Finding the Real in the Fantastical
A fantasy novel has much to say about present-day Singapore
By Kirat Kaur
Fantastic elements in literature can sometimes serve the dual purposes of escapist awe and allegorical meaning-making. Nuraliah Norasid's debut novel The Gatekeeper manages to do both in fresh and interesting ways. It melds fact and fiction to bring us a fantasy world grappling with the double-edged nature of economic progress, focusing on who and what gets exploited when that happens.
In The Gatekeeper, protagonist Ria and her sometime lover and sidekick Eedric face constant threats to their attempts at retaining historical memory and preserving a way of life that heavy-handed government-led efforts at advancement threaten to destroy. The result is a fantastical, adventurous story that doubles up as an innovative novelistic approach to discussing the dangers and pitfalls of Singapore society.
Many aspects of the made-up city of Manticura may sound familiar: the rapid pace of development, the clinically executed razing of villages and older ways of life to make way for tall shiny buildings, the fragmentation of society by race and class. Further underlining the allegorical nature of Manticura are references to the particularities of Singaporean life, peppered throughout the narrative. In Manticura, betel leaves are chewed, all young men must do National Service, domestic workers exist, taxis can never be found when you most need them, and government scholars make up an elite group who run the administration.
Nuraliah complicates her constructed universe further by adding mythology to this mix. Her complex web of characters include a set of medusa sisters, a mixed-race Changer whose animalistic features alter his appearance when he becomes passionate, and a host of indigenous tribals with varying degrees of beastlike qualities who have been displaced by settler-colonial Humans, speaking dying languages and struggling for survival. Most have been pushed out of regular Human society, congregating in an underground ghetto city called Nelroote, eking out a meagre existence unbeknownst to the majority of Humans.
The younger medusa Ria occupies the role of gatekeeper to this strange and cloistered city. She has been cast aside by its inhabitants for her rash and belligerent behaviour, but simultaneously serves as protector to them, fending off would-be assailants with her powers of instantaneous petrification. But her borderland duties go far beyond the physical. Ria also acts as librarian and archivist to precious ancient texts that pre-date the Humans and are unreadable to most, even Nelrootians themselves.
Ria's intense interest in literacy and in learning the old manners of speaking begin when she is a child in Manticura, and are honed by an attentive teacher. The ability to access this heritage through literacy empowers Ria even after her village is destroyed and she and her sister are forced to flee to Nelroote.
In this narrative strain lies a subversive plea for the retention of language and history, as a means of identity formation for those who have been marginalised. As a Malay writer in English in Singapore, Nuraliah is well-placed to make that connection. The technique of throwing in Malay phrases and sentences at various points throughout the book is another clever way of disrupting assumptions about language, access and power. Nuraliah's choice to annotate translations of the made-up Tuyunri words in the novel, but leave out an explanation of the Malay ones, suggests there is an attempt to invert the sense of exclusion that minorities in Singapore often face. The novel tracks the twin evils of cultural loss and economic degradation with precision and integrity. In learning Tuyunri:
The two comprehensive appendices on Manticurean history and languages alone suggest that much effort went into the world-building for this novel. It would perhaps have added more colour if some of the socio-historical context of the world had been included within the body of the novel itself, but in general the plot steeps the reader in the world of Manticura in such a way as to make it come alive from the pages. A pity, then, that its characters, even the main protagonists, lack depth. The result is unfortunately stock and emotionally immature characterisation that does little to endear them to the reader.
Probably the best-explored relationship is that between the two medusa sisters. Ria and Barani are bonded by blood and by their special powers, and this amplifies the relatable sibling rivalry and familial tensions between them, so that at the apex of the narrative, the reader feels a severe sense of catastrophe and loss. Yet the inner lives of the characters are elsewhere barely explored, making their feelings for and interactions with one another superficial and serving only to weaken the impact of the plot. Eedric's fraught relationship with his father, in particular, could have been further expounded upon. Without a clearer sense of what held the father and son together, Ria's choice of action towards the end of the book remains somewhat puzzling and out of character. Meanwhile, Ria and Eedric's love story raises more questions than it answers. What was it like for a wholly misunderstood woman like Ria to fall in love with a man 80 years her junior? Had she loved anyone before? What kinds of impulses did she have to suppress in order to access a set of emotions she presumably had never felt before in her long, mostly-isolated life?
The book's ending finally reveals the grave threat to Ria's way of being, acknowledging her greatest fear as to how her power can be harnessed in ways wholly antithetical to her purpose. Certainly, it whets an appetite for a sequel, so perhaps there is room yet to delve deeper into the possibilities of an aged medusa's life in a violent and ever-changing world.
Despite its shortcomings, The Gatekeeper is a welcome addition to the Singapore literary canon. It breaks new ground on literary explorations of our present-day realities. Its escapist veneer allows for a reading of the text at the fantasy level but also leaves room for interpretation, without compromising its author's distinctive voice. The questions it raises about contemporary Singapore society offer an opportunity to critically engage and consider possibilities for the future.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017