The Harmony Silk Factory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

The Harmony Silk Factory

by Tash Aw

HarperCollins (UK) and Riverhead (US) $201

There's almost no writing about Malaysia, and more's the pity. Somerset Maugham still gives sense to the rains that punctuated the life of the British rubber planter. More recently, Amitav Ghosh lent an Indian spin in The Glass Palace, particularly as Japan swept away the former colonial masters. And Peter Carey used it as a setting for his play on Australian literary hoaxes, My Life as a Fake.

So it's with considerable anticipation that The Harmony Silk Factory arrives, bringing with it the mysterious character of Johnny Lim and the much-vaunted potential of Tash Aw, a London resident who was born in Taiwan and raised in Malaysia.

Aw depicts Johnny Lim from three different perspectives - that of his son, his wife, and his English friend. Each tells a different story about the same man. And in the end none reveals who he really was. Only his son seems to know that the factory of the title was bought in 1942 'as a front for his illegal businesses', and that he was a traitor. It's by far the strongest section.

His wife's story comes from her diaries, revealing the death of their love she sees in his eyes. 'People come and they go, fluttering at the edge of his world ... But long after we are gone, he will still have that shop. It belongs to him; it is utterly his: to mould, control, love, and destroy.'

The third section, told from the perspective of his friend Peter, is the weakest - a parody of the innocent colonialist that doesn't come off. The book seems to tell of the slow corruption of a man who seeks mastery over his masters, be they the British or the Japanese, but that idea also slips from the reader's grasp. As Johnny's son observes while watching a bonfire of funeral offerings: 'Death, I remember father saying, erases all traces of the life that once existed, completely and forever.'

The Harmony Silk Factory is left as just another Malayan shop house.

'He bought a new motorcar and smoked cigars with Japanese generals. He searched the valley for the biggest, most expensive building and turned it into the most famous palace of sin in the country. He named it the Harmony Silk Factory. It was the envy of every man, woman, and child in the country.'

That's the last we hear of the Harmony Silk Factory, as Aw makes an enormous leap in time to tell us, briefly, from the perspective of Johnny's son, that 'the funeral of a traitor is a tricky thing, particularly if that traitor is someone close to you'.

A second reading failed to reconcile the next two-thirds of the book, in which Johnny all but vanishes into the shadows, with the extremely promising first.

Johnny Lim has considerable potential as a character - in fiction and as allegory. Aw lacquers his story layer by layer, each layer important in the telling, but merely another step towards the final product that is Johnny and his Harmony Silk Factory.

Why, then, does Aw throw it all away so predictably, devoting the next third of the book to the diary of Snow, who suddenly takes over as narrator with verbatim recall generally for boring conversation? 'The new bishop came to dinner tonight.' 'Honey called round again for tea today.' 'I am trying to remember when I arrived at my decision.'

Never mind the decision. Nothing comes of it - nor does a lot of much else for that matter.

The final third of the book is the strangest of all. It's mostly about Peter. Maugham would probably have tossed him to the panthers, or made him a raving alcoholic driven mad by the rain. Instead, he's that tedious colonial foil not pleased with what's happening and too insipid to do much about it.

Opposite Johnny, for whom 'the only problem with being a communist ... was that it interfered with business', there's the excellent and disturbing character of Professor Manoru Kunichika.

Aw gives us so many signals about Kunichika, of Kyoto University, who may or may not have done something in Manchuria as a senior figure in the kempetai secret police that a sense of anticipation builds for the 'Demon of Kampar'.

'Kunichika did not think like a soldier. He had other ways to fight a war, ways more dangerous than bayonets and bullets.' No amount of page flipping will yield an answer.

Aw has established a reputation for the short story. The Harmony Silk Factory is his first novel. Better luck next time.