REVIEW Tash AW's Map of the Invisible World
This classy second novel maps events that connect people and places, say S.H. LIM
FOUR YEARS after the début of the much-lauded and well-decorated novel, The Harmony Silk Factory—winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel in 2005—Malaysia-born, London-based author Tash Aw serves up a superior effort in Map of the Invisible World (HarperCollins India, April 2009).
In this new work, he transports us to a cloudy chapter in our collective consciousness: the mid-1960s. It was a time shortly after the formation of Malaysia and the beginning of President Sukarno and Indonesia’s armed hostility (known as Konfrontasi) against the newly formed union.
Within Indonesia there was also a rising communist threat somewhat instigated by the president’s alliance with the Soviet Union. And throughout the novel this menace smoulders barely below the surface, surging sporadically and then slipping back to become a silent reminder of its potential to cause chaos. That’s the backdrop.
As if to underscore the point that violence in the public-political domain inevitably insinuates itself into the private, everyday lives of ordinary folk, the novel opens with an almost imperceptible ripple: the apparently mundane arrest of an ordinary citizen.
“When it finally happened, there was no violence, hardly any drama. It was over very quickly, and then Adam found himself alone once more. Hiding in the deep shade of the bushes, this is what he saw.” Adam witnesses his Dutch-Indonesian adoptive father, Karl de Willigen, being taken away in an army truck.
Then, like his Biblical namesake, native-born, suddenly-stripped-naked-of-his-father’s-protection Adam emerges from behind the bushes and journeys to a falling-apart Jakarta—described by Aw in such palpable detail that its stench assaults us and its humid, urban dirt makes us want to scrub ourselves. In the capital to look for his father, Adam enrols the help of Margaret Bates, an American who knows Karl.
Meanwhile, a parallel story plays out in Malaysia: Adam’s older brother had been adopted by a very rich Malaysian couple, and although living a privileged and pampered life, Johan is haunted by his missing sibling. Soulless KL—almost always seen at night, lit up by neon lights “with electric temptations” leading to the lewd and lascivious—offers no relief.
What’s inviting and engaging about this novel—beyond the creation of believable and well-layered characters (even minor ones like Neng, a tough Madurese girl, and Mick an Australian journalist)—stems from the smooth story-telling style, the fluid prose.
Aw’s words flow with the apparent effortlessness of water over pebbles that eddies occasionally to draw our gaze deeper. He describes the shattering of a window pane thus: “It had exploded into a million tiny shards that refracted the sunlight—balls of brilliant colour that exploded into existence for a second, like those magical bursts of fireworks that light up for a moment before suddenly disappearing, leaving you staring at nothing.”
The writer also plays with the unfolding of events, alternating chapters between Adam and Johan, Indonesia and Malaysia, the past and the present. These juxtapositions, I suspect, will prod local readers, more so than others, to reflect on the circumstances within our own country.
Din, the Indonesian university tutor says, “We need a history of our own country written by an Indonesian, something that explores non-standard sources…. Like folk stories, local mythology, or ancient manuscripts written on palm leaves.” Perhaps like him, we too will want a Malaysian to draw the invisible map and write the invisible history of our own country, “the lost world where everything remained true and authentic, away from the gaze” of politically-motivated cartographers and historians.
But to read the novel focusing solely on the sociopolitical context and how it impinges on the lives of the characters would deny us the pleasure of a good story, the human drama, of the drive to find the various connections and relationships that make us whole and truly at home in our skin.
Reproduced from The Sunday Star of May 31, 2009