At one level, Tash Aw’s new novel, Map of the Invisible World, is about two orphans, separated after birth, going their different ways. A wealthy family chooses the older brother, taking him far away; an elderly painter adopts the younger one. The painter, who is not from these parts, gets arrested during troubled times. The younger brother tries to retrieve his past—the missing elder brother, wracked by guilt, the foster-father about whom little is known—and goes to a woman the foster-father had once loved.
Iron fist: A file picture of Sukarno addressing a rally in Macassar, Indonesia, demanding independence from the Netherlands. AFP
That human saga is rich enough as a story, even if shorn of specifics. Add songs and dance, and it becomes a Bollywood tale. Toss in political intrigue, and it is an airport thriller. Focus on details and the intricacies of the time, and you get a history lesson. Sprinkle social commentary, and it is a Leftist critique of right-wing governments. Or, etch each character with the specifics of a particular circumstance and dig deeper into the psyche of the protagonists, and you get literature.
Aw is a literary novelist. His view is nuanced; his characters personify complex emotions that are not easy to stereotype culturally; and while they offer sweeping judgements of the world around them—in particular, Karl, the painter, who adopts Adam, the younger sibling, and Karl’s former love, the sociologist Margaret Bates—they stand at an angle; they are not cardboard caricature representations of the two nationalities: Dutch, in the case of Karl, and American, in the case of Margaret.
Taiwan-born Aw grew up in Malaysia, and now makes Britain his home. His earlier novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, which won the Commonwealth and Whitebread prizes for the first novel in 2005 and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, was about Malaysia during World War II. Here, Aw brings the history 20 years forward.
The easiest metaphor writers use to describe Indonesia is wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, which offers viewers an outline of the drama, seen beyond a screen, with light exaggerating the size and movements of characters. The audience never gets access to the layers of meaning that the faces conceal, because there are no faces to be seen. Margaret, an expert in non-verbal communication, thinks she gets it, but not always; Adam, too, believes he knows how the world whirls around him, but only just. Karl’s self-loathing—he bans the use of Dutch in his house, preferring to speak in Bahasa—is unable to prevent his arrest when soldiers finally catch up with him on a remote island. He has done nothing wrong; he is taken away because of the colour of his skin, and the past—Dutch colonialism—he represents, even if he wants to discard his skin.
All this happens during the period described as the year of living dangerously. This was the time when Sukarno, then Indonesia’s president, decided to break ties with most major powers, and embarked on a sad little war with Malaysia, calling that period Konfrontasi, or confrontation.
If China’s Great Leap Forward remains an unparalleled human tragedy, Sukarno’s later years, when he revelled in his megalomania and pointlessly wasted many lives, was no less chaotic. Sukarno’s eventual departure took longer—nearly a year —when after an elaborate ritual, he is supposed to have bequeathed his office to Suharto under a decree known as Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret, or Supersemar. In the period in between, Indonesia experienced a brutal pogrom, in which hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists were killed.
Suharto dealt with Sukarno’s legacy delicately; the rhetoric and form remained, the substance changed. Indonesia became a firm Western ally in South-East Asia, open to foreign investment at the time of the Vietnam conflict. Suharto’s 32-year-reign made it difficult to understand or analyse what happened.
Writing was not an easy profession. Pramoedya Ananta Toer was jailed in the Indonesian gulag, Buru, from where he wrote four majestic novels (the Buru Quartet) that were banned in the Suharto era. Toer’s fiction is a primer for Indonesia, in that he took the story from the turn of the last century up to Indonesian independence, charting the story of Minke, a Javanese royal. But it ended there. Christopher Koch, an Australian journalist, cast aside the flimsy curtain between the audience and the puppeteers, revealing the fragility of the characters playing dangerous games in his novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, later to become a famous film starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. But Indonesia’s saga has remained clouded for too long.
Aw does not pretend to write the definitive history of Indonesia. He takes a slice of history and places at its centre individuals who personify traits that can help explain larger forces. Johan, the older brother adopted by wealthy Malaysian parents, can be a proxy for Malaysia itself; Adam, with his expressionless face and angst, is the Indonesian difficult to place in any of the thousands of islands that make up the country. He represents what Indonesia sought to become, an individualized representation of the collection of different cultures and traditions. Margaret is the good American abroad—not one like Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, who is out there to spread democracy—but one who wants to understand a culture different from her own, even when she admits she finds it hard to understand her own parents.
Historical fiction becomes more interesting when the writer creates the character at the bottom of the mountain, looking at the top—whose life is affected by forces he can neither control, nor fathom. This does not have to be the subaltern view; views from the margin are as interesting, as they show us the world as seen by those upon whom history thrusts opportunities. They can succumb or triumph. All triumphs are not startling: Sometimes, surviving is a challenge in itself. Aw shows us how.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org