Breaking the Tongue
Vyvyane Loh
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Breaking the Tongue

Vyvyane Loh
W.W. Norton
448 pages
March 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Claude Lim is an extraordinary young Chinese man, precisely because he is the victim of his father, Humphrey Lim’s, obsession with all things British. The family speaks only English and Claude exists in a multi-cultural society in the East, without the ability to comprehend his own culture, let alone the others that surround him.

In the weeks prior to the Japanese invasion of Singapore, Claude is volunteered by his father to befriend Jack Winchester, a Brit, to show him the local sights, act as his guide. Later, when Claude’s family flees to the country, the young man remains behind. Winchester misses his flight out and travels to the Lim’s, where Claude is enjoying his first experience of independence. The bombing increases, growing closer and their current residence is too dangerous to remain. Gathering their few provisions, they move to a small hut that belongs to a Lim family servant. During the siege, Jack becomes ill. Suddenly cast in the role of caretaker, Claude is ineffectual in treating Jack and is forced to seek medical aid for the Englishman. Help comes in the form of Han Ling-li, a nationalist nurse working as a spy for the British, in preference to the Japanese.

“Chinatown smells of burnt sulfur and singed flesh.”

Of course, Claude is ignorant of the social and psychological complexities of their arrangement; Jack is dependent on Claude and Ling-li’s care for survival. Painfully shy, Claude endures perpetual discomfort in the company of the entitled Englishman and the nurse, who remains distant. Subconsciously, Jack feels guilty for the racism of his country, but he maintains his habitual superiority, although in England he was a mere clerk with few prospects. Ling-li is arrogantly dismissive of the foolish Claude and passionately worried about the future of her country. Only grudgingly does Ling-li accept the young man’s innocence of pretension, finally acknowledging his kind spirit.

“Everywhere he meets bewildered people, running like him.”

At the demise of Britain’s great dreams of empire, prior to losing Singapore to the Japanese, the countryside is rife with spies and fifth columnists -- in particular, one Patrick Heenan, who heinously betrays his country to the waiting Japanese forces. Much is clarified for Claude when he is taken prisoner and brutally tortured, drifting in and out of consciousness and his perilous situation. The great irony: Claude is the victim of his father’s Anglophile pretensions, an incompetent witness who cannot tell his Japanese interrogator’s what he has heard.

“They’re here! They’re here in the city!”

The path of war is inexorable. The British have detailed intelligence of the impending invasion. But with their usual hubris, they refuse to acknowledge the importance of the information, completely underestimating their enemy -- not for the first time. The citizens who remain behind suffer the wrath of their conquerors.

“Desertion is the soldier’s rebuttal to military protocol.”

The novel is brilliantly written, its form as fragmented as the Asians, Eurasians and British expatriates it renders so incisively: a world of moral ambiguity and ill-thought intentions, the hum of languages filling the air in a rising babble of panic. In spite of the chaos and confusion of those last days, Claude is renewed by his association with Ling-li, challenged to look into the face of evil, release his childish distortions of reality and become Chinese, honoring the color of his skin instead of despising and degrading it in the way he lives.

Breaking the Tongue is shocking, excruciating, fierce in the face of imminent destruction; heroic, an exquisite blend of impressions from agony to awakening. Loh writes with savage intensity, a kaleidoscope: each time it turns, a new image appears, another person, event, atrocity. This powerful clash of race and class is a work of unflinching courage, random violence, loss of dignity and the few precious moments of humanity.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2004

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