Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Almost There: Kim Cheng Boey's Between Stations

by Alice Tsay


Kim Cheng Boey, Between Stations, Giramondo, 2009. 320 pgs.

"I have few stories to pass on, and little to turn into art." Or so Kim Cheng Boey claims partway through an essay called "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." Whether it is a gesture of modesty or a momentary lapse of confidence, the statement seems a bit disingenuous. It arrives, after all, late in the 300-plus pages of Between Stations, in which the poet mines his past for material to tease into deeper reflections on his own life and on the people and places that have been a part of it. Teasing, that is, without a hint of a smile. The melancholy self-consciousness of the sentence above never quite leaves the tone of Boey's writing, which is always nostalgic, always searching and always solemnly pursuing the task of turning life into art.

Loosely speaking, Between Stations is chronologically framed: it tells the story of the physical and philosophical journeys that eventually bring Boey to his new life as a poet and university lecturer in Australia. However, the narrative takes decidedly non-linear turns. In tracing questions of multiculturalism, memory, experience, Boey doubles back to a handful of subjects time and again. He repeatedly evokes the sights and smells that characterized the Singapore he knew in childhood which were eviscerated as a result of late 20th-century modernization schemes. Lovingly, he recalls the matriarchal presence of his Granny, whose cooking fleetingly healed the fractured relationships of her descendents. His debt-ridden, often absent father haunts the pages as well, a figure as elusive to Boey the man as Boey the child. These threads of a receding past are constantly interwoven in his essays with those of the present day, the old events of his life echoing the new and the new being brought to bear on his attempts to understand the old.

In other words, Boey presents himself as both literal and figurative traveler, with the latter taking greater weight. Accordingly, the symbolic constantly permeates his depictions of the real, and the fluidity between the two modes of representation is echoed in the way the narrative identity is an unstable presence throughout. Unfortunately, this goal to move beyond straight storytelling works better for Boey in theory than execution. Take, for example, his tendency to slip from first to second person in descriptive passages. Near the beginning of "O Calcutta," he remarks, "I feel I am returning to an unfinished story." By the end of the paragraph, however, "It is the end of a winter day, the twilight giving the street a peaceful aura, and for a moment you have the illusion you have come home." It is an understated description and an interesting play on the idea of travel as an experience of the new. However, the buried shift in perspective feels like a trick, an unearned shortcut between author and reader. Though the tone is rhythmic, even hypnotic, the second person makes the voice that of a skilled meditation instructor stilling his students' wayward thoughts.

The smooth conflation of narrator and reader into a joint entity makes things too easy, just as the emotional take-away seems too easy a few pages later when Boey sees roadside laborers hard at work:

The sidewalk on Nehru Road is again unearthed, the men clothed in lungis and dust go at it with shovels and picks. You don't see jackhammers and bulldozers. What you see is sheer human strength, the endurance, the ability to take all the blows that life deals you and remain standing. 

It's a passage that shares much in spirit with a description in W. Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen, a collection of sketches made from Maugham's travels in China:

The sweat pours down their faces and their song is a groan of pain. It is a sign of despair. It is heart-rending. It is hardly human. It is the cry of souls in infinite distress, only just musical, and that last note is the ultimate sob of humanity. Life is too hard, too cruel, and this is the final despairing protest. That is the song of the river.

While both Maugham and Boey's observations tread in that precarious territory of aestheticizing the suffering of others, only Maugham seems to acknowledge the tension. Difficult, unexpected phrases like "only just musical" catch the reader off guard, forcing a double-take. In contrast, the first passage uses worn expressions like "go at it," "sheer human strength" and "the blows that life deals." The persistent use of "you" instead of "I" further flattens the scene, even as Boey seeks to argue an unusual perspective. Though clearly not an allusion he intends to make, celebratory Socialist art comes to mind.

Boey's use of narrative shifts as a framing device rather than a grammatical trait generally meets with more success, though oversimplification remains an issue. In "Hungry Ghost," he comes across an old woman shopping in Chinatown with a young boy and appropriates it as a prelude to his memories of excursions with Granny. A sense of expediency plagues his use of the scene, which is conveniently evoked and quickly dismissed. He refers to the child, for example, as a "five- to eight- year old," a nebulous description that suggests he didn't really take a good look. A similar one-mindedness characterizes the end of an outing with his son in "Change Alley" as Boey reflects on times he went out on the same walk with his father as a boy:

Then a curious thing happens. I become my father and my son is me. It has happened before, this intersection between parenthood and adulthood, but this feels uncanny, a déjà vu to make it more real than before. I am a child again, willing the toy to be mine, knowing my father can never afford it. Now I am able to make amends and let my father have a second chance, I promptly buy the toy for my son.

While self-awareness is invariably at the heart of memoir, in passages like this Boey seems to say just a bit too much. As the prose assiduously points out, in this moment he is the doubly wise one—the child who understands his father's financial situation and the adult who identifies the moment as uncanny and points to his own ability to "make amends." Perhaps this penchant for elaboration is a habit carried over from his day job as a teacher. While students should be made into readers, however, the converse is not always true. For me, the heavy hand of the artiste in this passage detracts from the emotional resonance of the scene itself, containing the illimitability of feeling with the report of a conciliatory purchase clinching some neatly expressed thoughts.

I have been harsh, presenting a litany of ills. But that is because Boey is clearly a writer capable of much greater nuance and subtlety than is often on display in Between Stations. Throughout the essays, he establishes his sensitivity as a thinker by probing the balance between literal and metaphorical understandings of the world. Moreover, the poems excerpted in the essays are invariably excellent, such as the restrained, wistful one about his father "Rambling on My Mind." Many of the descriptions are also lovely. A sharp sense of childhood pathos combines with a rare flash of humor in "My Best Friend" when Boey describes "the days when we were kept from each other like imprisoned lovers." The bits about his grandmother, the sketch of his friend Ritsuko in "O Calcutta," and an account of boyhood haircuts in "Hair and Now" also come to mind. These moments present their subjects honestly and simply, without encroaching on the reader's space to interpret and absorb.

We return, therefore, to the curious paradox embodied in the flaws of Boey's ambitious work. In dealing with his experiences, he often seems to try too hard to fit them seamlessly into a macroscopic picture of life. Moments that could speak for themselves are marked out by the ever-prescient narrator with phrases like "vaguely the tragedy spoke to me about the future" and "even then I had some kind of child-premonition that it would not last." At the same time, the narration sometimes exhibits an inattentiveness at odds with the thoroughness described above. Most oddly, the essays seem unconscious of each other in the way information is repeated and withheld, as if they were collated without extensive review. Parts of the essays themselves also exhibit what can only be carelessness or flippancy. For instance, the seminal role Boey attributes to "Mahler's Adagio" in his artistic development is difficult to reconcile with the fact that he misnames and under-identifies the piece each time—it's the Adagietto, from Gustav Mahler's 5th.

Consequently, the emotion that Boey continuously conveys in the tone of the memoir came to be the dominant emotion I felt as I read the work: regret. Regret, in my case, not for the losses of history but the unfulfilled potential of a work that establishes from the beginning such a clear sense of what it wants to do. That so many of problems should have been specters of the drafting table only magnifies the disappointment; imprecise prose and recourses to cliché are easily fixed. Even in falling short, however, the experience Between Stations depicts is an innately human one—the continuing struggle to situate oneself amidst the complexities of the world. Boey doesn't always have answers, and those he offers sometimes prove unsatisfactorily pat. The issues he ruminates over, though, will continue to bear his thought and ours.

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