their deprivation." (page 58)
But the real truth is that Hernie is as much a member of the street-paper's target audience as any other Singaporean.

"You are unhappy and you dare not admit this to anyone. Certainly not to your masters in the government. After all you have no right to be unhappy..." (page 56)

Hernie is unhappy but he dares not admit it. Even to himself. He becomes to us, a remarkable illustration of human psychology. Like the child who misbehaves to attract attention, Hernie engages in a series of betrayals which ultimately allow him the possibility of redemtion. And, like the errant child, his actions are not conscious. His awareness is not necessary for the validity of his motivations.

His first betrayal is of course his relationship with Su-May. In engaging in an adulterous affair he is betraying his wife Sylvie. It is not important that Sylvie is completely unaware. What excites Hernie is the element of mystery and deception. The appeal is in the danger.

Hernie imagines himself the victim as well. Su-May, from her friends in the Children of the Book cult, experiences pressure to terminate her relationship with Hernie. In the garden of the house where the Children meet she attempts to end the affair. Hernie is catapulted into an intense rusing in which he likens his experience to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas in Gethsemane. He imagines that Su-May has betrayed him. But a moment of foreshadowing follows, which points to the further role of betrayal in this tale.

"I did not know then, that I would once more feel betrayed in that garden in the Tampines and that it was not Su-May or the Children, but I who would ultimately be guilty of treachery." (page 27)

It is this hint which leads us to the greater issue within this story, the most significant act of betrayal. Hernie, upon discovery of the imminent reorganization of Benson's, considers taking a job with the Ministry of Culture, of which his childhood friend Samson is the leader. But in order to be considered trustworthy by the government, he must offer information, he must betray someone. When he becomes aware that Su-May and Peter and the other Children of the Book are the elusive distributers of the controversial street paper his path is clear. His thirty pieces of silver are security and a cushioned government job. His fist closes around that bag and the deal is done. He is unable to retract the information offered.

It is not long before Hernie recognizes the gravity of his actions. His betrayal is no paltry affair. He must quickly make passage from a world where the consequences of betrayal were only a tantalizing possibility, existing mainly in his imagination, into the real world where someone he loves will suffer and perhaps die because of him. He is confronted with a choice between the life he has just chosen and somehow achieving a form of redemption by helping Su-May and Peter escape the havoc he himself has unleashed.

As we all know, Hernie chooses the path with a possibility of redemtion. His shame will overwhelm him and so he risks all to help Su-May and Peter flee the country. And as was to be expected, he is arrested for his involvement and loses any chance at that life of comfort he had imagined for himself.

What is most striking about the finale of this novel is what leads me to hypothesize that this desire for redemption is Hernando Perera's most noble quality. Hernie is not angry. He does not regret. As he lies prostrate at the feet of his torturers he does not, finally, imagine himself a victim, or even a victimizer. He has passed beyond such games into a higher realm. He accepts his beatings with a calm that borders on insanity or senility. In his pain, Hernie finds refuge in a vision of a pregnant Su-May, dispensing medical supplies and helping other women in the grassy shadow of Kiliminjaro. She is safe. In the swell of her belly he sees the seed of the future. A promise he never was able to consummate in his own life, but which may now prosper. The magnitude of his mistakes, the hopelessness of his present condition, the mercilessness of his guardian angel- tormenters, are nothing to him for he has achieved, ultimately, a sense of meaning we all search for, redemption.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Gopal Baratham