Book review: The Immolation

Any form of self-immolation always makes for a powerful visual image because the idea of setting our bodies on fire for most mere mortals sounds excruciating and painful, which inherently goes against our innate tendencies for self-preservation.

Based on this repulsive thought, one of my favorite Singaporean writers and local literary pioneer Goh Poh Seng centered his novel “The Immolation” on. (Click here for previous post about one of Goh’s poem)

Set during the Vietnam War, lead character Thanh witnessed a monk named Tran Kim who set himself on fire in protest against foreign intervention.

During which, Tran’s cryptic smile fascinated Thanh and inspired him, who was a foreign-educated student, to join in the counter-movement.

“It was an act of courage, an act of self-sacrifice to move the hearts of men, to open their eyes to the injustices that are being perpetrated,” said Tran’s superior monk. “Tran Kim’s self-immolation was therefore not an act of destruction but an act of construction, for he died for the sake of the people.”

I personally rate Goh’s works, which encompass a wide variety from poems to plays, very highly because they always have a dreamy, romantic and light undertone that feels almost like cruising through a beautiful dream with him.

This was certainly so with “The Immolation.”

As a historical novel, he delivers the usual hard mix of blood, grit and violence when describing the atrocities of colonialism and struggles of the communist guerillas.Yet he deftly polishes up the rough edges through the thoughts of Thanh, an idealistic and rather philosophical young man.

“For so much of his life, a man lives without ever noticing the world about him: just carrying on with the business of washing his face, brushing his teeth, eating breakfast, catching the bus, working at his desk in the office, lunch with business friends, seeing the dentist, going to the cinema and lying on his bed, and he forgets the world he lives in. He forgets his habitat, the earth, the trees and the grass; forgets the rivers, the lakes and the seas; forgets the air, clouds and the sky; forgets the flowers and the sun.

Then one fine day he sees the setting sun in the horizon, spilling reds and flaming orange, and the clouds packed and arranged more majestically than any mountain on earth, and he stops. That moment begets a tension, however fleeting, during which he knows mortality, knows that in this world man lives and man dies. Seeing, he knows.”

By being able to read the lead character’s mind, readers develop a more intimate relationship with him, to feel his struggles, empathize with his plight and share his emotions.

This is particularly so when Thanh repeatedly mentioned his lack of purpose or meaning in his life, even after going through a rollercoaster ride of abandoning the capitalistic beliefs he grew up with, fervently embracing the communist movement and losing all his faith in it.

“He was hard to place. Somewhat nondescript. Yes, he was simply nondescript, one would have to conclude. This conclusion somewhat depressed Thanh. Yet it fit him: nondescript. Quite right too. Came from nowhere and heading to nowhere.”

Thanh’s lost years is representative of the frustrations that most readers would have exprienced in various confusing periods in our lives.And more importantly, it is Goh, who is such a brilliant writer at heart, that makes this novel a lovely read.

“Words. Words can heal a little. That’s why I want to be a writer, he thought. Yes, that’s the reason why I want to be a poet. Words. They do not expiate. Nothing can do that. But they make you a little healed, whatever you’re suffering from, or rather the real thing you’re suffering from: man disease.”

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