Map of the Invisible World, Tash Aw, Spiegal & Grau, 2009, 318 pp
In his second novel, Tash Aw moves the setting from Malaysia to Indonesia. The story takes place on a fictional remote island and in Jakarta, the capital. Indonesia, due to many twists of fate involving both Asian and Western conquests, calls itself a country. In actuality it is a string of islands, large and small and distinct from each other.
One of those islands is Bali, well known to Americans thanks to Margaret Mead's books and lectures. A cultural anthropologist, she made studies during the 1930s of native culture on Bali, resulting in hundreds of photographs and even film. In my young feminist days I became fascinated by Mead's findings in Bali and for many years dreamed of visiting, though I never did.
Therefore reading Map of the Invisible World was bittersweet for me. The time frame of the story is the 1960s with Sukarno in power. Indonesia achieved independence from its colonial Dutch masters in the 1950s but within a decade was beset by unrest, communist antagonism to American influence, and outcry against Sukarno's corrupt government. The idyllic life portrayed by Margaret Mead became strained by the influx of modern life and industry in the cities, with those effects felt even on the small remote islands.
Adam, the main character, was adopted at the age of five by Karl, a single Dutch man born in Indonesia before independence. When Karl's family returned to the Netherlands, he failed to adapt to life in the cold Northern European country, so as a young man he returned to Indonesia with plans to become a painter. He made his home on a small remote island similar to Bali.
Adam's origins are unknown because the orphanage where Karl found him had not kept records. It is assumed by his looks that he is of mixed parentage. Karl raised Adam to speak English, disciplined him according to Western standards but also taught him the tales and legends of Indonesia.
When Karl is arrested by communist soldiers, Adam at 16 is aware enough to know that Karl's fantasy of being one with the Indonesian people is not going to save him from either being killed or deported. So begins Adam's quest to find the father who raised him, leading the young man to Jakarta and smack into the middle of the conflicts there.
I finally get to go to Indonesia, at least in a novel, and everything is in turmoil. This is a sad story but also a look at Indonesian history from a Southeast Asian viewpoint. One of the characters is a middle-aged professor in Jakarta who could have been Margaret Mead's daughter. In fact, her name is Margaret Bates (Mead's married name was Bateson.)
Adam learns that Margaret used to be a lover of Karl's. She also has connections to the American Embassy, so he looks her up as someone who could help him save his father. I am falling into trying to tell the plot but this plot is as convoluted as a Balinese trance. So I will say no more except that Tash Aw created a story of contrasts and of history as it impacts the lives of individuals.
He seems to be telling us that circumstances bring about terrible loss and trouble resulting in individuals who are driven by guilt and rootlessness. No truly happy endings exist and many things are left unresolved for most of us. By chance, and again by circumstance, some find hope but most are haunted by what they cannot control.
I found this refreshing. I found it to be true. It made me question the characteristic Western or American belief in always being able to "fix" things, to "find closure," to assign blame and cause. In the hands of Tash Aw, those beliefs or goals became laughable if not impossible.
(Map of the Invisible World is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)