Book review: Reflections on Heaven Has Eyes

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Wong Soak Koon reviews a fascinating collection of stories, set in Singapore and other locales, where the protagonists struggle to make sense of identity, history, and memory in a nation state and globally.

Philip Holden, Heaven has Eyes. Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016. 257 pages

In one of his oft-quoted insights, Joseph Conrad, who frequently traversed cultural and geograhical boundaries, gives us this reminder: “Few men realise that their life, the very essence of  their character and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings”. Conrad highlights our dependence on “sheltering conceptions” for the ordering principles of identity formation and maintainence.

This collection of stories demonstrates how a number of protagonists stake their orderly lives on the sheltering conceptions of the nation state. Holden then challenges such “sheltering conceptions” when the past breaks through into the present disrupting the identity ordering “shelters” we create out of work (our professions), familial connections, or foodways ( those smells and tastes imbicated in how we make sense of who we are).

Even the built landscape of a modern Singapore, imaged in neat rows of HDB flats, which Holden returns to again and again as a setting, carries a palimpsest of the past. Malay kampong houses, long gone, are reimagined by the protagonist of “Penguins On The Perimeter”. Older coffee shops (kopitiams), grimy with the dirt of age, still stand, offering a mental refuge from the oppressively clean city state to two very different protagonists: the ‘I’ narrator in “It’s All In A Dream” and the executioner in“Two Among Many”.

Holden’s sharp eye concretises for us the particulars of Singapore’s daily life only to have this “solidity” dissolve or accrue fresh meanings when the liminal, even the surreal, breaks through. I shall discuss select stories more fully later in this essay.

In Holden’s riveting tales, which take us from Singapore to Vancouver and other cities, the protagonists traverse not only spatial but temporal boundaries, hence memory cannot be evaded. Memory is neither linear nor quite as orderly and reassuring as we may want it to be.

Even the redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew, figured in “Forbidden Cities”, is assailed by “the sudden apprehension of a smell, pleasant in itself, but connected by a long, inescapable thread of memory to something long forgotten, long hidden away” (p214). Unlike quite a few of us, Lee quickly manages to recompose himeself so as to create mentally a forward moving narrative where the developmentalist plot moves relentlessly towards a nation-building future. He is “catching, clutching at a memory only so that he can crush it” (p230).

Yet equally revealing is the detailing, in another story, of a young Harry Lee pondering on memory’s waywardness : “It’s strange how memory works, how those very things you want to forget stick obstinately in your mind” (“When Pierre Met Harry”, p206). This is a conundrum a politician cannot afford to give time and space to.

Each of us, statemen or ordinary citizens, Holden suggests, must make sense of the past, present and future. In doing this, we are all story-tellers, each a “historian” of sorts. As we struggle to make meaning, we are surrounded by other narratives.

Holden inserts into his stories, various kinds of “recording”, “composing” and “meaning-making” such as the mass media (television and newspaper reports), letters, journals, encyclopaedia entries, even an excerpt from the Hikayat Abdullah. These layers of “narratives” swirl around us and as we form our own stories; we are, at times, in collusion with them and, at other moments, at odds with them. Or, more challenging still, we are unable to decipher some of them or to fill in the ellipses.

Many of Holden’s protagonists deal with words for their bread-and-butter as academics and archivists who struggle to comprehend the “language” of past and present records. They must wrest a form out of the flux of ever changing perspectives. In “Library”, Justine reads Scott Watanabe’s journal and sees how hard it was for Watanabe to record his experiences when Watanabe explains: “Even now, writing this, I fish for words. I pause every two or three lines, with my thesaurus open on the desk beside me. I know the shape of a word, and sometimes I can hear an echo of its sound. It is nearby. I can smell it. I approach it softly, but then find that it has gone, moved off further into the undergrowth” (p140). Words are like those tiny, furtive night creatures who scurry away at the slightest movement to catch them.

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Many of the characters in this collection of stories criss-cross geograhical boundaries for various reasons, some to pursue a career, some for educational opportunites or research needs as well as other imperatives like marriage to a foreigner. Dislocation and a concurrent yearning for the “homely” (without really knowing where “home” finally is), punctuate both their waking and dream lives.

Speaking of the disorientation of such travellers, Joseph Conrad recounts his own experience: “I was a victim of contrary stresses which produce a state of immobility. Since it was impossible for me to face both ways, I elected to face nothing. The discovery of new values in life is a very chaotic experience, there is a tremendous amount of jostling and confusion and a momentary feeling of darkness”.

Conrad captures that existential terror of a “nothing”, a “darkness” in which consciousness cannot find articulation. Words fail us so that we cannot structure a “story” of our lives or who we are in the unpredictable ebb and flow of time. The simplistic narratives proffered by the founding fathers of nation states, and the narratives from the sheltering institutions we are affiliated with (universities, law courts, etc) no longer sustain.

