Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw

09/05/09, TIME Magazine Asia

Map of the Invisible World is an unusually braided novel: at first glance, it appears to weave together two narratives, one of Adam, a child rescued from an orphanage in Indonesia by a Dutch painter, Karl de Willigen, and brought up by him in a remote island, Nusa Perdo; the other, of Adam’s elder brother, Johan, who was separated from Adam when a rich Malaysian couple adopted him from the same orphanage and took him away to Kuala Lumpur. But there is a third strand, cleverly buried in and indivisible from Adam’s story: it is of American anthropologist, Margaret Bates’s. It is Margaret, an academic in Jakarta, that the sixteen-year-old Adam seeks out when Karl is arrested in post-colonial Indonesia’s drive to forcibly repatriate the Dutch. Margaret and Karl were almost-lovers in the past – they haven’t had any contact with each other for years – and it is her help that Adam wants and needs to find Karl.

But Indonesia in 1964 is teetering on the edge of civil war: Sukarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’ is in its death throes, tension with the newly-formed country of Malaysia is at its peak, militant Communist activity is on the rise, and relations with the USA and Britain are at their nadir. Jakarta is no place for an innocent abroad such as Adam who doesn’t have a shred of understanding of the inflammable events unfolding around him. As he unknowingly gets roped into petty terrorism, inveigled by the promise of help to find Johan, Karl still remains at large. Meanwhile, Johan, drifting aimlessly through a cushioned life of wealth, cars, soft drugs, expensive restaurants, cannot lay to rest the memories of his lost brother.

In this, his eagerly-awaited second novel, the acclaimed Malaysian-born writer, Tash Aw, has effortlessly conflated the personal and the political and condensed the prolonged, turbulent birth of a post-independence nation into a complex, gripping drama of private relationships. While the prose remains as luminous and flawless as in his debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, Aw has also given it a core of real emotional heft. The tender relationship of the brothers before they are separated, and the eventual sundering, is told in a timed-release fashion and reaches an almost unbearably moving climax.

Aw’s matchless descriptive powers anchor the novel in a wonderfully textured external world – streets, homes, traffic, cityscape, shanty towns, weather, shores, flora are all thrillingly real and convincing. If there is a slight sag in the middle brought about by too expository an account of Indonesian nationalist politics, it is more than redeemed by the way Aw wrongfoots, debunks and complicates, with immense intelligence and empathy, every kind of expectation one brings to the so-called postcolonial novel: questions of identity and belonging, notions of colonizer and colonized, of native and foreigner, of affiliations of birth and adoption.