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Invisible Man

Author Tash Aw follows up The Harmony Silk Factory, his acclaimed debut, with Map of the Invisible World, set amid the political upheaval of 1960s Indonesia.

Author Chris Lehmann Photography Colin Mcpherson

BORN IN MALAYSIA and raised in London, Tash Aw is very much at home with cultural contradictions. His award-winning first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, plumbed the 1940s saga of Johnny Lim, a ruthless Malaysian industrialist—but complicated the rags-to-oligarchy story with shifting, and sharply incompatible, narrative accounts of Lim’s life and times.

Now with Map of the Invisible World, Aw conjures the revolutionary ferment of Indonesia in 1964, as the national unity imposed by socialist leader Sukarno dissolves into the chaos that will set the stage for the Suharto regime’s brutal rule. The novel centers on Adam De Willigen, a rural Indonesian orphan trying to locate his adoptive father, a Dutchman who was jailed by Sukarno’s military police in a sweep of Communists. A clutch of other emigrés— an American anthropology professor, an Australian journalist, a U.S. embassy official—get caught up in Adam’s search, which triggers a series of unexpected revelations about the characters’ adopted homeland and their own roles in the rapidly vanishing colonial order.

The goal of the novel, the author explains, was to examine the region’s quest for an identity. “From 1500 to 1950, our history has basically been that of a colonized country,” he says. “So in a sense it wasn’t entirely ours. We were still trying to figure out who we were.” To some extent, the answer may always be elusive. Indonesia, Aw points out, “is a loosely knit association of very diff erent cultures. If you just take the major islands—Java, Sumatra, Bali—they’re completely diff erent, linguistically, religiously, ethnically.”

The 38-year-old novelist, who was educated in England, was spared the more barbed kinds of personal and political reckonings his characters face. But while pursuing his first career, as a corporate attorney, he found he had to grope his way toward his literary vocation in stages.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” he says, “but no one tells you how to be one.” His problem with practicing law, Aw adds, was that he became too busy.

“What you do from day to day ultimately becomes your reality,” Aw says. “So it got to the point when, even though I was writing The Harmony Silk Factory, I started to think of myself as an attorney.

“That was the moment,” he adds with a laugh, “I realized I had to stop.”

Bookforum editor CHRIS LEHMANN is still groping his way toward his literary vocation.

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