Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw
24 February, 2011
Tash Aw’s second novel is beautiful. I must confess I don’t know much about Indonesia; just snippets gleaned from some of my Indonesian friends, my father’s trips to Java in the 80s and in museums from my trips to Holland. But I was keen to read this after having enjoyed Harmony Silk Factory so much a few years ago.
I think what made Map of the Invisible World so special were the characters, especially Margaret, an American who has lived most of her life in Indonesia: strong, resourceful and believing she no longer needs love. Then there’s Karl, the Dutch artist for whom home is also Indonesia, and 16-year old Adam, his adopted Indonesian son pining for his brother Johan who was adopted by a Malaysian family. Set in the 1960s as Sukarno is purging Indonesia of it’s colonial past and student uprisings where ideology and violence clash, this is rich and fertile ground for a novel about identity, loss and belonging.
Margaret, a lecturer at the University in Jakarta, is visited by a distraught Adam as he tries to find Karl who has been taken away by the military. In a time where anyone with white skin is viewed with suspicion and the Dutch Indonesians are being repatriated, Margaret must get help from Bill, her old colleague at the US Embassy, a slippery, resourceful man with the whiff of the CIA, and Mick, a jaded Australian journalist, to track down the first man she ever fell in love with before it’s too late. In parallel, Aw cuts to Malaysia and Johan, Adam’s older brother, struggling with his guilt for leaving Adam behind as a child at the orphanage. His adoptive family are affluent and even though he wants for nothing, his life is empty and he is chasing his demons away with fast cars, drugs and girls.
On a more sinister note, we see the desperation of activists such as Din, Margaret’s colleague and graduate student, bitter and poor, and Zubaidah (or Z) who runs the zine for student activism, as Indonesia transitions from a colony to a republic. We can feel the anger of the mob towards the West agitated by government propaganda and pent-up frustration over the years and the Indonesian government’s own faults in trying to modernise and nationalise the country. What Aw is also good at showing is the tension within Indonesia itself as the government tries to mobilise and move it’s people around the country, often displacing different ethnic minorities without thought to how their cultural identity will be affected. And also incredibly interesting is Indonesia’s relationship with its more affluent and nearest neighbour Malaysia: the similarities, differences and prejudices which arise, especially in Johan’s story.
Although gripping and in some places alarming (I was very worried about Adam’s involvement with Din in many places), Aw’s novel is beautifully written and lyrical and draws the character of Margaret in a very real manner. And like Harmony Silk Factory, Aw doesn’t give you a neatly wrapped up story with a tidy ending. The novel ends with a note of hope, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.