We, the Survivors by Tash Aw

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Malaysian novelist Tash Aw’s fourth novel marks a departure in style for him. Rather than the broad canvas he presented in earlier works such as The Harmony Silk Factory and Five Star Billionaire, here the focus is relentlessly on the life of one man, Ah Hock, and the murder that constitutes the central event in his life. As the story unfolds, however, the context of that life, a life of poverty lived out against a background of increasing globalisation in a world driven by financial imperatives that he cannot begin to understand, broadens that focus so that we begin to see how a single life can be shaped by barely perceptible forces.

The novel is almost a confessional: written in the first person, it presents the story of its protagonist, who has, we learn very early on, committed a murder some time before. His narrative circles around that terrible moment, not seeking to validate or explain, but to present the circumstances which led to it, and the effect it has had since. Ah Hock, uneducated and poor, the grandson of a Chinese woman who fled occupied Indonesia,  speaks his story to an unnamed female academic researcher whose middle-class sensibilities he finds mildly amusing. What we read is her transcript of their conversations, complete with parenthetical observations, conducted over a period of a few months in Ah Hock’s bare little home.  His upbringing in a village near Kuala Selangor, a coastal town to the north-west of Kuala Lumpur, is hard: an absentee father leaves him to make ends meet with his hard-working mother who eventually moves in with a distant relative. His isolation, physical and emotional, is a major factor in his development. At one point, he remembers as a child riding out as far as he could go on his bicycle, and having a vision of what his future held:

I suddenly got the feeling that all the things I’d ever known – my family, my home, the trees, grass, water, food, the bare earth, the huge, huge sea: everything – were strange and foreign, as if I’d never known them at all. They were mine, handed down to me at birth, the only heritage I’d ever know, and yet at that moment they didn’t seem to belong to me. This land that was supposed to be part of me, and I part of it – in that instant we felt like strangers. I didn’t want it. One day it would kill me.

This sense of being transient, temporary, un-rooted, informs his world-view and the course of his life. The trajectory of his existence is typical of people of his background and generation – moving to the city, living precariously as a worker on a fish farm, aiming for a modicum of comfort in a rapidly changing world. His childhood friend, a feckless petty criminal called Keong, is the catalyst for the catastrophic event that leaves a Bangladeshi gangmaster dead, and which shatters the life he has built. We realise, however,  that life was built on an illusion of success, symbolised by his wife’s involvement in a pyramid cosmetic selling business, promising western lifestyles and riches for the successful participants.

This intense novel grips through its unflinching portrayal of an ordinary man’s life and the choices he is forced to make by circumstance. In so doing, it reflects a world of uneasiness, of lives governed by economic and political forces outside their control, of aliens, refugees and “illegals.” The restrained, matter-of-fact style of Ah Hock’s narrative lends depth to the desperate position of many of the people whose lives intersect with his, and forces the reader, or at least this one, to reflect once again on the nature of injustice and oppression in our interconnected world. This is an important book, and one which enhances Tash Aw’s reputation as one of the most vital young novelists writing today.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Tash Aw, We The Survivors (Fourth Estate, 2019). 978-0008318543, 326pp., hardback.

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