Sunday, October 30, 2005

BOOK: Tash Aw, "The Harmony Silk Factory"

Tash Aw: The Harmony Silk Factory. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. 157322300X. vi + 378 pp.

This is a very pleasant and readable novel. It is set in Malaya, mostly in the year 1941, in the months just before the Japanese invasion. The central character is the somewhat unscrupulous but very upwardly mobile Johnny Lim, sometime mine worker and communist agitator who becomes a cloth merchant and prospers through various illegal dealings. In the first part of the book, Johnny's son narrates what he has been able to find out about his father's life and unsavoury past. The second part is in the form of a diary, written by Johnny's wife Snow during a somewhat ill-fated vacation taken by Johnny, Snow and three friends (two Englishmen and a Japanese academic who turns out to be more than just that). In the third part, one of the two Englishmen, Peter, tells the story from his point of view and we finally find out what happened at the end of the trip and what it was all about. The book builds suspense very well, you keep noticing that this isn't going to be just an ordinary holiday, things are slowly becoming somewhat bizarre and disconcerting, but not until the end of the book do we find out what was really going on. It was a gripping read, hard to put down.

The book also has many other qualities. As often in such settings, it is interesting to see how different people describe the same events and persons. It is also interesting to see how in some situations the reader knows more than the protagonists (e.g. because of what we have learned about Johnny's life in the first part of the book). In particular, in the second and third part of the book, where we see Johnny through the eyes of his contemporaries, he would come across as a fairly harmless and innocent person, one that has more good qualities than bad, almost someone you can sympathize with. But after all we've read about Johnny's life (both before and after the war) in the first part of the book we cannot really help seeing him all the time in a fairly different light than the narrators of the second and third parts of the book.

Another thing that was very attractive to me was the time and place in which the book is set — the Malay peninsula at the eve of the second world war. So far, the only other book I've read that has been set in at least roughly the same time period and part of the world was Orwell's Burmese Days, but that is of course not quite the same thing. I really should read more about WW2 in the Pacific, and about that area in the pre-WW2 period. I am somewhat interested in the history of imperialism, and the WW2 was a key event in bringing about the end of direct western imperialism in that area. The Japanese invasions in the early years of the war swept away the British, French, and Dutch administration of SE Asia like a deluge, and after the war, although the imperialists tried to return they could never quite get things back into their pre-war condition (just like there was no way to restore the ancien regime after 1815! — there's no turning back the wheels of history). So, anyway, the fact that it is set in such an interesting period makes the novel even more attractive.

The author has an interesting and curious habit of giving ‘meaningful’ names to his characters, although the meaning of the name is often somewhat incongruous with the person that carries it. Thus Johnny's wife, Snow, as we can see from her diary in the middle part of the book, isn't really quite so fragile and innocent as the name might have us believe. The surnames of the two Englishmen are opposites: Honey and Wormwood. But Honey is in fact a dull, stiff-upper-lip imperialist and chauvinist of the old calibre; Wormwood, on the other hand, is much more lively, humane, and capable of forming a fondness for Malaya and a friendship with a ‘native’ such as Johnny.

There are also several interesting minor characters, such as Snow's parents and Johnny's former employer Tiger. An interesting recurring motive in the third part of the book is Peter's obsession with gardening. His pedantic, erudite and opinionated approach to planning and planting a garden reminded me somewhat of similar obsessions that we occasionally find in some of Huysmans' novels. Here is a nice quote from p. 259: “Is the purpose of a flower bed not similar to that of a poem? Within their artificial boundaries, both contain a tiny world of beauty, a joyous compression of life.” And here's a really bizarre one from p. 338, about a sort of hibiscus: “It looks like some strange half-evaginated hermaphrodite genitalia, gloriously labial, with a thin stamen that droops like a failed phallus—the whole thing desperately vulgar.” I think I'll never look at hibiscus tea in quite the same way again... :-) And on p. 337 there's an interesting discussion about how various species of plants were brought from one part of the world to another, and many that we now think of as ‘native’ to one region are in fact old introductions from somewhere else. And in the first part of the book, p. 93, there is a very curious and very Oedipean vision described by Johnny's son.

The blurb on the dust jacket says that this is Aw's first novel; I think it's a very fine first novel and I'm certainly looking forward to his future works.


  • P. 11 mentions “R. St. J. Unwin's masterly study of 1954, Rural Villages of Lowland Malaya”, which sounds like something that is perched halfway between interesting and intriguingly obscure. However, I couldn't find any information about such a book on the web, so perhaps it is merely fictitious.
  • An English writer named Dornford Yates is mentioned on p. 41 (and, I think, in one or two other places). This is the first time I've heard of him, but his Wikipedia page sounds like some of his books might be quite interesting. He seems to have been a bit of an upper-class snob; i.e. the sort of person I could hate with relish and abandon. Incidentally, he seems to have also been a cousin of H. H. Munro.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the ending. He sees leaving because the Japanese are coming and sees Jasper, who shouldn't be alive if Snow is alive.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 8:19:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Hm, by now I've forgotten practically all of the details about the story, so it's hard for me to comment on this. I've now gone and re-read the last twenty pages, and I must say that not everything is absolutely clear to me either.

Peter is definitely leaving because the Japanese are coming. But he sees Johnny, not Jasper (p. 374). I'm not sure why you say that Johnny (or Jasper for that matter) shouldn't be alive if Snow is alive. At the end of the trip, on p. 369, it seems that they are both alive. Then on p. 372 Peter visits her parents' house and learns that she is not there, but it isn't clear to me where she is then. Perhaps these things would be more clear to me if I remembered the rest of the story any better, but I don't.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006 9:17:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

P.S. Če bo na tole stran morebiti naletel kak slovenski bralec — zdaj sem opazil, da so ta roman pred nedavnim tudi prevedli v slovenščino: Harmonija svile, založba Učila, Tržič.

Sunday, May 11, 2008 7:26:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home