Do Southeast Asians have a better understanding of their region than Westerners? I've really enjoyed reading the highly praised novel by Tash Aw, Map of the Invisible World. It covers much of the ground of Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously, although when the latter first appeared, Koch was criticised for basically reproducing a Western, colonialist, view of Indonesia. Map of the Invisible World is very well written for the most part, with highly poetic and moving passages evoking the sense of loss, separation and longing that moves and motivates the main characters. It captures much of the atmosphere of Jakarta.
Yet problems remain.
The novel’s characters express the need for an understanding history, but somehow the novel is lacking in historical understanding, by which I mean that its representation of the historical context, and its attention to detail, is lacking. Aw gets correct one key fact usually ignored by other writers, that Sukarno’s famous “Year of Living Dangerously” speech was made on 17th August 1964 (ie that year was over before the 30th September 1965 “Coup”), but he makes a number of other basic mistakes. Some of these are minor, and the kind of thing only a pedantic historian like me would worry about, for example that Jakarta’s civilian airport in 1950 was at Kemayoran, not Halim (p. 68); and I doubt there were any self-flushing urinals, even in the most elaborate of hotels, at the time (p. 246)? Some are also geographically confused, for example the Great Post Road goes along the north coast of Java, not through Yogyakarta (p.109); and I am not sure about seeing lots of clove trees on Bali (p. 178)—wrong side of the Wallace Line.
Some of the changes were probably made for some kind of effect, for example renaming the Hotel Indonesia, but does this explain why the Welcome Monument in the centre of Jakarta is called “The Victory Monument” in the book (p. 212)? Generally, Aw is prone to presentism, as with the many references to heavy traffic in Jakarta (eg p. 19, “the never-ending traffic…a river of patched-up, rusting steel”). Such traffic may be the case nowadays, and at least since the 1980s in my experience, but those who can remember Jakarta in the 1960s comment on its lack of traffic (Firman Lubis' Jakarta 1960-an is a great memoir of the period). There was no parking ramp leading from the Hotel Indonesia, cars stopped on the streets (p. 250). And no one wore crash-helmets (p. 284). Dutch being deported from Indonesia would not have been sent my aeroplane, but by ship (p.68).
If these atmospherics are wrong, so too are some of the political issues. Political tensions in the regions are blamed on the Transmigration policy (p. 118-119). While this policy did indeed start in the 1960s, and drew on previous Dutch policies, it was very small scale, and only had a major impact on ethnicity in the New Order period. More serious is the depiction of the Communist Party of Indonesia sending death squads around the island from which Adam comes. These are at best creations of Suharto-era propaganda, but even Christopher Koch, who makes his Cold War politics clear, does not makes such blatant misrepresentations. Political violence in this time mainly came in the form of clashes over land ownership, and in clashes at rallies, not in systematic murder. The key character, Adam, is induced by radical activist Din to plant a bomb in the Hotel Java (ie the Hotel Indonesia) to coincide with Sukarno’s visit to the hotel. There were no Communist attempts to assassinate Sukarno, indeed in 1964 this would have been the last thing the Party would have wanted, all the assassination attempts came from the Right. This kind of misrepresentation clouds the imaginative insights of the novel.
One of the criticisms of Western writers is that they cannot fully characterise indigenous figures, that they depend on focal intervening Western characters. The most engaging character of Map of the Invisible World, the most fully rounded, is the American academic, Margaret. Adam, the main Indonesian character, of necessity remains elusive, because the whole point of the novel is that he cannot get in touch with his memories and his past. One of the major Indonesian characters is political activist and terrorist Din. Din is very two-dimensional, and very difficult to emphasise with, his characterisation is probably the main weakness of the novel.
As a post-colonial statement, Aw’s novel represents little progress on Koch’s, or at least it demonstrates that “insiders” do not have exclusive insights into Southeast Asia.