Saturday, August 27, 2005

Razz MaTash

Since there has been a bit of a buzz about The Harmony Silk Factory, I feel that I need to put in my 2 sen worth. Sure, I am glad that a Malaysian writer has reached Booker stature. The caveat is that I am just the average reader, not a professional critic. Yes, I am opiniated but don't expect anyone to agree with me.
So, is Tash Aw the token Asian/African writer in this years Booker long list?

Make no mistake. Tash Aw can write and Harmony Silk Factory is an assured debut. Set in the lush tin-rich Kinta valley, it is the story of a Chinaman called Johnny Lim, squat features, dirt-poor, Communist sympathiser but great salesman. He marries Snow Soong, the daughter of a tycoon, TK Soong. That's about the only thing that is clear I think. Nothing else is black and white. Aw explores every shade of grey in his characters. This makes an interesting, if sometimes confusing read. Yes, yes shades of Ishiguro here. I think the influence is palpable.
A good book for me is one that leaves me with a snapshot of images. And Harmony has many of that. When Johnny Lim hurts the white-guy boss at the dredging mine and the court scene subsequent with Charlie Gopalan, the local lawyer helping him out. When the broken boat drifts away slowly on the way to the Seven Maiden Islands. When Snow and Kunichika meet in the sun dappled garden. These are nice imageries.
I also like that Tash Aw never italicised colloquial words nor is there an obligatory glossary of terms of local language. I really, really think that this is the strongest point of the book. That the author wanted to tell a story, not pander to the Western reader.
The little adventures within the main adventure of honeymooning in Seven Maiden Islands made an interesting read. Though it is so strange to go on honeymoon with so many people. But how will I know, maybe people in Malaya circa 1941 did just that? I also can't help but pick out a few historical inaccuracies which the Mat Salleh reader is wont to miss. The first thing of course is the little fact that 'Malaysia' didn’t exist circa 1940. How can the book then be an account of a Malaysian Chinese family? Also, Snow’s father, TK Soong is said to have studied in University Malaya(UM). UM only existed in 1949 with the merger of King Edward V11 College of Medicine and Raffles College. How could TK Soong have gone to UM, got married and have his daughter Snow Soong go on her honeymoon in 1941?
I am also not sure about the Hang Jebat anecdote. Hange Jebat was a great warrior in the Melaka Sultanate (circa 1511). I only remember him as the sexy one who stood up to the Sultan and fought his friend, the infinitely famously Hang Tuah. Did Jebat fight the Portugese invasion of the Sultanate as alleged in the book? I am not very sure. I could be wrong on this one.

I wonder if the journey to the Seven Maiden Island a metaphor for the journey into the psyche of Johnny Lim or some other character in the book? Or the relationship of Johnny and Snow? I don't know. I suppose it is to reflect all the different layers of the characters but still don't get it. But again, I am no professional reviewer so it could be me. I also didn't like Snow Soong. I tried so hard to emphatize with the only major female character. She turned out to be vapid and devoid of any real emotion. I couldn't care less what happened to her and was hoping that the ridiculous diary of hers will get lost/stolen/destroyed. You see, the writer uses different voices to explore Johnny's character and what really happened. First, is the voice of Jasper, his son. This is told in a crisp narrative and the most engaging one. After that, Snow Soong's diaries appear. This is when I started losing focus. Then, cames the aged Peter Wormwood, friend of Johnny, with his version of the story, by which time I really couldn't care less anymore.
Then again, like I said, it could be me. Being all cranky with so much work over this bank holiday weekend.


At 8/28/2005 12:30:00 am, Blogger bibliobibuli said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. So add my thoughts:

"So, is Tash Aw the token Asian/African writer in this years Booker long list?" Nope, I agree he can surely hold his own. The writing is beautiful, and the plotting deliciously complex. The sort of book the Booker committee would like.

"Yes, yes shades of Ishiguro here." Yes, for sure (particularly Snow's part and Ishiguro's 'When We Were Orphans' - though funnily enough Tash says he doesn't like his writing.)

"I also like that Tash Aw never italicised colloquial words nor is there an obligatory glossary of terms of local language." Agree entirely. Most local writers feel they have to explain everything for the foreign reader - which in a way is a sort of apology for being "foreign".

"...a few historical inaccuracies" Yes. You spot some I missed. Also did folks watch the Merdeka speech on TV? A friend said it wasn't televised. Also there was no Esplanade in Malacca anymore by the time the big shopping complex was built because the sea had been reclaimed. Some other small details. I do get pissed off when facts could easily be verified ...

At 8/28/2005 01:39:00 pm, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Sharon: Thanks!

At 8/28/2005 09:19:00 pm, Blogger Kak Teh said...

well, i did sejarah melayu last year - no mention of Jebat fighting the portuguese at all. yet to read Tash and itching to.

At 8/29/2005 06:49:00 pm, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Kak Teh: Ah there, the Authority has spoken. My hunch on Tuah was right!

At 8/30/2005 07:12:00 am, Blogger annckay said...

interesting review..

At 9/01/2005 07:22:00 am, Blogger Lydia Teh said...

Hi Jane

I enjoyed reading this review. I'm not a very analytical reader, so I tend to gloss through things a lot. But one thing I agree with you and Sharon is the shades of grey in it. Nothing is what it seems to be and we're left with many questions unanswered in the end. I like the way Tash wrote though - his uncluttered prose reminds me of Hemingway.


At 9/01/2005 08:36:00 am, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Lydia: Yes, he is a good writer but not a great one. My hunch however is that his best book is yet to come. The second book will probably be more bold and experimental. I think that the third book will be the one where he will mature as a writer and give us something to fill our souls, finally.

At 1/19/2006 10:31:00 am, Anonymous fazu said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Tash Aw is a good storyteller no doubt, but I find the inaccuracies in the book insulting. He may not be pandering to a western audience, but if he includes blatant inaccuracies that would jump at at the non-western - particularly Malaysian - readers, then which audience is he pandering to?

A few more inaccuracies are the name of the of Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) which Tash Aw got wrong by calling it the Malayan Anti Japanese People's Army (MAJPA). Another one is the part in the book where he drove "east" to get to a beach in Perak (all the beaches in Perak are on the WEST coast). And you are right about Hang Jebat: the Sulalatus Salatin indicates that Jebat lived during the reign of Sultan Mansur Syah who ruled a few decades before the Portugues invasion.

There, I've said it.


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