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.
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.