It’s hard enough to represent something invisible, but when that invisible world is explained more than shown, no image remains once the map is folded up. The reader’s mind’s eye can’t remember what it saw, because it didn’t really see anything.
Adam de Willigen is the adopted son of Karl de Willigen, a leftover of Dutch colonists who calls himself Indonesian (using his passport as proof). He doesn’t want to leave when Indonesian president Sukarno starts forcing old colonialists back to the Netherlands. When Karl is arrested and disappears, Adam heads for the capital in the hope of finding a friend of Karl’s, Margaret, and petition for her help in finding his father. Margaret, an American who grew up in Indonesia, feels confident and capable of reading people and agrees to help. But, as she seeks out her old contacts and tries her old tricks, she suddenly realizes that she doesn’t understand Jakarta and the Indonesian people anymore — least of all Din, her colleague at the university.
Adam never had a steady footing in any culture — he is Indonesian, but he doesn’t know who his parents are (though he remembers an older brother at the orphanage) while his adoptive father Karl refuses to speak Dutch to sever all ties with the Netherlands. So he is easily persuaded to follow Din, a not-so-pacifist Communist, and discover what being an Indonesian in 1965 really means.
Tash Aw’s Map of the Invisible World follows Margaret, Adam, and Johan, Adam’s long lost brother, as they try to make sense of themselves and the changing world around them. The three story lines are interesting and the characters easily draw readers into their lives, but Johan’s story line, which gives a three-dimensional aspect to Adam’s past, feels superfluous and makes readers follow a thread without end or resolution.
Aw’s writing is wonderful. Although he mostly chooses to explain Indonesian politics through Din’s monologues to Adam, he does create a few moments, a few images, that stay with the reader for the length of the novel. While it is easy to see Margaret trapped in a car in the middle of a riot after Sukarno’s speech, it is much harder to understand why this riot even happens. Likewise, poignant passages of regret linger:
“After what seemed a very long time, Karl put his hand on hers. He said, ‘I’ll never forget you, you know.’ The bird was still singing. Margaret wished it would shut up and leave her alone in this moment with Karl, so that she could commit every detail to memory, where it would remain pure and untroubled for the rest of her life … But the bird did not stop. So nowadays, whenever Margaret recalls this moment of being thrust from the safety of childhood into the murkiness of adulthood, all she can hear is the bird’s insistent call, repeating endlessly.”
Yet once the book is closed, the characters whose lives readers followed with interest quickly fade away. The map of an invisible world does not show anything that can be remembered.
Mélanie Grondin is a writer and translator living on the south shore of Montreal. Her prose and poetry have appeared in carte blanche, Soliloquies, Headlight Anthology, Room Magazine and Nashwaak Review.