Tash Aw’s Costa Prize-winning debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, revolved around the Japanese invasion of Malaysia during the Second World War. Now Aw has turned his attention to Indonesia, ‘this country of islands strung out across the sea like seaweed on the shore’. In Map of the Invisible World, the sense of geographical untidiness symbolises something at the heart of the body politic: the state is in disarray, and revolution is in the air – ‘not like the ones in France or Russia or China ... but something fuzzier and more indistinct’. It is the mid-1960s and President for Life Sukarno is becoming increasingly reliant on Communist support while stepping up the drive to rid his country of its colonial remnants. Food is scarce, relations with the West broken; foreign nationals are being deported, or murdered. Malaysia has recently achieved nationhood, much to Sukarno’s chagrin, and aid from America has ceased. The Left accuses the president of empty rhetoric, the Right of Communist collusion. There have been assassination attempts, riots in the streets. Even the skies are full of portent: ‘There was never any blue, nothing true or clear.’ Sometime after the novel’s ending, Sukarno will be deposed in a coup, following a bloody drive by the army to purge the country’s Left. ‘Something terrible is about to happen’, we are consistently reminded.
Karl de Willigen, an artist, is abducted during a routine army clean-up. As a suspected Communist and a Dutchman to boot, Karl has little sympathy from any of the state’s political factions, though he protests ‘I am as Indonesian as anyone else.’ Karl, it seems, is blind to