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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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Gopal Baratham: A Retrospective
(9 September 1935 – 23 April 2002)

By Teng Qian Xi

When I heard of Dr Gopal Baratham’s death, my first thought was: so that’s the first writer to go. It is a macabre kind of milestone for the country; to have all of one’s writers still alive is a privilege for Singapore’s youth. One of its oldest writers in English, Gopal Baratham’s life spanned many of the key events in Singapore’s recent history – he grew up during the Japanese Occupation, began his medical education in the 50s and spent 25 years as a neurosurgeon in the UK, then Singapore. His remarkable achievements as a writer are paralleled by those as a surgeon – he is probably the only person who was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons and awarded the S.E.A (South-East Asia) Write Award in the same year (1991).

Most of Baratham’s literary achievements occurred in the last years of his medical career, throughout which he, like his character Hernie Perera in A Candle or the Sun (but with a much more strenuous profession), kept writing steadily in between working hours. He had begun writing long before his first short story was published in 1974 in Commentary, a publication of the National University of Singapore Society which he went on to help edit; in the mid-60s, he began a novel called Fuel in Vacant Lots which he never finished. By the time his first and most controversial novel, A Candle or the Sun, was published in 1991 by a London publisher called Serpent’s Tail, he had already published stories in various literary journals, which subsequently appeared in two collections during the 1980s. Figments of Experience (later reissued as Love Letter and Other Stories), People Make You Cry and Memories that Glow in the Dark (published in 1995) were reissued last year as a single volume entitled The City of Forgetting, with an introduction by Ban Kah Choon and his interview of Baratham.

My first encounter with Baratham’s work (not counting the time I flipped through Sayang at the age of fourteen; the book fell open at one of the sex parts which didn’t interest me enough to make me want to read the rest) was through this volume. I found it a rather baffling introduction at times, perhaps because in The City of Forgetting the stories are not arranged chronologically so there is an inconsistency in their quality. Ban Kah Choon may compare the writer to “the magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written” but in several of the stories, the didacticism and in-your-face critique strips much of the magic from the narrative. As Lim Siew Yea writes in Caricature, Characterization, and Political Criticism in Gopal Baratham's Writings, “The satiric mode, especially in the form of caricatures, proves an effective tool for criticism in short stories, since in them the author has to simplify matters to bring about a quick judgement of the political system. Nonetheless, without psychological depth, his characters remain caricatures who appear either as vicious perpetrators or ignorant victims, in either case incapable of effecting change.”

Baratham’s stories are peopled with more than just perpetrators or victims, but the latter do tend to dominate. The frustrated hopes, illusions and excesses of the characters in his stories are nothing if not recognisable, but they are often types, and unsurprising and uninteresting as characters. The overwhelming of the medium by the message is something that afflicts most of his more explicit socio-political critiques. “The Personal History of an Island”, a retelling of Singapore history in the narrative voice that begins as that of a child and evolves, I found disappointingly didactic. Granted, it’s hard not to agree with the points Baratham was making in that story – that no ideology is reliable, remember everything since you can change nothing – or, for that matter, in any of his stories, but he seems to be more involved with the plot and the message than making the language exciting. He is a better storyteller than a writer; being a product of these postmodern times, this is why I am less excited by Baratham’s stories than I am by, say, Claire Tham’s. Baratham’s stories did not make me (as the cliché goes) see differently, nor did their language hit me; Tham’s did both. But as Marshall McLuhan says, the medium is the message, and more so in the case of literature. Some of the stories, such as “Love Letter” (in which quirky and poetic dialogue succeeds in “filling out” the two mysterious never-named lovers) are exempt from this, but at other times, Baratham seems so eager to make sure a message is declared in large print that complexities of character and atmosphere get left by the wayside.

His other two novels, Moonrise, Sunset and Sayang I shall only touch on briefly here. Moonrise, Sunset was published in 1995 with Serpent’s Tail Mask Noir imprint, a crime thriller which I found a good read, with a marvellously eccentric cast of characters (including, to quote the blurb, “an American psycho-sexual healer and his matronly psychic sidekick”), but a book I wouldn’t go back to. It was the last novel Baratham published, and before he died, he was apparently working on a sequel to it. At least, with this book, one didn’t expect too much psychological depth; on the other hand, Sayang didn’t grab me much more than it did when I picked it up at fourteen. The Christian allegory was a bit overdone; it was as if the plot was an excuse for the allegory. As with the stories, Baratham is a little too eager to tell the reader about redemption, about how man is ignoble, about transience, instead of showing it.

In the short stories, one can trace the concerns that later appeared – I’m tempted to say more interestingly – in A Candle or the Sun and his contributions to public debate in Singapore. The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun. It seems to be more known as the book that no-one in Singapore would publish than one that people actually read. Admittedly the time of its release must have accounted for some of its impact – 1991 was less than four years after the 1987 arrests under the Internal Security Act, in which more than twenty people were charged with a Marxist plot aimed at overthrowing the state, and detained without trial. Few were prepared to take on the unknown (and thus seemingly infinite) risks involved in publicly criticising the ruling party; writing a book that criticised Singapore’s political and social climate pretty fervently would not make anyone in the People’s Action Party (PAP) happy, even if one was a successful neurosurgeon. (That, I suppose, was what was in the mind of local publishers, so the book was published by Serpent’s Tail in London.) On the other hand, by that time Baratham had already left his post at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and was in private practice, so in a sense he had nothing major to lose even without the little note on the flyleaf stating rather disingenuously: “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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  Other Essay in this Issue

The Ink of Diverse Gods
By Alice Mendoza.

Related Links

Report on Gopal Baratham's death
External link to GetForMe.

Chronology of Gopal Baratham's life and work
External link to GetForMe.

Straits Times Forum letter, 22 May 1997
External link to Asiaone.

A Book I'd Recommend To A Colleague
External link to the Singapore Medical Association.

Gopal Baratham's review of To Be Free
External link.

Today article on the 'Abolish ISA' event
External link to ThinkCentre.

'Liberalising the Arts' by Koh Buck Song
External link.

Asiaweek article on dissent
External link to Asiaweek.


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