We, the Survivors
By Tash Aw, 4th Estate, 336 pages, £14.99
From the very first page of Tash Aw’s new novel, the ghost of Albert Camus’s The Outsider is an almost palpable presence.
The detached tone of Aw’s first-person narrator, Ah Hock; the fleeting impressions of societal contradiction and injustice that govern his life; the catalytic presence of a supposed friend and petty criminal, Keong; and, most of all, the fact that Ah Hock seems recently to have committed a random murder make him a close cousin to Camus’s feckless, emotionally stunted Meursault, whose own drift into senseless killing provided the model for the existential antihero of the 1950s and 1960s.
There is even a racial element to both crimes: Meursault shoots an Algerian man he barely knows, while Ah Hock’s victim is Bangladeshi. This, however, is where the similarities end. For while Meursault’s homicidal impulse is a thing of the moment, the symptom of an undefined anomie, We, the Survivors provides an entire if barely visible history for Ah Hock. It is a narrative of exile, marginalisation and corporate greed, of abuses of the land and those who scrape a living from it, all of which have helped to form contemporary Malaysia.
To his defence lawyer, Ah Hock is a convenient stereotype, a “miserable, badly educated, hopeless” victim of society whose attempt to compensate for his low status by adopting a new name (Jayden, which sounds “cool” to Ah Hock until he hears it repeatedly mispronounced in court) is in itself so pathetic that some jury members begin to pity him.
Ah Hock is less swayed, however, by his counsel’s rhetoric; like Meursault, he feels disconnected from the trial, violated as much by his own attorney’s exposure of his carefully crafted delusions as by the charge itself. “But then I thought: Wait, this is wrong … I was happy. I was normal. I knew my lawyer was trying to help me but I wanted her to stop talking. I started humming a tune to block out the noise of her words … I tried to remember what it was like to be myself again, but it was ridiculous.”
But he has never been the self he pretends to be, and the worst humiliation of all is to see that everyone knows it. Now, faced with this humiliation, Ah Hock retraces his actual history, starting with his grandmother’s flight from occupied China to Indonesia and on to a remote Malaysian fishing village, a flight not only from the threat of internment camps, summary executions and rape, but also, in the end, from life.
Unlike her grandson, who wants to be seen on social media as a success (preferably with his own Honda Accord full of gifts for relatives and neighbours), the old woman wants “her entire history, her entire self, to be scrubbed out from the world”.
Ah Hock’s pathetic attempts at creating this illusion of worldly success, culminating in the gift to his long-suffering mother of a dodgy hearing aid, humiliate him even further, but the transactions with Keong deepen his sense of obligation to a man whose criminal career brings them both into contact with Ah Hock’s eventual victim. There are elements of suspense that prohibit further disclosure here, if not of the who, then certainly of the how and why of the murder. The governing fact of the entire account is, however, present from the beginning, when Ah Hock reflects, from his own position of economic vulnerability, on the lives of the Indian migrants who work on the plantations that surround his childhood home. “We never mixed with them,” he says of these near-slaves of the big corporations.
“We didn’t want anything to do with them, in case their misfortune rubbed off on us.” Though he is self-aware enough to see this irrational dread as a “superstition”, he cannot altogether dismiss it. As the novel moves through the lower levels of Malaysian society in the footsteps of two young men who are essentially afraid of everyone they encounter, we come to see the deeper, visceral impulses that underlie racism, casual animosity and violence in general.
By the time we reach the climactic scene, in which Keong threatens and curses his Bangladeshi rival in Cantonese, a language the man cannot be expected to understand, and Ah Hock mutters the one thing he knows for sure — that “this is stupid” — Aw’s gripping and strangely moving book has brought us, if not to an understanding, then at least towards some appreciation of the social complexity and steady flow of injustices that have led to this absurd yet terrifying moment.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
John Burnside’s latest novel is Ashland & Vine.