Map of the Invisible World
Can a thrice-abandoned child find his way in revolutionary Indonesia?
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” but he’d have to come up with a whole new quotation for Adam de Willigen.Skip to next paragraph
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Adam is only 15 years old, but he has just been orphaned for the third time.
It’s the 1960s, and revolution has come to Indonesia in Tash Aw’s evocative second novel Map of the Invisible World. Adam’s adopted father, Karl, has been seized as part of President Sukarno’s effort to rid the nation of its Dutch colonial past. The first time Adam was abandoned was when his mother left him and his older brother, Johan, in an orphanage. Adam has no memory of the second time or his brother’s face.
In Malaysia, meanwhile, where he was taken by the wealthy Muslim family who adopted him, Johan is spiraling downward, consumed by guilt over leaving his little brother behind.
Adam, who’s in hiding, flees to Jakarta and Margaret Bates, a name and address he found in a box of Karl’s things. Margaret is an American expatriate who teaches at the university, and a past love of Karl’s. And actually, she would dispute that “American” label every bit as much as Karl rejects his Dutch ancestry. “I was conceived on one continent, born on another, and raised on four – five if you count Australia. I lived in America for less than ten years, not even 25 percent of my life. Would you call that home?” she asks with some asperity when someone suggests that revolutionary Jakarta might not be the safest place for a white woman and perhaps she should hop a plane back to the States.
Neither Margaret nor Adam hold out much hope of finding Karl, who is probably either already dead or on a plane bound for the Netherlands, but neither can they give up. Margaret enlists the aid of an Australian journalist and a US embassy official named Bill Schneider, with whom she has had murky dealings in the past. Her teaching assistant, Din, takes Adam under his wing for reasons of his own.
Its cast looks straight out of a Graham Greene novel, but Aw, who won the Whitbread Award for his first novel, “The Harmony Silk Factory,” is a little gentler with his characters – at least as gentle as you can be when there’s a revolution on. “It was like an article from the newspapers played out for real, the static images rising from the newsprint and coming to life before Adam’s very eyes. The charred timber remains of burned-out buildings, the bloodred paint on walls. The empty streets. Adam knew that there were troubles elsewhere in Indonesia. He had heard there was a revolution of some sort – not like the ones in France or Russia or China, which he had read about, but something fuzzier and more indistinct, where no one was quite sure what needed to be overthrown, or what to be kept. But those were problems that belonged to Java and Sumatra – at the other end of this country of islands strung out across the sea like seaweed on the shore. That was what everyone thought.”