A relatively short, crisp novel, The Tower by Singaporean Malay author Isa Kamari follows the journey of a famed architect walking up a 101-storey tower that he designed himself. Trudging up with an assistant on the eve of the new millennium, he reflects on his life and its highlights and lowlights along the way.
While the journey itself is a direct one — straight up the stairs — the philosophical route is a meandering one, with diversions, dreams, nightmares and lengthy poetical interludes. We didn’t love all the twists and the sometimes heavy symbolism, but we liked the general unfurling of the details of the architect’s life and his reflections, and some of the larger questions about life and our purpose that these provoked:
“Sometimes I feel that our encounter and this climb is like a dream,” says the assistant. “Honestly, I’ve become confused and worried because I haven’t found what I’m looking for. It’s strange because at the beginning of this journey I didn’t set myself any aim or goal. Now, I feel that there’s something that I’m pursuing. Is our climb just one long nightmare, sir?”
The Tower won Singapore’s prestigious Cultural Medallion in 2007, but was only translated into English in 2017. It seems less about Singapore particularly and more about the increasing materialism of the world, but those who are interested in a Singaporean critique of this will enjoy the book. Not all Singaporeans are, well, cliched Singaporeans.
It can’t be more than a feeling, but Alfian Sa’at’s translation feels like a faithful and true one — unlike, for instance, The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata, where the readers can’t be sure what has changed in substantial terms in the English version, as compared to the original Indonesian. There is a sophistication in the language that suggests a respect and reverence for the original.
Read this book to enjoy a Singaporean novel that reflects on a rich but imperfect individual’s life set in a world increasingly focused on the fetishisation of things rather than spirituality. Some of those Singaporean skyscrapers might be more than meets the eye.
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