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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Not Quite In Harmony

The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw (Harper Perennial)

(A brief review, part of Veena's 2005 Booker Mela.)

“Death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and for ever,” says one of the characters of Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory. One of the tasks of fiction, then, becomes the overcoming of death through the recreation of lives. In pursuit of this aim, The Harmony Silk Factory delineates the life of Johnny Lim, an ethnic Chinese labourer in Malaysia, who rises to wealth and power at the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The book attempts to do this by presenting three versions of Johnny’s life, told by his son, Jasper Lim, his wife, Snow Soong, and his friend and associate, Peter Wormwood. The use of multiple narratives is, of course, a much-used device in fiction, and Aw here is walking in the footsteps of novelists from William Faulkner to Graham Swift to Barbara Kingsolver who have employed it to indicate the shapeshifting nature of reality.

The first narrative, told by Lim’s son, gives a broad overview of Lim’s life; the tone here is matter of fact and rich in particulars, yet recued from dryness by many personal digressions. We learn of Johnny’s rise from impoverished tin mine labourer to textile merchant to one of the most influential people in Malaysia in the 1940s and 50s. Then, there are extracts from the diary of Snow Soong, Lim’s wife, which center on their trip to Seven Maiden Islands, accompanied by Kunichika Mamoru, a Japanese professor, Frederick Honey, head of the tin mining concern, and Peter Wormwood, an Englishman adrift in the tropics. Snow’s account is a dream-like saga that tells of the dynamic between the characters on the island as if through a glass darkly. Finally, there’s an operatic recollection of the same trip by Wormwood himself, now an inhabitant of an old-age home in Malaysia.

Though the voice in each section is distinctive, as it ought to be, and though the characters and their Malaysian milieu are vividly portrayed, the book’s chief flaw is that it seems to shift a third of the way through from an exploration of Johnny Lim’s life to an account of the relationship between Lim, Wormwood, Snow and Mamoru during their ill-fated island visit. Snow and Wormwood’s account come through as explorations of self-justification, and the reader is left wondering why the initial portion, narrated by the son, focused on Johnny’s life, only to have the spotlight shift away later.

It was one of the stated aims of the Taipei-born, Malaysia-bred and London-based author to rescue the novel of the South-east Asian countries from the pink gins and Long Bars of Maugham and the self-questioning nautical narratives of Conrad. In this, he’s certainly been successful, adroitly evoking a Malaysia during an age of imperialism in retreat, of communist uprisings and, of course, the Japanese invasion. Lucid prose apart, Aw also crafts clever narrative signifiers to refer to the novel’s design, such as the form-defying gardens that Wormwood is obsessed with, or the nebulous, hazy contours of the Seven Maiden Islands.

Despite these strengths, the novel is unsatisfying because it is less about refracted views of the life of one man and more about relationships between characters during a specific, crisis-filled journey. And because this dichotomy is never fully resolved, by the end of the novel, neither do we have a realised portrait of Johnny Lim, nor do we have a deep understanding of the motivations of his son, wife, or confidantes.Ultimately, The Harmony Silk Factory turns out to be, well, disharmonious.


  • I live at Kinta Valley myself and have to admit after reading this novel, i appreciate my surrounding even more!

    By Anonymous Nor Ilhamuddin, at 8:09 AM  

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