Sunday 18 August 2019

We, the Survivors: Injustice, inequality and immigration in Southeast Asia

Fiction: We, the Survivors

Tash Aw

4th Estate, hardback, 326 pages, €15.99

Two-time Booker nominee: Tash Aw
Two-time Booker nominee: Tash Aw
We, The Survivors

Hilary A White

From the outset, Ah Hock is known to us as a murderer. Having served his time in prison, the former fish-farm worker and member of Malaysia's huge Chinese community is relaying the story of the how and the why behind his killing of a Bangladeshi migrant worker several years ago.

Listening with serene intensity is the sociology researcher documenting the case and hoping to compose the sorry experience in book form, either "narrative non-fiction" or "true crime". There is blood on her subject's hands but there are many reasons why death can occur by such hands in a world like this, none of them simple and none of them clean.

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The blunt realities of life for the underprivileged in Southeast Asia are never far from earshot in this fourth novel from the two-time Booker nominee Tash Aw. A confessional first-person voice is used by the Kuala Lumpur writer to drive this reckoning, whipping up a brand of face-to-face immediacy that has served slews of other morality tales very well, from Frankenstein to The Outsider to The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Our narrator relates the sorry pattern of thankless labour that he had been mired in after having to join the workforce at a young age. All around him, there is a beleaguered continent of desperate migrant workers, natural resources plundered by pollution and industry, and livelihoods at the mercy of overseas markets.

Although fitted with a functioning moral compass, for Ah there is only so much airtime he can give his conscience when his situation is regularly teetering on uncertainty. He survives massive displacement and instability in childhood, more than any one character really deserves.

There is the helplessness felt when fish stocks are poisoned in the fishing village he grows up in. There is the abandonment by his father for work and a new family overseas, and the ravaging toll taken on his single mother when their home is destroyed by a springtide storm surge, a global-warming event that is the new normal.

"Apply for a subsidy or a loan to buy a new place… But even at that age, I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion - who was going to give us any help? Not the government, that's for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying."

Now employed and trying to maintain a normal relationship with emotionally distant wife Jenny, Ah cannot relax. He knows what it is like to be dismissed with immediate effect and no form of compensation, comeback or basic employment rights.

For these reasons, when cholera sweeps through a group of migrant workers that he is overseeing at his workplace, he is forced to compromise what ideals he has left by approaching his heavily corrupt childhood friend Keong, who is hustling a new commodity under the radar - manpower for Malaysia's hulking (and hugely destructive) palm-oil industry.

There is much to recommend Aw's latest excursion into his native Asia and the myriad challenges it is now facing following a fraught history. Chiefly, the narration of Ah (with brief interludes from his interviewer) is brilliantly executed, a voice that seems trapped between two worlds, both somewhat at peace yet also calmly railing against the "thunder without rain" (a saying meaning empty promises) that has marred his existence from various angles.

For all the injustice, inequality and unhappiness that We, the Survivors portrays, there is a strange tranquillity as it reaches its thorny climax, as if accepting the toxins of modern society is the first step to neutralising them. Worth investigating.

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