Smooth as silk

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2005, 12:00am

TASH AW'S COSY London flat is adorned with stripped wooden floors and fittings that wouldn't have seemed out of place in Dickens' time. Full of character, it looks like a well-preserved early Victorian home. Wrong.

'Nothing's original,' Aw says. 'I've built everything: wooden walls, doors, ceiling. Literally everything you see: replaced. I used to work in a building company my friend owned. We were stripping out another house and they were throwing out the floorboards, so I got them - all the ones here were rotten.'

The Malaysian-born debut novelist has been fixing up his garden flat for three years, and has built a creeping bookcase that twines over the door frames and under the sills to fill the front room. 'I'm quite scatty like that,' Aw says. 'I just need to be able to pull books off the shelves.'

For someone whose job is to create an illusion of reality it seems fitting. And getting the history right in his own home can't be as hard as recreating it in a historical novel, The Harmony Silk Factory.

Set in the tin mining region of Malaysia's Kinta Valley, the novel follows the story of Johnny Lim, 'the infamous Chinaman'. Johnny, a communist rebel in the years around the second world war, runs a textiles shop, which we're told is a front for his illegal businesses. We're introduced to him by his son, whose account, although reverberating with hero worship, seems to honestly detail Johnny's successes, as well as his underhandedness and lack of sentimentality or emotion. It includes his dealings with the British colonial gang masters of the tin mines and the Japanese military invaders, his rise in the estimation of his people and how he captures the heart of the most beautiful woman in the valley, the elegant and sophisticated Snow.

He's a killer, it's claimed, and suspicious events around him give hints to the reader of his deceptiveness. It's a fascinating and effortless narrative, which fuels the expectation of what's to come for Johnny. But then it ends - brought to a halt by the author, abruptly and in mid-stream.

A third of the way through the book Aw introduces a new style and a narrator who paints a different picture of the wartime hero. The novel has three parts, three perspectives and three styles. Common to them all is the scrutiny of Johnny and Snow, but the facts blur, the relationships are muddled and the reader is left with an imprecise, often contradictory, picture of the past. Although key events ground the story, the memories don't mesh.

Instead, we're left to decide for ourselves what sort of a man Johnny Lim was, whether a hero, a collaborator or an everyman. We don't know if any of the narrators can be relied on completely, as none has the full facts. We aren't even sure if the story is really about Johnny, at all.

'The setting is very autobiographical, but not the rest,' says 32-year-old Aw. 'There are no nefarious characters in my past. The area, though, is where my grandparents lived - my mother's side of the family. I used to spend a lot of time in that part of the country, which is sort of north of Kuala Lumpur and south of Penang, so it's really kind of in the middle of nowhere. There's no reason to be there, but it's a kind of funny place - the old tin mining district. I really like it because I still have such strong memories. It's a slightly magical place from my childhood, but if you read a guidebook on Malaysia you'll find a few pages on the whole of the area. Because there's nothing really special about it, there's no reason for tourists to visit it and yet it's a fascinating place. I like this contrast between things that seem really ordinary on the surface but underneath have a rich life.'

Born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia and Hong Kong, Aw left for university at Cambridge 15 years ago and has lived in Britain ever since. His literary heroes are William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov, Gustave Flaubert and Bruce Chatwin. Speaking with a softly cultivated accent, Aw's manners hint at a well-heeled social set. 'I moved around quite a lot when I was a small child,' he says. 'My father was an engineer. I've always had a sense of living not in a small country, but a country surrounded by lots of others. In that way I probably absorbed a lot of cultures early on and I was probably aware of living in a much bigger world than most others are.

'So when I came to write my novel I knew exactly what I wanted to do, particularly in the third section that draws from lots of western sources. I wanted it to appeal to a much broader audience than all the books I'd read before, which were either by local people for a particular audience or they were for western people for a western audience, even though they were set in Southeast Asia. 'The problem I've noticed with writers from Southeast Asia is there's too much concentration on the setting, because they want to exoticise it - particularly if they hope to sell in the west. Even Peter Carey's last novel, My Life as a Fake, which was half set in Malaysia, tried to make a virtue of its setting without having very convincing characters, and that wasn't a success for me.

'I really believe all novelists should be good storytellers, I just don't have much time for novelists who don't care about their audience. Many are just so obsessed with themselves, and their novels just have no story - no consideration for their reading public at all. Of course, novelists write for themselves. You have to write for yourself and be interested in what you write, but you've also got to have half a mind about how it's going to appear on the page. If it's utterly boring then no one's going to read it.'

Aw's publisher, Fourth Estate, is pushing The Harmony Silk Factory as the work of a future star. Within the space of two months he's being launched at the Singapore Writer's Festival, the Edinburgh Festival, the Melbourne Literary Festival and sent on a tour of the US, taking in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. In Hong Kong, where his younger sister, a lawyer, lives with her family, the red carpet will be rolled out next month.

'There are Malaysian writers around, but there aren't many,' he says. 'They don't write in English like Indian writers, and there are very, very few good Malaysian writers. However, it's very exciting at the moment, and I really get the feeling that in 10 years there's going to be a lot going on. It's taken this long for there to be an interest, even an interest in books.

'When I was growing up people just didn't read really. There weren't bookshops to speak of even five years ago. But suddenly there seems to be a huge hunger for books. I went back a few months ago and was taken aback by how big and sophisticated the bookshops were, absolutely world class. They have some big Asian chains and there will be a new English-style Borders in KL soon.

'There seems to be a lot of excitement in Malaysia about the book, and a lot of interest in the fact that I'm Malaysian. Hopefully, people will get past that and judge it on its merits.

'Traditional publishing wisdom is books never sell that well in Asia and, therefore, not really worth investing the money and promoting there. But it was very important to me that we did something in Asia, particularly in Malaysia. They don't expect to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but symbolically it's really important for me to be there and I'm really happy my publishers are very supportive in that way. They're taking quite a risk, spending a lot of money for unknown returns.

'They're doing it in part because it means a lot to me being Malaysian and having very strong ties to the region. Even Hong Kong, I feel I have strong ties there.'

Although he says his 15 years away have given him an appropriate level of detachment to write about his homeland, Aw is confident it will be received as an addition to Malaysian literature, rather than a broadly anglicised version of it.

'I'm not self-conscious of writing to a western audience, but I am conscious just in general about writing a novel that crosses lots of boundaries,' he says. 'That was something that was very important when I was writing the book, but I wasn't particularly aware of writing to any audience. The world we live in now is so exposed to different cultural sources it's probably less of a problem than we think it is, and we do Hoover up influences from all over the place.

'I feel as if I'm plugged in to all that's best in contemporary culture and have access to things going on in lots of different countries in the world. You have to know what's going on. Some of the most crucial things are never going to change.'