In this first of hopefully many Lit Cuts, we explore various literary methods – poetic, dramatic, prosaic – across texts outside our narrow syllabus. Just as hopefully, these posts will clarify your understanding and expand our imagination of what literature can be, and how writers carve out new meaning for themselves.
In this post, we dive into the use of figurative language in one enthralling chapter from Altered Straits. Half of the novel is based on the boy-soldier Naufal Jazair’s fight against “an aggressive neighbour” in a reimagined Singapore in 1947.
The sea takes all.
Bahana felt Naufal’s presence rise and fall, not so much a heart-beat, but the rolling ebb of the tide, one wave forward, two waves back. The sea, too, was a tide, but this one was malevolent, a hungry, consuming thing slowly climbing the battered, wrecked walls of Naufal’s seaward defences.
It was losing Naufal.
The sea personified
“The sea takes all“. Read in a single breath, this opening sentence is emotionless. The sea, unassuming yet unequivocal, simply “takes all” in its grasp. Life is to be taken away, and we expect one of Bahana and Naufal to be fed.
The sea is personified as a monster, “a hungry, consuming thing” that spares no one in the wake of violence. It is unrelenting, “slowly climbing” in search of food.
Naufal in metaphors
Its victim, Naufal, is cast as the “battered, wrecked walls“of a stormy coastline, unable to withstand the malevolent monster clawing at it.
Lacking “so much a heart-beat”, the sea becomes the representation of what little of Naufal is left. His presence becomes “the rolling ebb of the tide, one wave forward, two waves back”, ambling but fast receding into oblivion.
“It was losing Naufal“, not “it was consuming Naufal.” In this third paragraph, Naufal is portrayed as one with the sea.
The sea that “takes all” in the first paragraph is “losing” part of itself in this third paragraph, possibly mourning in tears – Bahana’s sea of tears. Depicted as a monster in paragraph one, the sea acquires a bit of humanity by the act of consuming a live human.
The first and third paragraphs are deliberately constructed as short, one-sentence paragraphs, drawing further emphasis to the contrast between “take” and “losing”, the absolute and unfeeling “all” to the more personal “Naufal”.
Metaphors and figurative language on the whole depend on the comparison of a thing/person/place to something else that the thing/person/place is not in the literal sense. Ipso facto, a boy is not a wall. Likewise, a sea is not a monster.
Metaphors have effects – they transfer qualities and emotions to the thing/person/place being described. Naufal is a wall, once strong but now battered and broken (qualities). The sea is monstrous, violent, hungry (qualities) and striking fear into all who encounter it (emotion).
What I found interesting about the above excerpt from Altered Straits is how fluid (no pun, I swear) the metaphors are. The sea is compared to a person, a person is compared to the sea. A person then becomes completely non-human, just as the sea seems more human in its sense of loss. Stretching our logic further, we could even see how this interplay between metaphors and the thing/person being described is itself like the “rolling ebb of the tide”. The devoured (Naufal) eventually merges into the devourer (the sea), and there is nothing to separate the metaphor from the person, the person from the thing.