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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. It is, after all, beautiful: the aerodynamic lyric of maps, folded and then floated in gritty slow motion, the meanness of the kids who pleat the paper planes into shape notwithstanding.

Because, then, neither sympathy nor delight guide us entirely, Map of the Invisible World asks us to outlast our first susceptibilities (to pity, to beauty, to whatever viscera). And, tellingly, if we wait for a further, slower advent of meaning, what we find is that Aw's description of an atlas transformed into paper planes verges on postcolonial parable. True, the allegory is a little slipshod. The big pieces, however, are in place.

To wit: in this parable, North America answers postcolonialism by dithering. Often it forgets the history of imperialism or attributes it, shruggingly, to Europe. Once in a while, however, the United States can rouse a little clumsy bluster about those islands "waiting to be trampled," although, in this parable, archipelagoes might just as easily go missing. As swathes of certain archipelagoes' history and a portion of their culture have done, in the world that we call real.

Then again, because, taken whole, Map of the Invisible World is not a parable, Aw asks us to persist further still. He asks us, in particular, to take note when, having let a decade or so elapse, he burdens these schoolchildren with a future. And when he depicts this first generation of Indonesia's independence again, time has enlarged and impoverished them, but it has also landed them in the midst of a flailing adolescence.

Nor is this adolescence only their own. It is their country's, too. Indeed, one of the invisible things that this novel maps is the unsteady political landscape of newly independent Indonesia. Aw locates President Sukarno, teetering between the communist party and his military, in Jakarta. What's more, he draws the impermanent slums on the outskirts of the city. The novelist does not simply chart history, though; he also plots stories.

He trails a broke graduate student named Din. He ventures into the expat Margaret Bates' past, into her itinerant childhood and an annulled romance, while also following her around Indonesia's capital. He rushes through the neon grid of nighttime Kuala Lumpur with the displaced Johan. Most deliberately, though, Aw traces the steps of Johan's brother, Adam—Adam whose pocket atlas his classmates tear into pieces; Adam, who is first left alone in Indonesia, his brother shipped to a rich family in Malaysia; and, yes, Adam the 17-year-old innocent, who, on the first page of this book, watches the arrest of his adoptive father.

The turbulence that shapes Map of the Invisible World, then, is a matter of military orders and mobs' choruses, yet it also stems from the characters' peculiar regrets for things not voiced, from their memories, which pair nostalgia and renunciation, and, in the narrative's present, from the force of both their tenderness and anger—sudden emotions that, often as not, startle Aw's cast. The book, as a result, interleaves political intrigue with its players' inner chatter, as well as with the natural back-and-forth of their dialogue, which unfurls mostly as fond banter and routine pleasantries and little forums, as posturing and gossip. By such means, the story's disclosures materialize slowly, but not so slowly as to try one's patience. On the contrary: Aw, in Map of the Invisible World, masters the reader's suspense, a fact that will not surprise readers of his first, prize-winning novel.

For the writer's talent for engineering suspense shows up, too, in The Harmony Silk Factory. As do canny, lyric sentences. In his first book, though, Aw's capacity for such machinations comes across as a little mechanical—or, more precisely, as a little arch. Reading the author's first novel, therefore, one can surmise its characters' secrets without ever becoming their intimates.

Oddly, though, it is The Harmony Silk Factory, not Map of the Invisible World, that adopts the first-person point-of-view. Aw's first novel, in fact, cedes the task of telling its protagonist's story to three of its characters, none of them the protagonist, Johnny Lim. But if Map of the Invisible World never departs from the third-person, this latter novel nevertheless accomplishes what its predecessor could not. It wrenches the heart.

In part, Aw evokes the reader's affinity for these characters by dint of his narrator, who, omniscient but not distant, begins chapter 2, for instance, with a sentence headed by a demonstrative—in the richest sense—pronoun. "This," the chapter begins, "is Adam," with almost as much fondness and wry amusement as if this Adam were the first hapless and fervent human being and the narrator a deity who caressed the boy into being, using little more than language. Because, moreover, this narrative approach obtains throughout, Adam and Karl and Johan's stories, as well as those of Din and Margaret, call up a suspense that follows not from our eagerness to solve the novel as one solves a puzzle, but from a more pointed urgency. Out of fellow-feeling (and never mind its having been born of fiction), we want to know how Aw's characters fare. And that their imagined lives compel us, stirring worry, redounds to this novel's brilliance.

Furthermore, Map of the Invisible World's brilliance emerges in the way that it wields poetry. In a coral reef, fluorescent light clusters, and, in a "true story or one of … thousands of myths," a boy who learns to read Dutch backward by sitting in the projection booth behind a movie screen becomes Indonesia's president. Aw, however, between his first and second books, has also learned when to forgo lyricism, relying instead on storytelling.

All told, the stories in Aw's second book do not just exercise the sympathies of the benevolent reader or supply us aesthetes with new, beautiful fodder. To reiterate, this narrative sparks such susceptibilities and then asks us to navigate by some less transitory light than that cast by pity or marvel.

Not that Aw offers us anything so grandiose as what the novel's title purports to deliver. Map of the Invisible World is no such thing. That is, Aw does not deliver to us, in Din's place, what the graduate student says he cannot manage: "a secret history of the Indonesian Islands in the Southeast, … [of] a lost world where everything remain[s] true and authentic, away from the gaze of foreigners," an atlas or almanac of "folk stories [and] local mythology."

Neither, however, are the stories in this novel mere fictions, simple yarns. Rather, Aw provides us the legend to the map neither he nor Din can draft—the legend, indeed, to a map that cannot be drafted, to an exhaustive cartography of the easily lost archipelago. And, even apart from such a map, this legend lends us some direction. It insists, after all, that the compasses of delight and of sympathy are limited instruments with which to travel the postcolonial world.

Jane Zwart teaches literature at Calvin College.

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