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The Harmony Silk Factory (2006)

The Harmony Silk Factory (2006)
3.38 of 5 Votes: 4
1594481741 (ISBN13: 9781594481741)
riverhead books
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The Harmony Silk Factory (2006)
The Harmony Silk Factory (2006)

About book: Oh god, this is the third crap book in a row. Life's too bloody short for this!!!!!!!!! I so wanted to like this. It's not often that a South-East Asian writer (Tash Aw is of Malaysian origin) gets international recognition. But this is utter crap. To be honest, I didn't finish it. I gave up at around this point: [our protagonist, Johnny, is having a conversation with a communist in British Malaya]'What I think,' Gun said, as he prised the parang [a kind of knife used in warfare] from the soil and wiped it clean with his fingers, 'is that anybody who can cut up and kill an English big shot, well, that person might be very useful to us.''Will I fight for the liberation of man's soul from the chains of bourgeoisie?' Johnny said. Gun stared at him blankly.Now, even discounting the fact that this conversation could only have taken place in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, and I'm pretty sure you can't say "bourgeoisie" in Hokkien (at least not the kind of Hokkien that a poor labourer would speak), this is utter crap. Why? After all, doesn't Aw provide some kind of convenient explanation for this a few paragraphs earlier?Johnny himself had not yet experienced life as a true communist. Up to that point he had, of course, worked in many places run by people with communist leanings, but he had never yet been approached to do anything. Someone had given him a leaflet once. The words seemed cold on the thin paper, and did not arouse in him any feelings of duty. He tried reading some of the books on Tiger's shelves. He reached, first of all, for Karl Marx, though he did not know why. Perhaps he had heard that name before, or perhaps the simple, strong sound of the words as he read them to himself compelled him to take it into his room. Das. Ka-pi-tal. He said it several times in the privacy of his room. His lips felt strange when they spoke, and he felt curiously exhilarated. But he had not understood everything in the book. Even the Chinese version was beyond his comprehension. What the words said was plain enough, but the meaning behind them remained hidden from him. He grew to prefer the English version. Every night he would look at the book, reading a few lines in his poor English, hoping he would suddenly find a trapdoor into that vast world he knew lay beyond the page. Somehow it made him feel more important, more grown-up, as if he was part of a bigger place.So just how does Das Kapital begin? These are the first two paragraphs (you can read the whole thing here):The wealth of societies in which a capitalistic mode of production prevails, appears as a ‘gigantic collection of commodities’ and the singular commodity appears as the elementary form of wealth. Our investigation begins accordingly with the analysis of the commodity.The commodity is first an external object, a thing which satisfies through its qualities human needs of one kind or another. The nature of these needs is irrelevant, e.g., whether their origin is in the stomach or in the fancy. We are also not concerned here with the manner in which the entity satisfies human need; whether in an immediate way as food – that is, as object of enjoyment – or by a detour as means of production.I can hardly see how these words could have anything other than a thoroughly soporific effect on a young, uneducated manual labourer whose mother tongue is not English. I can hardly see how these words could induce Johnny to feel "more important". The Communist Manifesto possibly, but Das Kapital? An economic text? My, Johnny must be a special kind of man. What does Aw tell us about his childhood? He establishes very early on that Johnny was a poor, rural child who "helped in the manual labour in which [his] parents were engaged". And his educational opportunities?Schools do not exist in these rural areas. I tell a lie. There are a few schools, but they are reserved for the children of royalty and rich people like civil servants. These were founded by the British… Only the sons of very rich Chinese can go there… There the pupils are taught to speak English, proper, I mean… So imagine a child like Johnny, growing up on the edge of a village on the fringes of a rubber plantation (say), tapping rubber and trapping animals for few cents' pocket money.Indeed, imagine a child like Johnny: speaks Hokkien, some pidgin Malay probably, some pidgin English at best, illiterate. Imagine the adult, after a peripatetic life wandering around the Malayan countryside since 13 doing manual labour and odd-jobs for a few cents. Imagine that adult picking up Volume 1 of Das Kapital, weighing in at close to 1,000 pages and actually reading it. Not just reading it, word by laborious word, but being interested by it. Can you do it? I can't. BECAUSE IT'S UTTER BULLSHIT THAT'S WHY!!!!!!! You would not only need to be able to read, you would need to have developed a capacity for abstract reasoning which our protagonist clearly never had any need for. And for that protagonist to spew a statement like, "Will I fight for the liberation of man's soul from the chains of bourgeoisie?" Just who are you trying to kid, Aw? Yes, so I gave up at that point. It just didn't seem to be worth the trouble to continue. Here's another example of the novel's internal incoherence. This is how Johnny is first introduced to us by his son after he made his wealth:Johnny Lim: short, squat, uncommunicative, a hopeless bald loner with poor social skills.This loner with poor social skills is described as having this kind of early career start:It turned out [Johnny] was a natural salesman with an easy style all his own. Like Tiger, Johnny was never loud nor overly persuasive. He pushed hard yet never too far. He cajoled but rarely flattered… He had a sense for what each customer wanted, and he always made a sale.Make up your bloody mind, Aw! Poor social skills? Or consummate saleman? What I want to know is, who are these readers who find this poorly fabricated excuse of a novel even believable? Good lord, I have some swamp land I'm sure they'd love to buy.

