History, Memory, and Identity

Part 3.2 of Singapore/Malaysia Fiction

Ban Kah Choon, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Abraham's identity - who he is constructed through the intersections of memory, desire and history. As an old man who has endured 'three score and ten years' (p.11), he is left not with answers but questions, some about the world but most about himself and the choices that he has made:

The modern world, I believe, must abjure the old ways. The arrogance of those who ruled, keeping their subjects safe and reasonably prosperous, must give way to the democratic participation of all. Colonialism was fading, its shadow diminishing and young saplings of independence were thrusting into the sunlight. Youth, days of power and possibility. Yet in the end was it not I who was out of step with the world? (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.16)

In these lines we have the main elements of the novel's concerns. The immediate notes are those of memory and choice; did he or did he not choose correctly? What is his legacy? Has youth and its power of possibilities given way to old age and sterility? But equally close to hand are issues that the novel touches on - is colonialism over with the departure of the British? What is the relation between individual belief and social needs? what is modernism and postmodernism, as a corollary) and how does one give meaning and purpose to one's life and times? Our focus here will be upon the way these elements suggest a similarity with and a reworking of the concerns of Singapore/Malaysian literature. For it is this that comes to give Jeyaratnam's novel its distinguishing voice and its quality.

It is against history and its disruptions that Abraham Isaac comes to find himself. His Latin lessons are full of the wars of the Romans and the British. He is also fascinated with their conquests with the resulting spread of language and culture. However, these colonial wars pale into insignificance against the experience of the Second World War that broke up his family. Sister Mercy was sent to Colombo, where it was felt that she would be safer while his friend, Selvam, became a collaborator who worked for the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police. These series of disruptions accelerated after the war. A childhood sweetheart, Rose, met and married an Englishman. Abraham never could face this and his inability to forget her contributed to the failure of his marriage with Rani,

I did not go to see Rose off, pleading classes at the Teachers' College. Our goodbye, at the Chinappas' house on the eve of her departure, was stiff and formal, even though Charles was not present. The nights that followed were restless ones, my mind wandering to Rose, her voice soaring.... (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.66)

If Rose turned out to be the unforgettable image in his mind, she soon comes to show that Abraham is idealistic, caught in traces of imagery and notions which increasingly force him to be out of step with his age. Here he is contrasted first with Charles who is bold and determined in his pursuit of Rose as he is later with Krishna, the labour agitator who goes on to make a political career for himself. Trapped in his dreams and self-sorrows, Abraham does not even recognise the dangers of Rani's dis-satisfaction and her attraction to Krishna. Inevitably, he loses her without any real sense of the reasons:

How did she find it within herself to betray me? I had been a good husband to her, providing Christian leadership but in the most modern way: by example and inspiration. Rarely had I chided her or stood in the way of something she wished to do. Yet when I was down, when the world pressed upon me, she did such a thing to me (Jayaratnam, 1995, p.144).

If Abraham is critical of Krishna the political toady, he is himself not without fault, for like Krishna he is caught in the universal message of power and self-justification. If Krishna could always find a reason to excuse himself, or to justify anything he does, then Abraham too is guilty of the inability to see beyond his own point of view.

Abraham's failure and subsequent triumph form the narrative thread of the novel. His failure is the failure of an age trapped in its own discourse and ideology of power. His triumph, finding it in himself to ask his son's forgiveness for the harsh words and recognising the unique qualities of his son, turn the novel around. It shows individual belief and compassion winning over inherited discourses and values. In a sense, the novel shows us that colonialism with its strategies of power and control is not unique to the British or the Romans. It is present in all situations and Abraham is himself a victim as well as practitioner of this. Thus, he dismisses his sister's cries for help, convinced of his own needs and certain of his own masculine ideas of marriage. For he is as much implicated in its power structures as Krishna. Such humanism, the novel's ability to treat of the protagonist as human being rather than a mouth-piece gives Abraham's Promise its power. Significantly his response to Mercy's cry for help echoes .his words when confronted by his wife's desertion:

How could she, how could she have done it to me? It was late at night, the house shrouded in darkness except for the pool of light at my desk. I had been reading, yes, I can remember even now, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, its cover dark and sombre, the title typeset in heavy and portentous lettering (Jeyaratnam, l995, p.86).

Abraham comes dangerously close to self-pity here in his failure to practice compassion and to recognise the needs of others. For Abraham is himself caught in the turbulence of history and he is as equally uncertain and guilty as Krishna is; thinking of Rose - an image of imaginary romanticism that seizes his inner life. He says

But I too have contributed, even if I cannot compete with Charles's achievements. But for him how much easier things have been. It was simply a matter of dedicating one's life to serving a system whose justice (if one excepts the Communists) is universally acknowledged. Singapore is different. A new system had to be built. Some had different visions of the most just system, while others scrambled merely for power and influence. How could I have been expected to keep my balance in the shifting sands? (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.111)

What saves Abraham is his gradual realisation of humility, of how flawed human beings can be. And what makes Abraham's Promise a powerful book of art is that this realisation is presented through the self-reflexive gathering of awareness. Abraham's growth is achieved not just through events but through psychological changes that are indicated by his discourses. The tone with which he narrates the events in his life changes as he gains deeper understanding of himself. At the start, Abraham tends to see the world as dogmatically as everyone else. Indeed, there is little to differentiate him from Krishna and his certainties. Abraham at such moments plays the pontificating teacher to the hilt and his world is monological and enclosed,

I have at least a new pupil, although he is less a prospect for scholarship than a source of much-needed lucre. Anything would be better than having to depend on Victor. My son has done so well, has sold his soul so readily to the marketplace, has turned his back so firmly on all that I stand for, that I must never give him the satisfaction of contrasting my parsimony as a father with his generosity as a son (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.19).

