Caricature, Characterization, and Political Criticism in Gopal Baratham's Writings

Lim Siew Yea, M. A.

In his two early collections of short stories, Love Letter (1988) and People Make You Cry (1988), Baratham's urge to indict the political system produces either a caustic or a polemical style, particularly when he delineates what he perceives as the weaknesses of the system. The failure to moderate his vehemence, combined with his inclination for didacticism, often makes his presentation of Singapore unduly heightened and drastically over-simplified. This limitation, however, becomes less apparent in his third collection of short stories, Memories That Glow in the Dark (1995), in which emotions are subtly dramatised rather than explicitly expressed in an acid manner.

Nevertheless, the lack of psychological depth in his characters remains a consistent feature in all his short stories. 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 syste. Nonetheless, without psychological depth his characters remain caricatures who appear either as vicious perpetrators or ignorant victims, in either case incapable of effecting change. At his best, Baratham convinces readers that they encounter a compression, rather than perversion, of the truth about the life in Singapore under the present political rule. At its worst, however, he risks treating his creations not as individuals but mere symbols of societal forces. His novels, A Candle or the Sun (1991) and Moonrise, Sunset(1996) make a greater attempt to introduce round characters who not only experience tension owing to the contradictory needs to conform to the social norms, on the one hand, and to strive for some form of personal liberation on the other, but also enjoy intellectual and moral growth in the course of the novels. Unlike the characters in the short stories who are made out to be mere victims of the pragmatic culture, the characters in the novels are able to rise above their state of degeneration and inertia to offer concrete solutions to regain social order.

The novels also characteristically explore the complexity of social problems and come to terms with the lack of resolution. This move to understand rather than merely to criticise the Singaporean reality is reflected also in his non-fictional work, The Caning of Michael Fay (1994), in which Baratham learns to come to terms with the regulated political culture of Singapore and arrive at some form of personal order for himself.

[This essay has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from Politics and Self: A Study of Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim, her 1996 National University of Singapore Master's thesis. GPL]

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