In “Mudskippers”, Kathy, who returns to the UK to decide how to take care of her aged father, learns how hard it is craft that story of rescue. Returning after some years, she adjusts her vowels and pronunciation, she relearns how to use the old stick gear of the car and falls into a routine but old spaces never remain the same; even her father is both familiar and changed. Her homecoming challenges her sense-making.

More vividly in “Library”, Justine, Wei Ming’s European wife, returning to Singapore from Canada, finds herself in that Conradian state of anxiety, ennui and malaise: “There are feelings nearby. You know their shape: you can hear an echo of their sound. Yet you can no longer grasp them” (p154).

One exception to this struggle for articulation seems to be the academic in “It’s All In A Dream” who “loved words and the flow of writing” (p123). Yet this “flow” is subjected to obstacles when the threat of the authorities refusing him a re-entry permit disrupts his catchment of words. He becomes a near obsessive-compulsive reader of the clipped language of official emails from the Singaporean immigration department as he worries about his future. With hindsight, he regrets trying to get into the community and public affairs. He should have kept to the confines of Singapore’s academia. He should not have traversed those “boundaries” vigilantly watched over by hidden and not-so-hidden gatekeepers. He regrets having been part of a group “organising a public letter from intellectuals and arts workers protesting the denial of tenure to a prominent academic” (p116). It would have been safer to be the kind of expat, with permanent resident’s status, who is a perennial tourist, happy just to enjoy Singapore’s affluence and material rewards.

Language, in the wider sense of “signs” as in the numbers of an identity card, the file number of an application form, a visa, a passport, Holden shows, is wielded by the powers of nation states to keep citizens and foreigners alike under surveillance in the name of law and order. One recalls WH Auden’s poem “Refugee Blues”, where Auden describes how a consul simply says, ”If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”.

More insidious is the nation state’s control of the past, of history through it’s control of archival documents. In “When Pierre Met Harry”, Holden images an assistant archivist in the National Archives of Singapore, Miss Chia Lixin, stating categorically that Dr Chin Boo Geok’s account of how a young Lee Kuan Yew met Pierre Trudeau in London, while both were studying law, cannot be listed in the online catalogue of the archives because of its “sensitive nature” (p192). A researcher or an interested citizen, would have to fill an application to use it.

For this reader of Holden’s story, it is immaterial whether the two men, Pierre and Harry, really met in London; what counts for me is Holden’s insightful thematising of state power and the control of historical meanings. Nation states practise selective historical amnesia, enforcing mandatory ellipses in the narrative of nation-formation and consigning certain personages to mere footnotes. Yet some opposition figures, the researcher in “Aeroplane” disovers, are hard to contain in “a beginning, middle and end” since “history takes you on detours” (p11).

Equally significant in “When Pierre Met Harry”is Holden’s suggestion that history is always viewed through a prism of perpectives. When Pierre and Harry discuss what imperialism, colonialism, the independence of ex-colonies, democracy for new nation states, nationalism and socialism can mean, their viewpoints clearly differ. The idealistic Pierre seems genuinely concerned about a fair deal for newly independent nations and the citizenry yet there is something “romantic” and a little condescending when he tells Harry that he is preparing for a “tour of the Orient” (p195). Pierre’s phrase smacks of a residual imperial imagining of countries East of the Suez as he maps out a travel itinerary across exotic locales: Tehran, Bokhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, Bombay, Singapore.

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No wonder then that the sharp, young Harry sums Pierre up in this way: “He likes his Orientals as he likes his oysters: raw, not cooked” (p201). From the perspective of the pragmatic and sceptical Harry, the tasks ahead for the leaders of new nation states remain formidable. As he and Pierre listen to Professor Laski’s lecture about post-colonialism, Harry is not impressed because he concludes that Laski has a general structure but not “the details, the individual blocks” (p197). It would be left to the architects of new nation states, one of whom would be Harry himself, to work out the nitty gritties of a stable nation.

Yet beneath the neat building blocks of an economically successful Singapore, these stories show that a layer of the disruptive, the disorderly, the ominous remains like weeds, even nightshade, among well-tended blooms. Holden’s narrative technique juxtaposes convincingly the quotidian and ordinary with the surreal and fantastical.

In “Penguins On The Perimeter”, the protagonist seems, on the surface, to have worked out the trajectory of his life. He can well afford a condo in one of those many condo blocks erected over older homes, like his grandfather’s, or built over spaces once occupied by Malay kampongs. He has calculated the use of his apartment space down to “rooms for his two children, cool, safe, full of the things he never had in childhood” (p80). Then, he hears cries, not quite human, the sounds of webbed-feet and wings flapping in the condo block’s car park. This incursion of the liminal and surreal into guarded lives, reminds him of his grandfather’s insistence, against geographical logic, that penguins were once found in Singapore. The build-up to these moments comes from Holden’s detailing of the protagonist’s estrangement from the familiar when even his mother becomes hard to decipher like a well of uncertain depth or a room with its door closed.

In “The First Star From The Moon”, the most ordinary of surroundings, a HDB flat, becomes a setting for extraordinary and strange events. Holden describes the bewilderment of the “I” narrator when strangers (or people he can no longer place) comprising a family of three, parents and daughter, drop in.

