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.
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.”
The title comes from a book Din had dreamed of writing, before prejudice stymied his scholarly ambitions. “I was looking into writing a secret history of the Indonesian Islands in the Southeast, everything from Bali eastward. To me those islands were like a lost world where everything remained true and authentic, away from the gaze of foreigners – a kind of invisible world, almost.”
But Aw is primarily referring to the invisible world of memory, specifically those losses that snag in a person’s psyche and fester if not allowed to air. “There are some things that cause you pain, that lodge themselves in your consciousness the way a splinter or piece of shrapnel might embed itself in your flesh; but the human body had a way of dealing with it that could dull the pain so that you didn’t feel it after a while. Your life would continue as usual, and only you would know of this thing that you carried in your body.”
Neither boy, for example, is allowed to mention his brother. Johan’s overindulgent mummy falls apart and the teen winds up apologizing for hurting her if he so much as says Adam’s name. Karl is less histrionic, but also unforthcoming.
With Karl, Adam spent days swimming over reefs and 300-year-old shipwrecks and bicycling the island. Karl is gentle and well-meaning, but the secrets he kept and the harm his selfishness causes are absolutely appalling. A reader will easily agree with the young Margaret, who remarks, “I think that is a really, really bad idea,” when Karl tells her his dream of adopting an Indonesian “alter ego, except better, and happier,” who will live out the idyllic island childhood that was cut short when Karl’s family moved back to Holland when he was 4.
While Johan self-destructs, Adam is rendered passive by his frequent abandonments. He latches on to anyone who offers to take care of him, with sometimes terrifying results. Meanwhile, he struggles to unlock his memories. He’s encouraged by Din, who argues that remembering his past is the only way to reclaim his identity, and in fact, that Indonesia as a whole suffers from a kind of willed amnesia. He compares Adam to a village he once visited, where a generation before Muslim and Christian neighbors had slaughtered one another.
“Everyone walked about in a daze, as if they were daydreaming. It was as if their whole beings were devoted to suppressing their memories,” Din tells Adam. “We all suffer from it one way or another. Erasing memories in this semiconscious way goes on everywhere, on a national scale, with culture – everything. We Asians are very good at it. If there’s a drought that kills hundreds of thousands, or an earthquake, or the government fires on demonstrators – well, we just forget it and move on. It lingers in our psyche but we never let it come to the surface.... When I lived in Europe I saw that Westerners remember everything – they commemorate bad things that happened to them. It was the only thing I liked about the West.”
There are couple of coincidences too many near the end of the novel, and certain characters’ motivations remain ever unclear, but Aw’s haunting writing and his detailed evocation of 1960s Indonesia are both masterly. “Map of the Invisible World” is both exquisitely and subtly rendered.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
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