All So Familiar, It Could Be Home
Simon Tay's City of Small Blessings has large ambitions
By Toh Hsien Min
City of Small Blessings
Recently, I saw the film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace at the National Museum of Singapore and was startled by how much the direction had presented the narrative as a metaphor for the history of South Africa, not least through long shots of an old farmstead and a new one arising next to it. A partial and less harrowing facet of this analogy is presented through the assertion of land rights between Lucy and Petrus. It is handled with a feather-light touch in the novel, as when Lucy remarks to David Lurie that Petrus was a landowner: "He got a Land Affairs grant earlier this year, enough to buy a hectare and a bit from me. I didn't tell you?" It is only a little later on, after the central incident of the novel, that the tenuous claim on those rights is more heavily contested. "You want to make up for the wrongs of the past, but this is not the way to do it," says David. "If you fail to stand up for yourself at this moment, you will never be able to hold your head up again. You may as well pack your bags and leave."
A similar tension sits at the heart of Simon Tay's new novel, City of Small Blessings. When Bryan X, a retired school principal, receives a notice from the government to vacate the black-and-white bungalow his family has been renting in Seletar so that it can be turned into an American naval facility, it fills him with purpose. Having long been faithful in service to the government, he now has to find a way to defend his home by contesting the decisions made by that same government. And yet, the campaign to keep his home seems not so much the thrust of the novel, but rather a MacGuffin upon which the complex relationships of this man to the landscapes and humanscapes around him can be hung.
In part, this might be Tay veering away from taking a direct jab at the government, although the cold and unsympathetic renditions of various faceless ministers and civil servants might suggest that this is an unfair hypothesis. The real contest, however, is situated in the infusion of richness and detail into an otherwise bare story. Hence, there is an authenticity of local flavour that does not pander to global audiences. Take the mention of the 'same good chwee kueh' at Tiong Bahru, without any further elaboration for the benefit of unfamiliar readers. In this way, the novel is also an assertion of memory, which draws itself up to its full height in a burst of memory that is a show of grand failure rather than vivid triumph:
A novel is not just another good place for records, but the jet of names here has a pressure born of urgency, if not compensation. Just as Disgrace cannot avoid being linked to the history of South Africa, any novel set in post-Independence Singapore that references the urban landscape is bound to be read metaphorically. However, Tay does not have quite the same history to work with. This could be one reason for his direct referencing of history, such as having a history teacher as his protagonist. It enables him to build up from memories to history, or "how things happen, how they flow and split", without irony or melodrama:
The mention of redemption is telling. Bryan X had sold his original house in preparation for a short-lived migration to Canada, and his assertions that this "house will go on existing at least one generation more, even after it has given way to that condo. The house, that sense of place, is not lost", along with the constant reminders to count one's blessings, do not obscure the guilt:
The trouble – and the tension – may lie less in the fact that Tay doesn't quite deliver on the creation of history through memory – however frail that history might be – but that the history he accesses is what has elsewhere been called a history of amnesia. The dying tree in the garden that Bryan's wife Anna worries over is poignantly identified as frangipani: it is a symbol of death that is dying, almost like a symbol of the city's constant renewal. To be fair, memory is not the only building block of history; forgetting is also one. When Bryan X meets an unhelpful student, who is now a Member of Parliament, his amnesia is active: "When the MP said I probably do not remember him, I say he is right: I do not. It is the one satisfaction that I get in the entire afternoon." Elsewhere there is a stunning rewriting of history, when the young Bryan X claims Singapore under the Japanese was "safer than the old Singapore ever was". But the older Bryan X's struggle is not simply with the government. In a manner that is probably very true for many Singapore families, the son is the remaker. Bryan X's son, Peter, explains his decision to stay in Canada after his studies thus:
There is no need for a Remaking Singapore committee with such a philosophy; there is hardly even the need for a Singapore. It barely needs to be said that the most famous lines of Tay's poetry are: "if you cannot learn to love / (yes love) this city / you have no other". The renunciation of the past peaks with a stunning image:
At least three layers are contained in that last sentence: a repudiation of his historian father's philosophy, the short horizon of the son's perspective, and the pragmatism and materialism that is so entwined with what Singapore is. In Singapore, Tay seems to suggest, we are casualties of our own priorities: "In a society that puts rational calculation first, the idea of loving Singapore is emotive and radical". When the father is hospitalised and the son returns, he returns to a complex house that is both real and notional, and if Tay crescendoes into the poetry of memory as the son flips through a photo album, the action carries with it a wonder due to its inaccessibility. "It is all so familiar, it could be home." It is almost good enough. Tay finds irony in the idea that in a Singapore that places so much emphasis on efficiency and perfection, history and identity only aspire to be almost good enough.
Unfortunately, the novel has its share of flaws. Peter's love interest, Lisa, feels contrived. The scene where Japanese soldiers skin a prisoner is so derivative of a far superior account in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that it is almost painful to read. Many of the literary citations are lead-footed. Some of the supposed e-mails are lifted from texts that Tay wrote – a move that compromises his protagonist somewhat.
The editing also leaves much to be desired: an observation that "death seems eminent", a mention of the "Temmengong", an allusion to "Tiserias", a gulp of "Kirrin" beer and a note that the mother "ad sent an old photograph to be framed" are mistakes that no self-respecting editor ought to inflict upon readers.
These annoyances come to mind when recalling the text. However, the novel's ambitious scope and layered execution means City of Small Blessings will more likely be remembered as an important marker in the history of the Singapore novel. Equally importantly, it calls for a Singapore worth preserving, for "spaces that create that individual sense of home".QLRS Vol. 8 No. 2 Apr 2009