Amidst everyday details of familiar food (loveletters and bak kua), the fantastical intrudes. The parents are imaged as waxy creatures who have been hiding underground for a long time. They hang on to the narrator “like lampreys”. The narrator and visitors discuss a strange virus that has infected the people. “Small areas of disturbed flesh, like knitted stars or slivers of a new moon” (p 60) emerge. The parents are fearful of this new contamination but the girl, perhaps representing the young and brave, sees this as beautiful and the narrator wonders if this is a “new kind of organ”; “a further stage in human evolution” (p61).

Evolutionary time dwarfs the time scale and time-planning controls of both the individual and the nation. In this collection of stories there are recurrent references to fossils, mudskippers that have evolved to survive and a tiny little frog that finds itself among the crowds at a rally listening to pre-elections speeches. Perhaps some people have been surviving “underground”, fearful of change and contamination, growing waxy, not evoving but stagnating in a closing of mind and body. The young, on the other hand, yearn to evolve towards the translucence of the teenage daughter’s “infected” skin which the sun shines through.

In another story, the body and disease are used to show the dangers in the state’s strategy of containment and the risks in its effort at preventing “contamination”. The body reacts to vigilantly maintained cleanliness in auto-immune disesases which sap the protagonist in “Gan Rou, Kong Bak” of energy, upsetting any hope of a successful career. “His condition had not developed until he returned to Singapore, almost ten years after he started work in a government-linked company” (p98) There was no “outside threat here, just his own body turning against itself” (p100). Perhaps there is simply too much order and cleanliness as “the disease was more common in modern cities that were obsessively clean” (p102). Something triggered the auto-imune response of the body and it could be, the doctor explains, stress or trauma. Was the catalyst, the kiasu (fear of failure) syndrome, reputed to affect Singaporeans?

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In “September Ghosts”, Li Jun succumbs to cancer. Kian, her former lover, who had filed away his memories on some obscure mental “shelf”, now remembers, while in Vancouver, that in Singapore, space turned in on itself; even nature is “parsimoniously trimmed, carved into hedges or channelled into watercourses, reservoirs, and drains” (p171). Overly “sanitised” and controlled, both body and mind will feed on themselves. More than this, perhaps no containment device can prevent the attack of certain “viruses”. In the fictional account of viruses, such as in “The First Star From the Moon”, a “virus”, used metaphorical, can be fictionalised as good for you, however contrary to medical knowledge.

Reading this collection carefully, we are constantly reminded that each of us, the powerful or the less powerful, compose “stories” of our lives as well as the wider histories of nation states. There will always be fluctuating or new perspectives in spite of the control by gatekeepers of official history. In a brief retrospective assessment of the British colonialist, Harry Lee admits, “The British are organised, you have to give them that” (p203). Watching the training of chimpanzees in a London zoo, he concludes that benevolent paternalism, a phrase recurring in the rhetoric of imperial-colonial speeches, believes that “training involves beatings as well as kindness” (p205). The older Lee Kuan Yew, could have, like the fictional young Harry Lee, reflected on how to use authoritarianism and guided leniency and a combination of the lessons from British colonialism and Confucianism when crafting his forward-moving narrative of nation-building.

Against this linear, unitary and hegemonic narrative, Holden’s stories in Heaven Has Eyes convince the reader that there will always be new perspectives to historical meanings as the fluctuating flow of interpretation and meaning-making escapes the channels of official surveillance. The past, in forms we may not expect, “swells beneath the skin of the present” like the “keloids” of a “scarified body” (p56).

In our search for a trajectory to stories of our lives, one inescapable closure, for all of us, is death. Quite a few stories have as a part of their setting the lying-in-state of the founding father of the nation, the redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew. It may be helpful to recall here that Shakespearean poem which tells us that chimney sweeps and royalty alike will inevitably be reduced to dust.

If I may divert a little from my analysis of Holden’s stories to current events, it is revealing that, as I write this, a tussle among the Lee siblings on what to do with the ancestral home where Lee Kuan Yew had resided, is going on. However powerful a person, there are limits to his control of the final legacy of his own narrative. Legal documents, those signifiers of law and order, such as wills, are vexatiously open to contestation and interpretation. Should that historical building be demolished, as one document indicates, or should it be retained as an amended document states?

This collection of stories challenges us to reflect on the stories we inevitably have to compose in making meaning of our identities. They do ask us to question those “sheltering conceptions” which anchor our lives. Yet the very fact that the protagonists struggle to make sense of the past and the present and of how these may impact the future affirms their humanity.

However varied the protagonists may be, quite a few of them are sensitive to those affectionate ties that bind, even while these ties can be burdensome too. A daughter returns to the UK to try to plan for an aged father; a son, albeit without much success, tries to understand his aging mother, an expat wife strives to comprehend her husband’s past (“to map” her past onto his) – these different attempts at connection tell us that they have not become automatons in a technologically-sophisticated nation of iPads, iPhones and condos where all electronic devices can be controlled from miles away.

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