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Map of the Invisible World

July 1, 2010

Malaysian writer Tash Aw was acclaimed for his successful first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory. His second, Map of the Invisible World, is set in Indonesia in 1964, which President Sukarno proclaimed ‘the year of living dangerously.’


Sixteen year old Adam is an orphan adopted by Karl, a Dutch painter who has become an Indonesian citizen. When Karl is arrested and disappears, Adam travels to Jakarta to seek help from Margaret, an anthropologist who was Karl’s almost lover when she was a teenager in Bali in the 1930s. This Karl-quest is the main story-line, intersecting with political action and interspersed with episodes from both Margaret’s and Adam’s past lives. When Adam and his older brother Johan were very young they were placed in an orphanage, and Johan was the first to be adopted, taken by a rich Malaysian couple to Kuala Lumpur. He now lives dangerously because of his guilt at abandoning Adam. The question of whether the brothers will find each other is another thread running through the novel.


Margaret is an American anthropologist teaching at the university in Jakarta, together with her colleague Din, a passionate nationalist whose actions propel Adam into the centre of the political chaos engulfing the city.


Margaret and Sukarno are the strongest and most interesting characters in the novel. Both have formidable intelligence and charisma, speak several languages and are skilled at manipulating people to get their own way. But both have started the downward slide from the peak of their powers. Margaret sees herself as an expert in non-verbal communication with both Indonesians and Westerners, yet she misunderstands so much, especially with younger Indonesians caught up in the political struggle. She has fluctuating awareness of this, and realises she is slipping into an ‘old Asia hand’ caricature.


Did I enjoy the book? Yes, with reservations. Tash Aw’s strength lies in imagery and description. On Adam’s first day at school, his classmates tear the pages from his books and fold them into paper airplanes. “Adam watched as bits of the atlas glided past him: the pink-and-green of the United States floated dreamily in circles until it stubbed its nose on the blackboard and fell abruptly to the ground; the whiteness of the Canadian tundra swept out of the window in an arc, into the dusty sunlight; and the silent mass of the Pacific Ocean that Adam loved so much, dotted with islands (Fiji? Tahiti?) lay on the cracked cement floor, waiting to be trampled on.”


He convincingly brings the Jakarta of 1964 to life – the dust and smoke, the grey buildings, the ‘Crush Malaysia’ banners, the ‘dead water in the canals’, the becak drivers calmly peddling their way through the street chaos, casually avoiding disasters at the last minute. The book has given me a deeper appreciation of what Jakarta was like at that time, and helped me in writing the story of Wenny Achdiat, who lived through it (see ‘Daughter of Independence’ link).


Tash Aw is also superb at crafting set pieces, those key scenes where something significant and memorable happens, such as the riot in which Margaret and a friend are trapped, or the revolutionary act that provides the main turning point in the novel. But by far the best scene is where Margaret gains an audience with Sukarno. The way they speak to each other, the nuances, are just right.


Why then my reservations? Firstly, dialogue is a disappointment. Many of the characters seem to speak in the same way – they don’t have individual ‘voices’ that distinquish them, and often the speech can be stilted. There are exceptions, such as the Margaret-Sukarno piece. Secondly, while political intrigue is important, the story lacks suspense. One reviewer compared the author to Graham Greene, but I disagree. The novel kept me interested, but not on the edge of my seat. It is hard to feel for a character as bland as Karl, so the search for him did not engage me. Adam is also a passive character, subject to other people’s attempts to manipulate or use him.


I can recommend the novel for anyone interested in Indonesia or who wants to learn more about the country, especially that critical period of its history. I admire Tash Aw’s writing and am grateful that he has given us this book.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:56 pm

    Thanks for this review Bryce. I hadn’t heard of Tash Aw until I read this. He certainly has great titles.

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