Taking the phrase from the biblical tale, Philip Jeyaretnam brings out a good novel about a man's struggle in the independent Singapore.
Abraham Isaac, a Singaporean Tamil with his ancestral roots to Jaffna in Sri Lanka, lives through the transformation of the country after its struggle with the Britishers and Japanese. Like most of his contemporaries, he too was active in the country's journey to an independent nation, writing articles on self rule, pouring out his ideas and aspirations of a new nation. However, to his dismay, and to many of the others, he realises that the direction of the power and the rulers aren't aligned to their hopes. Though he was part of the political system and his party rose the the power of the country, he continued his efforts in the nation building with his article in the Strait Times. One of such article, wasn't accepted well with his own party bosses, resulting in removal of his license to teach ( for being a bad influence on pupil) and loosing the job. Now, left to earn his living only through private tuition, he looses his close friend and his wife to the friend. The novel begins with Old Abraham, managing to find a lone student for Latin, boy of a rich new world family.
The book starts of very ordinary, even till the midway through I was wondering why was this called such a good book. A typical old man's reminiscence of his life and the typical contempt for all that new and modern. The usual complaints of the new generation and the system, his inabilities to be in sync with the new world, and all that. However, as I progressed through the pages, the images that came out in front is very different. On a relatively plain and simple narratives, a profound work of literature is hidden, revealing subtly to the keen readers.
His sour taste of all that he had endured is evident in his perceived contempt to the new time, new ways of living and new ways of learning.
"I don't understand all these new restaurants, all these new tastes. No wonder young people are so confused today. They don't grow up on a steady diet . . . so they lack a clear reference point -- Jaffna cooking, Cantonese, whatever. It's just a jumble . . . Thai, French, hamburgers. No wonder everyone is so confused."Victor smiles: an amused, tolerant and patronising smile. No one takes an old man seriously
Singapore as a society is multi cultural and multi ethnic. The influence of British Rule continue to linger in the society even after being a free . The citizen's of the new state is politically free, but how much of that is experienced by the cross section. As Abraham puts it , "I am not nor will ever be truly free. Why is it that I still feel this is a battle I might have won, when surely it was lost centuries ago?" It is this dilemma, the personal and political experience that Jeyaretnam brings out beautifully in this book.
Abraham Isaac, is always been on the wrong side of luck. Loosing his girlfriend to a Britisher in his young days, later loosing his job for his political views, his childhood friend, his wife and later his son ( or his love) , he endures them all not as a strong man, but one common man amongst us.
The style is very standard, the language is plain, the structure is not unusual though he deploys the multi period story intermixed effectively, and the story is straight. Inspite all this the book leaves a good impression with you for the strong underlying emotion. Even when everything goes wrong for his, Abraham is able to maintain his sanity and his self esteem. Philip Jeyaretnam, on his part get Abraham the character, the language, the sly humor and the voice aligned perfectly well. A very haunting novel, effectively written.
PS : This edition comes with a very bad front cover. The cover should do justice to the book.------------------------------------------------------------
Abraham's Promise ( 1995)
More Read : Post Colonial Web , USQ