For 2 years this book gathered dusts on my expanding book shelf. When I first read it a year ago, I wasn’t at the right state of mind. To commemorate Malaysian Independence day this 31 August, I have decided to give it another go.
Tash Aw’s Whitbread first novel award winner 2005 debut novel opens with the enigmatic local hero called Johnny Lim and his disaffected son who loathes him. We learn how Johnny Lim – a natural whiz with machines – stabbed an English mine owner in Malaya during the second world war, went on the run, and established himself as a local legend in the tin mines of Kinta valley.
Prized for his intelligence and people skills, Lim becomes the protégé of elderly textile magnate Tiger Tan, whose business activities provide a front for the squads of communist guerrillas camped in the mountains to resist the Japanese occupation. Lim rapidly succeeds Tan as the chief, with suspect of a certain foul play at the back of the scene, marries the daughter of the richest man, Mr. Soong in the valley, and maintains a close social circle of international personas of Mamoru Kunichika, Peter Wormwood, an Englishman adrift and an aesthete, Mr. Honey a mine owner and a fellow countrymen. I used the word ‘personas’ because everyone in the novel is not what they seem to be and so the story unfolds… in the son’s account, Johnny Lim is an evil man masking behind a kind and generous persona.
The second narrator to speak in the form of a personal journal is Lim’s deceased wife Snow. She narrates in better details a bizarre honeymoon trip with her husband to the seven maiden islands conducted in the company of three chaperones of Mamoru, Wormwood and Honey. We see an apathetic Johnny Lim from the eyes of his wife.
At the behest of the bride’s parents, this peculiar party set off on a badly organised journey to a remote set of islands, and almost perished in a violent tropical storm. Snow is shown to be increasingly attracted to the charms of the Japanese police chief, while her husband Johnny seems to be indifferent to whatever is happening around him.
In the final section of the book I get a little irksome when the same events to the island are narrated again but this time filtered through the memories of a now elderly Wormwood. A bit pretentious, the Wormwood’s soliloquy is full of operatic scenes, Italian terms and operatic language. For not introducing any spoilers, this last chapter is a defining one as the relationships between these group of people became clearer and the ‘ah-ha’ moments came through more than once for me. In Peter’s account, Johnny Lim is a naive, sincere and a supportive friend.
The introduction of Johnny Lim ancestry smell of something familiar to me:
Fleeing floods, famine and crushing poverty, these illiterate people (the Southern Chinese) made the hazardous journey across the South China Sea to the rick equatorial lands they had heard about. It was mainly the men who came, often all the young men form one village. They arrived with nothing but the simple aim of making enough money to send for their families to join them. Traditionally viewed as semi-civilised peasants by the cultured overlords of the imperial north of China, these southern Chinese had, over the course of centuries, become expert at surviving in the most difficult of conditions. Their new lives were no less harsh, but here they found a place which offered hope, a place which could, in some small way, belong to them.
They called it, simply, Nanyang, the South Seas.
Aw went on to introduce the local cuisine, the coconut trees dotted coast, the fishing village, the myths of the island and places, the history of the land and people of Malaysia and it brought back afresh everything that I thought I have forgotten about the place and the people that I have spent a big part of my life with.
Some sights of Malaysia:
The Kinta valley is centre of tin mining in the British Malaya. The British invented the dredging machine to mine tin and the main reason the South Chinese was brought in to Malaya was to work at these mines.
Kellie’s Castle was mentioned in the story. The castle is located near Batu Gajah, about 20 minutes’ drive from Ipoh Perak, Malaysia. The unfinished, ruined mansion, was built by a Scottish planter named William Kellie Smith. According to differing accounts, it was either a gift for his wife or a home for his son.
The seven maiden islands that the group wanted to spend their honeymoon outings are the legendary name for Langkawi Island at the North of Malaysia.
Aw makes a credible job of modulating the varying tones of each of the three voices. The writing is fantastic, the prose is dreamy like a stream of consciousness and fluid.
As I am reminded by my other half to write a good novel you must have a structure. A good opening, engaging middle and climactic ending (I’m not a professional, so I’m quoting this as something to that effect!). Because I started the first section with high hope and anticipation I expect the subsequent chapters to address the mystery of the man called Johnny Lim. The three parts, as all reviewers would agree with me, are disjointed and there were plenty of loose ends that didn’t have a neat tie-up and I’m left with more questions than I first started; which I’m generally ok with most books but in this case a bit too open ended for my liking. So I am left with the same feeling as a Guardian reviewer said “whether this three-cornered portrait of Johnny Lim is a product of the book’s maddening inconsistency, or its mysterious appeal”. I don’t know.
This book is much, much better than his subsequent one titled Map of the Invisible World. Perhaps I do have an answer to the ‘maddening inconsistency’ or ‘mysterious appeal’ debate because in his subsequent novel, it was again a weaker attempt a brilliance from the start of the chapters that could not sustain to the last. A real shame because Aw is a very talented writer.
On a separate note, while reading this for the 31st August Malaysia ‘Merdeka’ Independence day, There is a passage at page 89 which aptly commemorate this occasion:
There, too, was the Tunku, the Father of the Nation, raising his hand and repeating the word ‘Merdeka’ three times, the people on the Padang echoing back, the chant coming through the television sets as clear and sharp in our ears as breaking glass. Independence. Freedom. New Life. That is what the word meant to us. And although the innocent dreams we had for our country have died in the years since them, suffocated by our own poisoned ambition, nothing will ever diminish what we felt. Nothing will rob us of those stuttering sepia-washed images of Merdeka Day.
Happy 54th birthday Malaysia!
I hope to live till the day that I will see the question of being a native or not would cease to matter in Malaysia. That will be the day.
I sighed. ‘That things thought of as native aren’t always what they seem, and that we should be constrained by ideas of what belongs where. Some might say, for example, that since this is where I have lived for almost three-quarters of my life, I may be considered native.’
A deep silence fell over the table. I thought that perhaps finally I had won my battle. But then a chair scraped against the floor and an obese old troll stood up. Errol was his name “I had barely spoken to him in the past. ‘You are not native.’ He said, his fat voice suffused with grease. ‘You just go f**k off back home.’ – Peter Wormwood, page 323
Big thanks to Mel U of Reading Life who gave me an annual nudge about reading something to commemorate Indonesia and Malaysian National day. I must say this book is a good pre-independence read about Malaysia.
Paperback. Length: 362 pages. Publisher: Harper Perennial 2007, originally published in 2005. Source: Own book. Setting: Malaysia. Finished reading at: 27th August 2011.
Jackie@Farmlane Book Blog: Overall there was a lot to enjoy in this book, but the frustrating final section left the book on a low note.