Saturday, March 04, 2006

Tash Aw - The Harmony Silk Factory

You would think that, what with the years I have spent hanging out with Malaysion people, trying to marry one even, loving Malaysian food and even visiting Malaysia I would have read some Malaysian fiction by now. Hell, the only book I can recall reading which is even about Malaysia is Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy. Tash Aw has more claim to be a Malaysian writer than any other I have read, yet he is Taiwanese and only spent his teenage years in Malaysai before moving to England. It turns out he's read about as many Malaysian authors as I have, and he namechecks authors such as Melville, Flaubert, Nabokov and Steinbeck is his heroes. He has nonetheless set this novel fair and square in Malaysia. A bit of attention from the international press saw him garner a cool half million pound advance for it.

The central focus is on one Johnny (apparently taken from Johnny Weissmuller, better known as Tarzan) Lim, a Chinese Malaysian, who runs the Harmony Silk Factory, which is really a modest shop selling textiles. Curiously enough, very little time is spent with these particular premises. A major question hangs over Johnny: did he collaborate with the Japanese when they invaded Malaysia in 1941. His son, Jasper, is convinced that he did and that he is a rogue - this is revealed in the first third of the novel, in which he is the narrator. That take, however, is revealed to be somewhat contingent and subjective, by the next two sections, narrated in turn by Johnny's wife and friend. I ended up simply not knowing what the truth was, and I suspect that is the point, that knowing the truth is always difficult, if not impossible.

For Jasper, this task is doubly difficult: knowing one's father might be the hardest thing one can do and he has decided that the only true thing his father ever said to him is that death erases all traces of life. Of course, by recording the life in a novel, that one true thing is contradicted. To Jasper, his father is a "liar, a cheat, a traitor, and a skirt chaser of the very highest order" - but he only detects his father's "streak of malice" when he is 18 and is leaving home. His dad volunteers to drive him and starts musing about Paradise:
I thought, perhaps my father is capable of appreciating beauty; perhaps he is not completely black-hearted and mean after all. In the midst of the downpour I began to feel guilty that I had judged him harshly all these years. I was scared, too - scared of discovering someone I had never known, a different father from the one I had grown up with. But then I heard a sharp slap, and saw that he had swatted a mosquito on his neck "Bastard" he spat as he walked back to the car. His voice was as hard and cold as it always had been, and his eyes were set in anger. As we drove away, I knew that I had been mistaken. That tender moment had been a mere aberration...
Jasper is trying to set down his father's story as a means of achieving personal peace and does a nice job of telling about the Kinta Valley. From Jasper, we learn of Johnny's amazing ability with his hands in getting machinery to work and of his developing relationship with Tiger Tan - boss of a textile firm and organiser of the local communist party. Johnny, of course, is Tiger's successor when Tiger is shot to death (despite all the speculation about who shot him and the clear gains Johnny made from his death, Jaspaer does not accuse his father of this) and becomes the big man of the community. His business takes him to the doors of the local magnate, where for the first time, our man is completely out of his depth. Nonetheless after a "courtship" in which he is simply carried along by events and expectations, he marries the daugher, Snow. She dies the day of Jasper's birth and the day of Johnny's treachery to his people, at least according to Jasper. The facts were that a secret meeting of all the local Communist resistance to the Japanese occupation was organised by Johnny, the Japanese found out about it and killed or arrested all but Johnny, who had established a form of accomodation with the Japanese leadership for the survival of the local people. During this period, Johnny built the Harmony Silk Factory and became propserous. His son accuses him of tipping the Japanese off, but we will never know the truth of that.

This portion of the book is beautifully written, polished prose with a very smooth finish, quite surprising for someone's first published work. The next portion is Snow's diary for a two-month period, in which she is explaining for herself why she has decided to leave Johnny: it immediately casts doubt on Jasper's, as it becomes clear her father is an intimate of the leader of the Japanese occupying their area (Kunichika). There was an interesting piece of foreshadowing in Johnny's account: he at age 12 wanted his father to take him to the Seven Maiden Islands - Johnny refuses "I hate islands". It turns out, that is where he spent a belated honeymoon with Snow and his mate Peter. Just to add interest, they were accompanied by Honey, a friend of Snow's father who thinks Peter is a "vulgar and florid" embarrasment for whom he has to apologise, and Kunichika. Interesting way to take a honeymoon! This trip forms much of the substance of Snow's diary entries - a long journey up through mysterious rainforest to a destination with mystical significance, even if no-one but the Japanese know quite where they are. The trip is pretty much a disaster - the boat breaks down, there are horrible storms, Johnny nearly dies, one of the party does die, there is increasing tension among the travellers - but there is one beautiful moment, when Peter organises a dinner party for his birthday. Entirely appropriately to the circumstances, he sings from Don Giovanni - the bride being stolen from her husband, with Kunichika being the thief. Still think Johnny is going to sell out to Kunichika?

The final section is narrated by Peter, in which he recounts his time with Johnny, interspersed with accounts of some gardening project he has, still in Malaysia 60 years later. He first encounters Johnny reading Shelley in some Singapore bar. Peter follows him up into the Valley and is hooked, numbed even, by Snow as soon as he sees her. Still, he can talk with Johnny, and we for the first time hear an account, at least purporting to be from Johnny, as to his relationship with the communists and the Japanese: "I would rather be betrayed than betray someone else". Much of his part is taken up with his version of the trip to the Seven Maidens, although it too is very subjective, thanks to his affection for Johnny, his love for Snow, his hatred of Honey and his jealousy of Kunichika.

There is another dimension to this novel: Malaysia is a kind of Paradise, over which first the Chines, then the British and finally the Japanese have taken dominion - in much the same way as Johnny and Peter (who is the "good" way of being British, unlike Honey's way) have to give way to Kunichika. This process is fatal for Malaysia.


Blogger bibliobibuli said...

Tash is Malaysian - born in Taiwan, but grew up in Bangsar, KL which makes him Malaysian enough. (I think the concept of what nationality a writer is needs to be bit more flexible. After all, you guys claim Katherine Mansfield proudly as your own - but so do the Brits!)

The money wasn't an advance but made on the sale of the completed manuscript.

I like your analysis of the book - did you enjoy it?

4:51 AM  

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