4 Pax To Emptiness
By Stella Kon
Fiction/Penguin Random House SEA/Paperback/172 pages/$24.73/Amazon SG (amzn.to/47xTcjs)
This is a strange and yet oddly affecting story by playwright Stella Kon that seems to defy easy classification.
Four Singaporeans from a meditation club, stricken by increasingly debilitating daydreams, are beseeched by a goddess to travel to China, where they attempt to perform an act of remembrance that will mend a rift in the world.
Marketed as urban fantasy by publisher Penguin Random House SEA, half of it in fact takes place in rural China – a village called Nanchiao, where the four are stuck after the road is blocked by a landslide.
The “fantasy” half of the equation also does not sit quite right. For one thing, the novel is a mere 172 pages and there are no warring kingdoms or obscure magic.
The only fantastical element is benign goddess Bezalia, described as a “divine hitchhiker on their souls”. Once their meditation teacher, she speaks to them in their minds and is able to beam images of their schedules into their brains or surround them with love.
She does, at several points, ride on a dragon and scatter lightning on mourning crowds. But it is clear this happens only in the consciousness of the four members, with so little material consequence to those around them that even an officer from the Singapore special branch, who is called in to investigate – a very minor sub-plot – determines that there is no evidence of religious activity.
The enigmatically titled 4 Pax To Emptiness is Kon’s first novel, after a lifetime of writing plays, including the classic Emily Of Emerald Hill (1982).
She has as one of her main characters a wheelchair-using Singapore Indian named Peter – “the cripple” and unofficial head of the group. The other three are Singapore Chinese, variously “the executive” Katrina, “the tai-tai” Lumy and “the businessmen” Alex.
It is the year 1997, and they are “drawn by a common goal to an unlikely destination, on a mission to save the world”, which begins with an elaborate choreography of hustling for seats at the busy Chinese airport.
From this cartoonish start, they settle down to conduct one of their “listening sessions”, a semi-religious meditation routine that helps them tame their respective tempers and insecurities – a practice they will repeat as they deal with the eccentricities of China.
Kon soon reveals that they are there in relation to the amnesia surrounding the Great Chinese Famine from 1951 to 1961 caused by the Great Leap Forward policies of Mao Zedong.
Details of the scale of the catastrophe that killed 30 million people emerged only gradually from the 1980s.
In 1998, former bureau chief for the South China Morning Post Jasper Becker published Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, which brought the famine into the consciousness of the English-speaking world.
This book’s fictional premise is that the four Singaporeans are integral in bringing the scale of the disaster to light. Kon writes the Singaporeans’ encounter with the Chinese with a shade of the old tropes of white colonisers meeting indigenous savages, though, thankfully, no evangelism is involved.
In the village, the four are forced to hold a press conference to explain their presence and what a wheelchair is. Their default attitudes are disdain and indifference.
In moments of transcendence, the four see “heaven shining out from the dirty street and shabby houses” and “each stolid peasant face (as) the face of a sleeping angel, unaware of his inner divinity”.
The echoes of white saviour complex would feel problematic except Singapore never colonised China and is the much smaller power on the world stage. And yet, the English education of the characters and their much wealthier background make the power dynamic feel honest.
The novel is thus the disorienting product of a clearly unusual – and original – mind: One that abides by no easy markers of the religious and the secular, and one very willing to decentre Singaporean stories from the country while still placing them at the centre of global developments.
It is a humanistic view that calls for an expansion of compassion beyond national boundaries. More impactfully, this narrative’s focus on meditation and psychic healing is a drastic reorientation of values from the blood, gore, wealth and power of traditional fantasy, also reflected in Kon’s sparse, lulling prose and almost leisurely plotting.
At a time when everyone else is clamouring for intensity and speed, Kon goes slow, and bids readers relinquish control and surrender to her mysterious rhythms.
If you like this, read: The Dogs by O Thiam Chin (Penguin Random House South-east Asia, 2020, $28.97, Amazon, go to amzn.to/3K1N3CD). Tian moves into an old flat that belonged to his late father and reminisces about a mysterious tragedy that involves a stray dog.
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