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Map of the Invisible World: A Novel
Map of the Invisible World: A Novel
Tash Aw
Spiegel & Grau, 2010
317 pp., $25.00

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Jane Zwart


Indonesia, Inwardly

A guide to navigating the postcolonial world.

On the first page of Map of the Invisible World, a handful of adolescent Indonesian soldiers arrest Karl de Willigen, a native of the Netherlands, a painter, and the adoptive father of an orphan from Sumatra. And the orphan, Adam? He, an adolescent himself, watches. He does not, however, "hid[e] in the deep shade" out of cowardice, though he is afraid. He hides out of good sense. Adam knows, after all, that he cannot induce the immature troop sent to collect Karl to leave without him. Thus, he waits, and, after the military truck rattles away, he begins to try to get his father back.

The undertaking reels in other characters. Diplomats tamper with politicians; activists shout politicians down. Estranged lovers and friends who have cooled to one another cooperate again. All those trying to rescue Karl de Willigen, of course, take part in other pursuits, as well. Even that tiny minority, the pure-of-heart, are capable of selfishness, and Tash Aw recognizes the untidiness of goodness. By the same token, he acknowledges that evil precludes neither beauty nor gentleness. In fact, the border between loveliness and cruelty never quite hardens in Map of the Invisible World.

Take what happens to the map of the visible world. A clutch of Indonesian schoolchildren pull apart Adam's pocket atlas and crease its pages "into paper airplanes, … launch[ing] them into the air with sharp spearing motions" so that "the pink and green of the Unites States float[s] dreamily in circles until it stub[s] its nose on the blackboard and f[alls] abruptly to the ground; the whiteness of the Canadian tundra swe[eps] out of the window in an arc, into the dusty sunlight; and the silent mass of the Pacific Ocean … , dotted with islands (Fiji? Tahiti?)," ends up "on the cracked cement floor, waiting to be trampled."

By the time we read that scene, accompanying Adam into a grammar school's juvenile swarm, we pity him. Our pity, however, does not rule out our involuntary delight at Aw's imagery. ...

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