Breaking the Tongue – Vyvyane Loh

July 31, 2010 § 9 Comments

It’s not a matter of finding out the truth; it’s a matter of finding out the lie. All versions are true except one.

This is the first book I borrowed from the Malaysian National Library since I’ve been back. I am slowly starting to get back into the groove of reading the penning down my thoughts, and what better book to start doing that, than a book written by a Malaysian/Singaporean, about the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in WWII?

For some reason, perhaps not that odd, I have always found myself drawn towards books that are set in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Even more so if the story is set in a time before now, during a time when we just got independence, or during a time of war, or even during a period long detached from today. So as would be obvious, I immediately jumped at this book when I saw it, returning to the shelves the book I already had in my hand, to be read another day.

Then again, perhaps that’s what expectations do to you. You get excited, you expect an epic, or at least some heart-wrenching moments, you hope to find some piece of yourself within a story which should resonate with your soul. And if that doesn’t happen, you get disappointed.

That’s not to say that this book failed to deliver. For the most part, I was entertained, I was quite drawn in, and most importantly, I believed the story. Set in Singapore just as the Japanese attack, the story is told to us from Claude Lim’s memory as he is being tortured for information by the Japanese. His soul seems to have left his body as he recalls the days from before the war, the way he learned to survive when the attacks started, and the friends he made during this devastating time.

Throughout all this, the issue of language and the barriers it can create was very much the focal point. This was the part I felt like I could completely connect with. Being English educated like Claude, I used to feel alienated when the people around me spoke Mandarin, or some other Chinese dialect (like Hokkien) which I could not understand. At times, while reading the book, it was like being reminded of the time when I still couldn’t understand the language, yet found it fascinating enough to want to learn it.

Chinese is a language that floats. No tenses, no moods, no declensions or inflexions, syntax malleable. Read left to right it can mean one things, right to left another. A Chinese character is flexible – now a verb, now a noun, an adjective, an adverb – an actor comfortable in all parts. Its nature is architectural; meaning is designed by relative position, by auxiliary words, parallel beams, juxtaposed elements. Tone is critical, as is perspective. A word is not just a word – is is a made image of the world, an idol to be venerated. Chinese is often spoken with the index finger pointing strokes in the air, pictures that reveal all and nothing: the perfect vehicle for poets, historians, rulers and spies.

There were also some political elements in the story, that perhaps only someone familiar with race relations in Malaysia and Singapore (and perhaps Indonesia as well) would recognise. Where is “home” if you work here and send money “back” to China? Do you embrace the English language, the European way of living, discarding the traditions of your ancestors?

If it is natural for a man to prefer his own kind, what would make one go the opposite route? What is that mysterious magnet that draws a man to another culture, a whole different way of living?

Expectation can be a tricky thing. When it is lived up to, the feeling is like soaring in air. When not, it almost always disappoints instead. Had I started this book with a little less expectation, I might have liked it more, loved it even. But then again, though the ending seemed apt enough, it left me wishing there was more.

No, we can’t change it in one day, but if we let one day go by, if we let one second slip by without remembering that we need change, that we must, then we’re lost.

Rating: 3


Postscript: You will perhaps notice that I have The History of Love in the background of the photo. So, yes, I’ve just finished that book. Hopefully my thoughts on that book will be up soon.


§ 9 Responses to Breaking the Tongue – Vyvyane Loh

  • Tony says:

    Nice to have you back πŸ™‚

    I’ve also been looking at a bit of Asian lit recently. On top of the usual Japanese faves, I read ‘Ilustrado’ last week (set in the Philippines). I haven’t really read a lot set in this era (not in Asia, anyway). One book I have read which is similar is John Lanchester’s ‘Fragrant Harbour’, which has a large section set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong.

    As for expectations and the issues they raise, well, just have a look at my post (or anyone’s, really) on David Mitchell’s latest book πŸ˜‰

    • Michelle says:

      What did you think of Ilustrado? I’m quite interested in that one. Fragrant Harbour sounds interesting too. I’m starting to wonder if I’m just interested in WWII.

      • Tony says:

        ‘Ilustrado’ was very entertaining, definitely worth reading. As I said in my review, I think a deeper knowledge of Filipino society and recent history would definitely enhance the reading experience though πŸ™‚

  • JoV says:

    Interesting that you got the book from the National Library. I think I haven’t been to the one in Tun Razak, but when I was younger my father brought back a lot of books from there, more notably The Paddington Bear series. πŸ™‚

    I found out about Vyvyanne Loh this year, and I would like to read one of her books at some point, this may be one to start, unfortunately my library don’t stock the book.

    • Michelle says:

      I’m loving the fact that I’m finding a lot of books written by local authors, and also authors that hail from this region. They’re definitely more readily available here than they were back in NZ. (In fact, non-existent would be more apt)

      • JoV says:

        Someone asked me to write a piece about Malaysian authors and the local literary scene, I was quite embarassed to say I am not well verse with the local scene. Perhaps over time if I read your blog long enough I’ll beginning to come to grips with Malaysian authors. πŸ˜‰

  • mee says:

    Wow her name has so many consonants! I haven’t heard of her, love the quote on Chinese language. I really should make time to read more works from the SEA region. I haven’t even got to Tash Aw like I intended.

    ps: Can’t wait for your thoughts on The History of Love! I’m nervous πŸ˜‰

    • Michelle says:

      It does, doesn’t it? Took me a couple of seconds to realise that it’s just pronounced “Vivian”, only spelt in such a way that makes it look.. well.. unique. I’m thinking of reading Tash Aw’s second book, The Map of the Invisible World soon.

      My post on The History of Love should be up very soon. =)

  • Mark David says:

    Yeah, expectations do have an effect on our reading experience. But then of course there are books are simply so terrific that no matter how high your expectations are, you still end up satisfied πŸ™‚

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