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Archipelago Unravels

Tash Aw travels to the heart of Sukarno’s Indonesia

Written by Sudeep Paul |
May 17, 2009 11:21:35 am

Tash Aw travels to the heart of Sukarno’s Indonesia
Sometimes i imagine I’ll end up like Joseph Conrad’s Almayer in some obscure place living a sad lifestyle,although there’s something pure about living within your memories,” says Tash Aw,on which fictional character resembles him the most in an interview to The Independent earlier this month. He is little talked about in these parts,but is the first Malaysian to write a major novel in English in our times. That novel is The Harmony Silk Factory,with which Aw debuted in 2005 and that went on to make the Man Booker Prize longlist,win a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award (Costa Award).

Memory maps an invisible world,or is itself that invisible world,wherein the play of darkness and light conceals more than reveals,or when it reveals,it reveals slowly,obliquely,somewhat like a novel’s plot. Memory mixes with desire and produces the arch literary metaphor of the quest. For Aw,a self-confessed pilgrim on Conrad’s journey into darkness,that quest drives his two published novels. In the first one,the journey is into the truth about Johnny Lim — a pauper who becomes a rich industrialist,having once been a communist agent and a Japanese collaborator during World War II,and whose story is variably told from three perspectives — as well as a journey into Malaysia around the middle of the 20th century. In Map of the Invisible World,16-year-old Adam sets out on a quest to find Karl,the Dutch artist who adopted him and whose arrest by Indonesian soldiers begins the narrative against the backdrop of Sukarno’s 1960s drive to deport the Dutch en masse just as Indonesia’s political volcano erupted.

The other quest is the psychological one that Adam and his elder brother Johan — whose adoption by a wealthy Malaysian family meant the abandonment of then-five-year-old Adam in the orphanage — undertake in retrieving their life before the separation. Adam slowly remembers,but Mercedes-driving,irresponsible and wild Johan’s guilt at his sharper memories of his betrayed younger brother pushes him to the edge. They try to feel their way through the darkness to a more complete picture of a life long vanished — the invisible world.

Adam finds a partner in his search for Karl in Margaret,Karl’s one-time lover who now teaches at a Jakarta university. She specialises in “non-verbal” communication but cannot read the country and its people any more. The suspense builds as we wonder if they will find Karl or if the two brothers will be re-united,or if the looming civil war will consume all. As the Indonesian army bears down upon the communists,their government embarks on Konfrontasi — the ’60s face-off with Malaysia over Borneo.

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Both novels have an ambitious sweep,tackling the history of the archipelago. Their political and intellectual centre is the writing of post-colonial history,as memory merges with history. As the erstwhile coloniser is repatriated,the emerging vision of culture and identity is also jingoistic and xenophobic — the irony of arresting Karl who regarded himself Indonesian,refused to speak Dutch and called for a new Indonesian culture,or Margaret’s deceptively quiet teaching assistant,Din,who confesses political indifference but is a communist sympathiser plotting to assassinate Sukarno. Din’s raison de vivre is the retrieval of an “authentic” Indonesian identity completely purged of the memory of colonisation.

At the end of a novel like The Harmony Silk Factory,the only question left to ask is the pertinence of asking itself since the truth is multiple,disclosed in conflicting parts from multiple perspectives. Map of the Invisible World uses a third-person narrative,but explores similar spaces between what we can know and what we cannot,the tension between what is given and what changes,between certitude and doubt. Living within our memories is a sad and noble pursuit,but are they trustworthy?

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