Tash Aw’s novels take big issues and run with them. Five Star Billionaire (Chapter One: Move To Where The Money Is) follows immigrants trying to make it in China. The Harmony Silk Factory subverts traditional expectations of the post-war novel. Now we’ve got We, The Survivors, a novel that deals in preconceptions and their deconstruction.
In the first few pages of We, The Survivors we learn that Ah Hock has killed a man. He is narrating his life to a researcher who wants to write a book about him.
“That night, after the killing – or the culpable homicide not amounting to murder, as you politely call it – I walked for many hours in the dark. I can’t tell you how long. I tried to hang on to a sense of time, kept looking at the sky for signs of dawn, I even quickened my stride to make each step feel like one full second, like the ticking of that clock on the wall over there, that right now sounds so quick.”
In subsequent chapters we go back into Ah Hock’s childhood in a Malaysian fishing town beginning to feel the effects of globalisation: pollution rashes from the water, factories to process the catch. Migrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar. He describes a life directed by events beyond his control and ‘the sense of a whole universe of ease and satisfaction existing just beyond the horizons of the world I was living in.’ From these beginnings Ah Hock makes (as) good (as can be expected), eventually getting married and working his way into a job overseeing a fish farm. Obviously it’s all going to go horribly wrong. When it does, and after all attempts to remedy the situation fail, Ah Hock asks an old friend for help, and the unhappy ending becomes inevitable.
During the telling a complex relationship develops between Ah Hock and his interviewer (who may represent Aw’s own foreign-educated side), an affluent returnee educated in the USA. At one point, feeling he has shared too many unpleasant details, he admits:“I wanted her to be part of that pain, to make sure it seeped into her clean, happy world.”
Several years out of prison, now wifeless and jobless, Ah Hock has come to terms with his fate, although he is able to identify and articulate the forces which have nudged it along. The relationship with the no-good friend is nicely done; we see Ah Hock’s struggle to balance the demands of conventionality with his instinct to stay away. Tash Aw’s novels often play with perspective, and in its own subtle way this one does too. As Ah Hock talks on, clearly and quietly, his experiencing of the world shifts gradually into our focus.
Any Cop?: There’s been some discussion recently about fiction writers – especially those who might be considered ‘other’ – and their role in educating us about the state of the world. Tash Aw by all accounts feels some pressure to do this and frequently during We, The Survivors I felt the privilege of being allowed to see a place I have never known through a pair of eyes that I will never possess. But beyond all that, this is a thoughtfully constructed, delicately expressed, really good story.