The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw

26/02/05, The Times

1940, the Federated Malay States. The British are barely managing to hang on by their fingernails to South-East Asia while Japan has already occupied Manchuria and is making its way via Siam into Malaysia. Against the backdrop of this particular act of WW2, Tash Aw’s first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, patterns a beguiling narrative mosaic around a Johnny Lim. Lim, whose origins remain unknown, starts off as an indentured labourer in a British-owned tin mine in the Kinta Valley and scales dizzying heights of material success and even notoriety but who exactly is he? A fearless communist guerrilla who works with the grassroots to defeat the Japanese or a dirty collaborator? A self-made business wizard or a scheming manipulator? A doting husband to Snow Soong, the most beautiful woman in the Kinta Valley, who dies in childbirth, or a womanising, corrupt, loose-living villain?

The answers are almost incidental to the process of querying. In fact, Johnny, protagonist only nominally, remains as mysterious a lacuna in the end as he was in the beginning, a mirror for reflecting the various narrators’ personalities, biases, unreliabilities. The three sections that comprise this novel have three different narrators: the first one is Snow Soong’s son, Jasper, now in his early forties, trying to piece together a credible narrative of his father Johnny’s life and in the process trying to rationalise his deep antipathy towards him. The second strand is the diary of Snow herself in the year 1941, when she went on her belated honeymoon to the mysterious Seven Maiden Islands with Johnny, accompanied by Mamoru Kunichika, a mysterious, ultra-suave Japanese professor, Peter Wormwood, an English aesthete and lover of all things Oriental, and the repellent Frederick Honey, tin mine manager and colonialism’s last bastion and representative. The final instalment in this triptych is the account of the same event by Peter Wormwood, interspersed with his present in an old-age home and a more distant past of how he came in contact with Johnny, Snow and the others.

Needless to say, the three stories differ and clash with each other in their most substantive and important aspects. It’s a narrative device that needs some rest, like the seaside donkey – think, variously, of Rashomon, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Barnes’s Talking It Over and Love Etc. – but in a book as utterly bewitchingly written and gracefully assured as this one, it’s hardly worth quibbling about, particularly when he makes such dazzling use of its strengths: a sense of unravelling mystery, a devastating revelation towards the end, a complexity that defies a neat tying of all the threads or pat answers. To the end, Snow and Johnny and, to a lesser extent, Kunichika, remain resilient to complete understanding; there is only conflicting information, a dance of possibilities, never a pinning down or comprehensive, monolithic resolution.

Aw makes the most of the exoticism and novelty of his setting: India, China and Japan are almost reeling from overexposure in fiction but Malaysia is relatively new to the English reader. And one can’t totally escape the feeling that it’s a thin book in the sense that it doesn’t shake up the pattern of life to show us something startlingly new, but the story he tells is mercilessly gripping and his prose is lucid, uncluttered, beautiful. Where Aw emerges as uncontested winner is in the subtle modulations of the three different narratorial voices. From the clunky unreliability of Jasper, through the pellucid prose of Snow’s journal to the intelligent, slightly camp, aesthetic eloquence of Wormwood, Aw orchestrates an unerringly graceful ballet of dissonances and congruences, of echoes and discords.