Thursday 26 February 2009

The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw

This was our Reading Group's choice for March, and a very fine novel it is. The novel is set in Malaya and most of the action takes place during British rule in the period before the Japanese invasion in 1941. The rather beguiling title is a bit of a red herring as the book has little, if anything, to do with the factory. It could more accurately have been titled Who is Johnny Lim? - as Johnny is the central character in the novel. Or is he? For in this book nothing is quite what it appears to be. Or rather nothing appears to be quite what we as readers are told. What we are told comes in the guise of three unrelated accounts, each by a different character in the novel. These accounts overlap to some extent and add to the general air of uncertainty surrounding the tale.

The first account is subtitled The True Story of the Infamous Chinaman Called Johnny. This is the story of Johnny Lim as put together by his only son, Jasper, shortly after Johnny's death in the late 1990s. The introduction to this “history” should alert us straight away when Jasper writes: “As far as possible, I have constructed a clear and complete picture of the events surrounding my father's terrible past.” Clearly we are going to get no such thing. And how terrible in fact is his father's past? According to his son, Johnny moved relentlessly from a poor Chinese labourer to become a leader of the Communist guerrillas at the same time as he was successful business man who married into wealth. To consolidate his power and influence Johnny was prepared to kill or injure his associates and finally to betray his Communist comrades to buy favour with the Japanese invaders.

This pretty overwhelming case for the prosecution is then however, somewhat contradicted by the other two accounts. While Jasper in his version attempts to give us the big picture about his father, the other accounts only partly refer to Johnny. The first is a diary kept by Jasper's mother, Snow, who died in giving birth to her only son. Jasper thus has a rather idealized view of his never seen mother. Her diary only covers a two month period of a belated honeymoon which she and Johnny spent in the company of two Englishmen and a Japanese professor. Her entries paint a very different picture in which she is more the schemer than Johnny. Their marriage appears to be unconsummated and she intends to leave him. There is a degree a sexual ambiguity in her accounts of the relationships among the men, especially that between Johnny and Peter, one of the Englishmen. While Snow in turn appears to be sexually attracted to Kunichika, the Japanese professor. The diary ends abruptly and enigmatically with a sexually charged meeting between Snow and Kunichika then Snow rushing off only to be caught by Peter.

The third and to my mind the most interesting and entertaining version of events comes from the pen of this same Peter. Peter Wormwood to give him his full and revealing name. Approaching the end of his life in a retirement home in Malaysia Peter has started to write down his memoirs. At least that is what it appears to be, though nothing is for sure in this novel. As well as recounting events from his life, Peter writes barbed comments about his current situation and his fellow inmates. For this Peter is an altogether more incisive, witty, cultured and complex character than the one who appeared earlier. His memoir is not really a memoir, but an account of various incidents in his life centring on his friendship with Johnny. In particular he offers a parallel and different version of what happened on Snow and Johnny's belated honeymoon. Peter's account ends cleverly by bringing us back to the ending of Jasper's little history. Though of course in keeping with the overall enigmatic feel of the novel, nothing is really fully revealed.

Tash Aw is a Malaysian writer, who now lives in England and this is his first novel. And an intriguing and very enjoyable read too.

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