This long-awaited novel by one of Singapore's most
distinguished writers, is a "Fable for Grownups." It is the story of a man
who, on his birthday, is able to reflect on the preceding 60 years with
complete satisfaction. He has everything a man could want, wealth, position,
family, so, of course, he is dissatisfied and does the only thing a man in
his position could do. He runs away. A comic fable about the paradoxes of
life as the hero attempts to remake his life again – and again? Before
exiling himself in Canada in 1986, Goh Poh Seng was Singapore's major
literary figure. He won the National Book Development Council of Singapore
Award for Fiction in 1976 and the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 1983. His
independent outlook on life caused him to fall out of grace with the
authorities in Singapore. He worked as a doctor in Newfoundland and later
settled in Vancouver where he lives today. After being diagnosed with
Parkinson's disease, he gave up his practice and now writes full time. Two
volumes of Goh's poetry have been published in Canada.
"The beauty of Goh Poh Seng's fourth novel lies in
its quest to explore new horizons in order to address an age-old
dilemma – human beings searching for their purpose in life. It's an
ambitious task and one that Goh succeeds in executing, largely because
he manages to slip effortlessly inside the mindset of his protagonist,
referred to as the "old man".
"Set in a small town in Malaysia, although the
country is never explicitly named, Dance With White Clouds plots the
life of a successful man who leaves the family he loves and the
successful business he has built in pursuit of the meaning of life. In
doing so, he remarries, acquires a ready-made family and builds
another life as a successful businessman – one which, ironically, is
not so different from his previous one. The result is truly a timeless
fable, down to the time-honoured way of opening the story with "once
upon a time".
"It is a tribute to Goh that he immerses the reader
so swiftly and satisfyingly in the old man's world, confronting them
with the dilemmas he faces.
"Ultimately, Dance is about the search for happiness
– and its meaning – but also the role of intimate companionship and
whether humans are born to be monogamous, the importance of
friendships and the gratification that can be gained from leading a
good life and helping others who are less blessed.
"Fortunately, it manages to steer clear of
sermonising. At times the style is more akin to that of a teacher
speaking to his pupils, such is the deceptively simple sentence
structure and straightforward approach to storytelling. And while the
thoughtful narrative sometimes lacks emotion, this works in its favour
as it promotes the style of a fable while lending a certain
"For lovers of Malaysia, it is also an evocatively
drawn discourse on the fascinating racial make-up of the old man's
small town, with vivid contrasts drawn between it, the capital
(presumably, Kuala Lumpur), and the upland areas, which one supposes
are the Cameron Highlands, with its cooling atmosphere and colonial
"Inevitably, the reader is bound to ask what kind of
person has such empathy with the old man and is compelled to write
such an enlightening tale.
"In fact, Singaporeans are likely familiar with Goh
and his writing, which includes poetry. He is a former physician who
was born in Malaysia but practised in Singapore. In 1986 he emigrated
to Canada and nine years later was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
"Ultimately, Dance questions whether it is better to
stick with what you have or dare to strike out in search of fulfilment,
if it even exists. The ending, as you might expect, can hardly be
"Inevitably, as with life,
the reader is left wanting more than can be delivered."
South China Morning Post
"This short novel is centered
round what may be life's most fundamental question. Given that we only
have a certain number of years to live, how should we best spend our
"Philosophers have looked at this
question with surprising infrequency. Perhaps they were concerned with
other issues, knotty but fascinating problems such as how we can know
whether what our senses tell us is the truth. Or perhaps they believed
in the possibility of an afterlife - a belief that certainly takes the
edge off the big question outlined above.
"Dance with White Clouds is
clearly set in Malaysia, where the old man travels to from Singapore
in the early pages. … Not that it really matters where the book is
set. This is a fable, and indeed its subtitle is "A fable for grown
ups". The subject of its inquiry - what a wise man should do with a
life - is a universal one, and applies to us all.
"As a quest fable, this book
follows in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors. Two notable
earlier books that attempted to confront the same question both date
from the 18th century - Voltaire's Candide and Johnson's
Rasselas (each published, as it happens, in the same year, 1759).
Both of these books had a central character traveling in search of
the meaning of life, or rather the best way of living it. Comparisons
with Dance with White Clouds are illuminating.
"The most interesting feature that
all three books have in common is that none of their protagonists
finds what he's looking for. The second point of similarity is that
they're all relatively short narratives. Presumably the quest for an
ideal doesn't readily permit sub-plots, the usual means by which works
of fiction are spun out to more than moderate length.
"These points apart, this Asian
quest novel is rather different. In both Rasselas and
Candide the format is that the hero visits different kinds of
people - nature-lovers, scientists, philosophers and so on - in the
hope of finding which of them is truly happy. Of course it isn‘t
simply a question of happiness. Voltaire and Johnson were nothing if
not thinking people, and neither of them could have been happy if they
didn’t believe they were living in the wisest possible way.
Nevertheless, their heroes both traveled in search of the best way of
life, and both came to the conclusion that no one they visited was
either happy or enlightened. Best to stay at home and cultivate your
garden, Voltaire decided.
"Goh Poh Seng‘s old man goes about
things rather differently. After riding around the Malaysian interior
for a couple of days he lights on a small town that he considers just
what he’s looking for - smaller than a city, yet not so small as to
leave him with no choice of new friends.
"Once there, he spends some days
up in the hills, swimming in a river and sunning himself on a boulder.
Back in town, where he‘s staying in a modest hotel, he gets to know a
literary school teacher who quotes the most illustrious Chinese poets
at ever greater length the more he has drunk. (The novel’s title is a
quote from Han Shan).
"… Essentially, though, he
re-engages with the kind of life he had known before he walked out and
left his family back home in Singapore.
"The author‘s moral - and these
are the kind of books that have to have a moral - is, by the end,
nothing if not ambiguous. On the one hand, all the old man has
discovered is that the instincts that led him to live one kind of life
in Singapore have led him to lead exactly the same kind of life in
provincial Malaysia. On the other, he still thinks there must be more
to life than he has found.
is an excellent book. It reads extremely naturally. There's never a
superfluous sentence, and the style is engaging and user-friendly.
It's reminiscent of a short story by Chekhov - it has the same
gentleness, the same striking but unostentatious detail, and the same
quiet humor. Perhaps it‘s no coincidence that both writers were
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