The novelist Tash Aw has spent his literary career exploring migration and class tension from British-colonized Malaya to contemporary Shanghai. His fourth novel, We, the Survivors, focuses intently on social class in contemporary Malaysia, where his working-class protagonist, Ah Hock, struggles to lead a calm, quiet life. Long ago, Ah Hock killed a man under murky circumstances, which emerge over the novel's course, and was incarcerated. Now released, he wants only to feel "innocent again, and hopeful." He insists that "the past means nothing to me," but agrees — reluctantly, it seems — to give an oral history to a sociology postdoc named Su-Min. who wants it for her dissertation. That oral history, often punctured by Ah Hock and Su-Min's interactions, forms the bulk of We, the Survivors, a conceit that is the novel's only flaw.
Ah Hock is an excellent protagonist, among the best I've encountered in years. He's lovable and empathy-stirring, and his mix of remorse, acceptance, and hope is profoundly moving. Reading him is a pleasure, as is reading Aw's prose. Aw is a beautiful writer who — this is rare — excels at switching beauty off, or dimming it almost to nothing. When Ah Hock describes his childhood home or the tilapia farm he managed before the murder, Aw's language becomes lush and lovely, standing in stark contrast to the rough, brusque phrasing he uses when Ah Hock describes the abuse of refugee and migrant laborers that he saw often as a young man. This kind of modulation is unusual, and very powerful. It gives the novel a raw, immediate feeling, as if Ah Hock's past were pressing at the edges of his present.
But Aw too often releases that pressure by turning from Ah Hock to Su-Min. He invites her into the story first in bracketed notes about Ah Hock's gestures and style of talking, then in brief scenes in which Su-Min talks about her politics, her girl troubles, and her growing interest in turning Ah Hock's story into a book — "Narrative non-fiction, I guess ... Or maybe true crime, only, well, different. Better." Su-Min is a bit of a literary snob, it seems. Also a regular snob: She condescends to Ah Hock frequently. As a result, it's difficult to trust that Ah Hock's story is safe with her — or, more problematically, that her interludes are worth spending time away from Ah Hock.
A corollary issue in We, the Survivors is that Aw seems barely more interested in crime than Su-Min is. Though the novel theoretically builds to the explanation of Ah Hock's crime, its true energy comes from his reflections on his life. Aw seems far more interested in the structural violence Ah Hock has observed and experienced than he does in the one-time violence of his narrator's crime. Ah Hock speaks movingly about racism in Malaysia and its link to exploitative labor practices, which come up frequently — his childhood friend Keong, who plays a key role in the murder, works in the shadows as a broker of unregulated migrant labor. Ah Hock recoils from this, but is too soft-hearted to exile his friend from his life.
Ah Hock is kind, but he objects to labor exploitation for reasons more sophisticated than kindness. He dislikes and distrusts power as a concept. Every time he advances professionally, he struggles to accept "that strange sense of authority over others." When he gets promoted at the tilapia farm, rather than celebrate his escape from intense physical labor, he grieves the loss inherent in knowing that he now "would hold power over other over other human beings — that it was possible for me to impose my will on the actions of men who were just like me, whose bodies worked like mine, whose desperation and joy I not only recognized but shared."
Ah Hock is an egalitarian in a way Su-Min seems not to be. He's also a realist. Describing a fight, he reminds her, "People like [me] don't fight over love. We fight over houses, land, sometimes cars, mostly money — things that make a difference to the way we live." Long before he describes the murder, those two sentences explain it all. Violence, very often, emerges from the pressing need to scrape together the "things that make a difference."
Presumably, Su-Min knows this, but We, the Survivors is not about what she knows. This is the novel's core point. Aw centers Ah Hock in both plot and intellectual terms, giving him all the book's moral and intellectual gravity — which Su-Min then swipes for her own professional advancement. Her true-crime book is a neat trick, in a way; in the guise of sharing Ah Hock's story, she takes power over both his life and his memory.
A neat trick, but not a necessary one. Aw's explorations of structural injustice would have been perfectly clear — and perhaps even sharper — if relayed only through Ah Hock, and his narrative would be more powerful without the interruptions. Often as I read, I found myself wondering why Su-Min was there. Maybe she serves as what the writer Zadie Smith has called "scaffolding," helping Aw build his story and ideas. Or maybe her presence is more insidious. Su-Min does not intend to assert power over Ah Hock, but she still does. By putting Su-Min in We, the Survivors, it's possible that Aw does the same.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.