Book review: 'Map of the Invisible World' by Tash Aw

(Courtesy Of Spiegel & Grau - Courtesy Of Spiegel & Grau)
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By Wendy Law-Yone
Saturday, January 30, 2010


By Tash Aw

Spiegel & Grau.

318 pp. $25

Set in Indonesia in the early 1960s, this novel by Tash Aw, the author of the much admired "The Harmony Silk Factory," takes place in the closing years of President Sukarno's "guided democracy" -- the tense prelude to the 1965 army coup and resultant slaughter of more than half a million Indonesians in the name of an anti-Communist purge.

Much of the suspense in "Map of the Invisible World" derives from this looming event. As the country heads toward civil war and uncertainty reigns, five characters -- three Indonesians and two Westerners -- converge in Jakarta, "the biggest, dirtiest, most wretched and corrupt city in the world." Two of the characters are engaged in an urgent search for the third, while the other two are bent on separate self-destructive paths. All of them, in effect, are following Sukarno's exhortation, in one of his famous radio broadcasts, "to live dangerously."

That phrase has been made memorable by a powerful novel (and film) that came out three decades ago, also set in Indonesia during this period. "Map of the Invisible World" inevitably invites comparison with "The Year of Living Dangerously" for the similar political and emotional ground they cover. Granted, the latter is a thriller, fast-paced and fluent in its evocation of explosive tension, while the former leans toward the literary novel, measured and dispassionate in tone. Nevertheless, the thriller remains the more convincing story to my mind -- and not only because one of its central characters is an unforgettable Chinese-Australian dwarf.

The tension in the lives of Aw's characters, the frayed fabric of Jakarta, the heat, the monsoons, the overflowing garbage, the dichotomies of beauty and squalor, the mobs, the menace, the impending crisis -- all of this is captured in "Map of the Invisible World" with a fidelity that can't be faulted. I must confess, though, to a lukewarm interest in the urgent search for a character like Karl de Willigen, a morally upright and deadly earnest Dutch expatriate, whose reflections run along the lines of, "We Occidentals . . . lost touch with the primitive, unspoiled parts of ourselves, so we no longer know what it is to be innocent and childlike."

As an exasperated journalist puts it -- quite rightly, I think -- "This is a country of more than a hundred million people. Why should any Indonesian care about some solitary white guy who's gone AWOL when they're dying of hunger and on the brink of a civil war?"

But there is a larger sense in which I felt let down by this intriguing and, for the most part, beautifully written novel, and I trace it to the title itself. References to invisible worlds abound in the lives of these characters. There is the invisible world that Din, a Sumatran revolutionary, recalls wanting to explore as a student in Holland: "I was looking into writing a secret history of the Indonesian Islands in the Southeast, everything from Bali eastward. To me those islands were like a lost world where everything remained true and authentic, away from the gaze of foreigners -- a kind of invisible world, almost."

There is the invisible world of the midnight swim, when Johan, the older of two orphaned brothers, encounters "fields of coral, which, in the moonlight, looked like a shadowy map of an unknown world where the boundaries were uncertain and the countries kept changing shape."

There is the sea near the orphanage where Johan and his brother Adam grow up -- where, "though you could sometimes hear the waves and smell the dry salty air, you could never see the water. . . . The ocean remained out of view." And when Adam returns, at the end of a significant journey, to the eastern end of Java, "small boats sail toward a barren horizon, toward emptiness it seems. The places that lie beyond will, you think, always remain invisible."

And so they do. They remain disappointingly invisible to the reader -- and, it seems, to the characters themselves. Or perhaps I'm missing the point. Perhaps the point is that invisible worlds are by their very nature forever hidden, beyond access. Or are these worlds meant to suggest something like lost innocence?

Perhaps the intricacy of the title is lost on me entirely. If only I had that map.

Law-Yone is a Burmese-American novelist living in London whose new novel, "The Road to Wanting," will be published in the U.K. in April.

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