Fragile Books, Fragile Selves: Past and Present in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Like a good number of other postcolonial novels, Abraham's Promise considers the roles of writing and print-based information technologies in what had once been alien contexts. In the Zimbabwean context created by cultures that did not have written language before the arrival of Europeans, the collision of oral and written cultures becaomes a major subject, something one sees in the Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain and Chenjerai Hove's Bones. Other African novels, such as Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Yvonne Vera's Nehanda, instead heroically attempt to recreate the oral world within the form of the print-based European novel. Jeyaretnam's protagonist, instead, confronts the fragility of the book as a physical object, something particularly poignant since he so obviously sees his beloved Latin and other classics as an image of himself:

Memory, having swept me back to the heady days of the War's eve, now drops me indecorously back in the present. I am seated at my desk, facing the row of books that stand against the wall between dusty bookends -- large ungainly wooden elephants whose tusks have long since broken off. The spines of the books are marked by frequent use. The pages are yellow, blotchy and discoloured. Looking at these repositories of learning, my best friends, I pity their sufferings from our heat and humidity. Scholarship can never conquer in these parts: every seeming victory is mocked by the steady workings of the climate, a climate that rots wood, paper and fabrics with democratic indiscrimination. Perhaps it was always a hopeless battle, and with that thought comes anger, momentarily shaking my body, reminding me of my increasing frailty, leaving me slumped in the chair. [19]

Like several other postcolonial and postimperial works -- Swift's Waterland and Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day come to mind -- Abraham's Promise employs a retrospective mode to emphasize questions of personal achievement and personal responsibility in a political context. Furthermore, like Swift's novel, the narrator is a teacher who has lost his students and who is looking back upon his life. Swift's Tom Crick, who tries to explain the value of stories in reclaiming human lives, argues against confusing reclamation with empire building. Waterland thus serves as a political, moral, and philosphical critique of the entire imperial project. What are Jeyaretnam's comparable points?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Philip Jeyaretnam