Catherine Lim’s The Taximan’s Story is laden with ironies that lead the readers into unravelling the theme of the short story. Through close reading of the text, the reader is brought into a wayward trip towards his/her destination. Also, this essay employs structuralism as a basis of deriving the meaning from the text. In the book Contemporary Literary Criticism, Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer defines that
As a school of literary criticism, structuralism is dedicated to explaining literature as a system of signs and codes and the conditions which allow that system to function, including relevant cultural frames (147).
Basing from this definition, I focus my critical essay on the image of Singapore as a relevant premise in the development and the function of the story. I also use the term simulacrum to refer to the image or representation based on the situation and the one-way conversation of the taximan and the teacher. Roland Barthes in his essay “The Structuralist Activity” refers to the theory as not just an “activity” whose significance is located in a process rather than a product. The aim of the structuralist activity is to reconstruct an ‘object” to understand its function. Thus,
Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed, interested simulacrum, since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object (171).
The taxi STOPS. The teacher ENTERS. The taximan’s story BEGINS.
“Long ago, Singapore not like this…”
In the story The Taximan’s Story, the protagonist shifts our idea of Singapore from being a grandiose city to a seemingly degrading place based on the description of the taximan.
What is it you say, Madam? Yes, yes, ha, ha, been taximan for twenty years now, Madam. Long time ago, Singapore not like this – so crowded so busy. Last time more peaceful, not so much taximen, or so much cars and buses.
Yes, Madam, can make a living. So, so. What to do. Must work hard if wants to success in Singapore. People like us, no education, no capital for business, we must sweat to earn money for wife and children.
In the process of getting the meaning, the one-sided conversation above illustrates Barthes “structuralist activity”; the change from what is “impressive” is turned into “intelligible.” It focuses on the comparison of the Singapore THEN and NOW. The creation or reflection are not, here, an original “impression” of the world, but a veritable fabrication of a world which resembles the first one, not in order to copy it but to render it intelligible (Barthes, 171). By comparing the past and the present, the taximan has somehow reconstructed Singapore, which, as Barthes asserts, turned the protagonist into a “structural man.”
Structural man takes the real, decomposes it, then recomposes it; this appears to be little enough (which makes some say that the structuralist enterprise is “meaningless,” “uninteresting,” “useless,” etc.) Yet, from another point of view, this “little enough” is decisive: for between the two objects, or the two tenses, of structuralist activity, there occurs something new, and what is new is nothing less than the generally intelligible: the simulacrum is intellect added to object, and this addition has an anthropological value, in that it is man himself, his history, his situation, his freedom and the very resistance which nature offers to his mind (171).
By revealing its poverty, the taximan has intelligibly revealed to the readers that ‘something new”. The crowded streets and the struggle of the society especially those who belong to the lower class contribute to the anthropological value of the story. That Singapore, which is the simulacrum, becomes a significant influence in the lives of her people. And for the taximan, he continues to narrate about his family,
Yes. Madam, quite big family – eight children, six sons, two old daughters. Big family! Ha! ha! No good, Madam. In those days, where got family planning in Singapore? People born many, many children, every year, one child. Is no good at all. Today is much better. Two children, three children, enough, stop. Our government say stop.
“Madam, you are a teacher, you say?”
The Taximan’s Story involves two characters: the taximan and the teacher. Here we see two confined individuals with two different jobs. The former represents the uneducated (taximan) and the latter signifies the educated (teacher). One major tenet of structuralism states that an object whose differential situation engenders a certain meaning, has no meaning in itself unless the slightest variation wrought in its configuration produces a change in the whole. The taximan has no significant existence until the teacher rides in the taxi. In his The Structuralist Activity, Barthes asserts that the text must undergo two operations: dissection and articulation.
Dissection means separating each and every part of the text from each other. A structuralist breaks the whole poem into different parts then he observes these fragmented elements into totality and these elements are again arranged properly, which is called articulation (http://www.bachelorandmaster.com, downloaded 4 Jan 2012).
How do these two operations work in the story? I can consider the taximan-teacher as the simulacrum of both operations. Dissection occurs in the taximan and the teacher as single entities. Similarly, there is the separation of the text from each other. And with their chance meeting, these two individuals joined together and thus engendered a significant meaning: the taximan to the teacher and vice versa. As Barthes posited in this second stage of the simulacrum-activity, is a kind of battle against chance and has a kind of demiurgic value in the constraint of recurrence of the units. Supposing that the taximan stands for the lower class and the uneducated, while the teacher, whose silence during the course of the trip, represents Singapore, there is still a meaning that we can derive from the text. The conflict or the irony in the one-way conversation becomes a confessional box wherein the taximan reveals the “truth” to his own country. He dissects his own struggles, his own experiences, his own culpability to the silent teacher (Singapore) and thus enables the reader to articulate the text by revealing the layers of his character.
“Must go off, please to excuse me…”
The Taximan’s Story by Catherine Lim is a reflection of a society whose silence is perturbed by the bustling struggle against poverty, prostitution and degradation of values among the youth. The taximan becomes the simulacrum of this group of society whose cries are overshadowed by the grandeur of Singapore. They are trapped in a taxi. Taken to an endless trip. From Hotel Elroy and back.
The taxi STOPS. The teacher ALIGHTS. The taximan’s story BEGINS. Again.
Barthes, Roland. “The Structuralist Activity.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. New York: Longman, Inc., 1989.
Con Davis, Robert and Ronald S., eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. New York: Longman, Inc., 1989.