How well you get on with this book is likely to depend somewhat on whether you enjoy or are instead irritated by, books that are puzzles to be solved, or at least, puzzled over, by their readers.The book tells the story of Malaysian 'entrepreneur' Johnny Lim, focusing, in particular, on the events of the second world war, and his involvement with the British colonial rulers, the Chinese-backed Communist resistance and the Japanese military, who are in the process of usurping the British. It is told from three different perspectives: Johnny's son, Jasper; his wife, Snow, and his friend, Peter.Each gives a very different account of who Mr Lim was, what drove him and what he did - and I was left with the impression that all were at least somewhat unreliable narrators. Jasper sees his father as an irredeemable, manipulative villain - who nearly murdered his father in law in order to seize control of the family business; who sold out his Communist comrades in order to curry favour with the Japanese invaders and who generally became a man of power and influence by trampling on anyone who got in his way.To Snow, his late wife, whose side of the story is recounted through her diary entries, he is ultimately unknowable - she realises soon after they are married that they will never be truly close, though to what extent her attitude towards his is coloured by a possibly never consummated affair with the Japanese academic who accompanies them on their trip to the Seven Maids Islands. To his friend, Peter, by contrast, Lim is not the conniving mastermind of his son's imaginings (and Peter appears not to know what Jasper thinks of him) but the naive victim of forces be barely understands - unaware, it seems, of his wife's (implied) infidelity) or that he is being used as a pawn in her family's efforts to ensure they maintain power and influence with the exiting of the British and the coming of the Japanese.All of which could be rather interesting. The trouble I had with the book was that none of these three stories really made me care about Lim's story. It felt like a bit of a dry intellectual exervise in showing how your understanding of what makes a person tick, their character, is inevitably shaped by your own vantage point. Aw never really made me care which, if any, of the partial pictures of Lim bore any resemblance to the man himself.So Jasper thought that Lim shopped the Communist resistance to the Japanese to win power and influence for himself, while Peter appears to think that he tried to do all that he could to protect them and simply failed in those efforts. The trouble I have is that the book never makes me care which of those accounts is true.But its not without appeal. In the right mood, perhaps if I read it all in a single sitting, rather than piecemeal over a week, I imagine I might have quite enjoyed puzzling over its insoluble puzzles...
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A gripping exploration of one character through the eyes of others. After a slightly awkward start, the story really comes alive and is enhanced by the conflicting and unreliable interpretations and experiences of the three narrators. Not only does the plot compel you to read on, focusing more and more on a mystery and experience that, in a brilliant Hemingway-esque tradition, remains veiled, it examines the art of constructing characters and understanding others.The wartime setting allows Aw to examine the idea of identity in national and racial terms as well as psychologically, but all of this is wonderfully subtle as the reader is consumed with the events on the Seven Maidens islands...
The novel is about Johnny Lim, textile merchant, petty crook and communist. His life is narrated in three parts by the people who knew him - his son Jasper, his wife Snow, and his best friend Peter Wormwood.Jasper, who never knew his mother Snow, covered most of Johnny's life story with observations about his father and stories he's heard. He tells of how Johnny survived an assassination attempt on Merdeka Day 1957, elevating his status from mortal to god in the eyes of his community.Snow found an unlikely match in the quiet textile merchant. She writes, in detail, about the events that unfold between herself, Johnny, Peter and Japanese professor Kunichika during a holiday to the Seven Maiden Islands. Snow eventually found herself torn between her loyalty to Johnny and her passion for Kunichika. She died giving birth to Jasper. Peter's narrative is by far, the weakest, but it's where you draw the conclusion to the story. The man's already old and unfocused, so half the time you are not sure what he's going on about. But he brings his side (or Johnny's side) of the story to events already related by Jasper and Snow. Taipei-born Tash Aw spent enough time in Malaysia get a feel of the country. He also spent enough time away to not feel the need to show off his English vocabulary, a deep hole that a few Malaysian novelists before him have fall into. What impresses me is the way he brought Malaya to life, claiming that he pretty much invented what he needed.Yes, I'm a year behind in reading The Harmony Silk Factory, but I can explain. I passed it off as another piece of over-hyped pop culture and absolutely refused to spend RM35 on a book that none of my reading kaki would touch with a 10-foot pole for the same reason.I finally got around to a borrowed copy, I found that I was wrong about this one. I'm so happy to be wrong that I'm willing to spend more than RM35 for a nice trade paperback edition of my own as soon as I get around to shopping from retail bookstores again.(2006)
Wei Ming
A caveat: as a British Chinese Malay, I can't read any of Tash Aw's books objectively, I just can't. It's impossible to be completely so, of course, there will always be preconceived expectations going into a book, but he's writing about a country I have such a strong emotional tie to (HIS LATEST BOOK FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE, I'M GONNA DIE). Short short short review: unreliable narrators! Overlapping Rashomon perspectives! The impact of British colonialism and Japanese invasion/occupation! Very briefly, ghosts and magical landscapes! Communists, collaboration! Alsooooooo, loving someone by pure worship alone (THE WORST, really no spoilers there) and the impossibility of escaping your past, hello literary kryptonite. Yes, I loved it. Fantastic writing, took me right back to Malaysia and educated me a little on some of its history. READ IT READ IT READ IT, excuse me while I go hunt for Five Star Billionaire.
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