Although Abraham knows that his son is generous, yet the bitterness that fills his soul, a bitterness that has less to do with Victor than with his wife's Rani and her affair with Krishna, fills his soul with unforgiving grudges. Abraham is defined not by description or statements but by the nature of his discourse. It is this which makes the novel reflexive; it is aware of its narrative and makes it show us the story rather than telling us a series of events.

If we compare Philip Jeyaratnam's first novel, Raffles Place Ragtime with Abraham's Promise, we can see how the latter novel is a much more significant achievement by virtue of its stylistic innovations. Raffles Place Ragtime shows strong qualities of writing. Philip has an ear for the rhythms of Singapore speech and the mannerisms that marked the yuppies and fast rollers of the financial world. However, the novel remains very much a standard realist narrative with a series of events unfolding through actions as we follow Vincent Tan through his various misfortunes. There is little difference in this way of telling a story from Robert Yeo's Holden Heng, or Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long. The reader needs to be told what is going on. The truth, as it were, of Vincent Tan and his bankrupt world, is given to us as a statement through Connie:

Connie felt lightheaded. Of course, it would be hard, harder than anything she had done before. Her refusal to stay in the race would be resented, seen as a presumptuous condemnation of the other runners. She did not know yet if she had the strength not to slide back into the mire of deadening expectations. Only time will tell (Jeyaratnam, 1988, p.146).

By associating narrative with time, turning the way we speak and think into different moments of maturity and awareness Jeyaratnam makes Abraham's Promise into an altogether different kind of novel- lyrical, intense and psychologically introspective.

In the process, he finds a narrative mode that brings together the central experience of Singapore history -- its variety, its often confusing polyphony of voices and experiences and its shifting uncertainties of personal beliefs and political affinities. Abraham becomes not merely the hero, the protagonist to whom experiences happen, but the very representation through his consciousness of the things and attitudes that he condemns and loves, resents and admires. In fact, he is contradictory, a fragmented series of voices and memories that happens to be held together by a name - Abraham. As critical theorists like Roland Barthes have pointed out, the character becomes a site through which the significances of desire and dogma are played out. In Abraham, the shifting discourses of memories, resentments, self-justifications, pride, heroism, pigheadedness and humility become him. He is the very variety, the very contradictory discourses that he speaks. How he handles these discourses, and comes in the end to accept them as part of his heritage (his memory) show his maturity and growth. So, realisation here is a gradual coming together of differing discourses, rather than a sudden moment of insight, as we find in Philip's earlier novel. We have moved away from a realist world to a lyrical, introspective world, which remains firmly anchored upon historical experiences.

How crucial this development is can be seen in the underlying comment on colonialism that emerges through the patterning of Abraham's reflections. For one of the advantages of this style is the way it brings together a number of themes unobtrusively, picking these up, commenting on them and then moving on to something else all the while allowing them to form part of a larger whole. The first chapter already puts in all the apparatus of a 'fading colonialism', and the tentative struggles to replace it. There is modernism, the search for different certainties in new knowledge (Abraham's son becomes a lawyer quite unlike the old Latin teacher), there is immigration and empire building, which Abraham illustrates by references to the Romans and Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid, there is also the competition of beliefs and ideology as seen in Christianity and democratic liberalism. With the departure of colonialism, alternatives must be found. Some, like Mr. Motilal

sided with the Japanese and looked forward to a Japanese-led war of Asian liberation from the White man's domination (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.18).

Others like Abraham's first love, Rose, sailed away to carry on life in England. Her letters to him show her choice and acceptance of Western norms - from her husband to its religion -

... I am sailing into a new future. I hope you will come and visit us in our new home, one day. But first, find yourself a good Christian girl to look after you. And work hard at Teacher's College. May God bless your endeavors (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.25).

But colonialism is not limited to the English, as a desire for power and domination is practised just as much by Asians, and even by those who had previously been colonised. The Japanese, for all their talk of an anti-colonialist struggle, are in the end as interested in domination and conquest as the Whites they seek to replace:

for everything that a Japanese person thinks makes him special, better than the rest of the world, comes from China. That sense of inferiority made them especially brutal towards the Chinese. As for Indians...they did have a horror of our skin. Our colour (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.50).

The novel thus shifts colonialism from a dichotomy of European superiority and Asian inferiority to larger issues of dominance and the desire for power. If the English were colonialists, so are the Japanese. We are also shown that Krishna, the labour agitator, is as much interested in dominance and his sexual conquest of Rani is an inevitable consequence of his lust for power. Abraham himself comes to feel the weight of official disapproval for his refusal to back down from his opinions. However, Jeyaratnam's handling is evenhanded here; if Abraham is the victim of power, he shows himself just as much a participant in the drama of power. His patriarchal superiority and dominance towards his sister, wife and son reveal that he reproduces the discourses of power that is so much a part of the colonial English and the conquering Japanese. Significantly, it is Rose who chooses to live in a colonialist land that presents Abraham with the truth of his relation to his son. It is her compassion and charity that contrast with his harshness and lack of love. She urges him to put his past behind and to accept the events that have followed,

'Whoever is Victor's biological father, you have been his father all these years. You did him a great wrong' (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.172).

It is this acceptance that shows Abraham has earned the right to the past. It also rejects the assertion that he had a the beginning of his recollections, that his son's "success will be my final failure" (Jeyaratnam, 1995, p.11). In such acceptance, in going beyond the Oedipal rage, Abraham shows that the past can be accepted and that heterogenity, the variety of experience that makes for Singapore's history, can be contained. So in the end his narrativisation, his art, produces order amidst the chaos of life and history. It is a triumph that also brings into being a truly Singapore voice.

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