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We, The Survivors
Author: Tash Aw
Publisher: 4th Estate, contemporary fiction
Review by SHARON BAKAR
When Malaysian authors first began to be published overseas by major publishers, many local readers felt that they were speaking first and foremost to a global audience and began to ask where were the novels about the country that spoke to current realities and concerns.
With We, The Survivors, Tash Aw’s forth novel, we have a gritty and unflinching novel that focuses on contemporary issues.
As the novel opens, we know that a “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” has been committed by its protagonist, Lee Hock Lye (known as Ah Hock); that the victim was a Bangladeshi; and that the murder weapon was a piece of wood. What we don’t know is why the murder was committed, and this we piece together gradually as the story unfolds through a series of transcripts of interviews that take place over a period of four months.
The subject and the interviewer could not be more different. Ah Hock has served his time and emerged a broken man, shuffling in his gait, hesitant in this speech, and now supported financially by members of his church.
Aw captures the rhythm of Malaysian English in Ah Hock’s narration, although there are times when Ah Hock sounds just a little too articulate and educated to be truly believable.
Su-Min is a post-grad sociology student, a self-described “militant queer” who has just returned from studying in the United States.
Although they represent different generations, classes and values, a friendship gradually grows between them, each of them looking out for the other. There is an ironic twist at the end of the book; not even Ah Hock’s story belongs to him any more.
Ah Hock welcomes this chance to “empty his head” and put the events of his life into perspective. He describes growing up in a small village on the opposite side of the river from Kuala Selangor, where life is a constant struggle against the elements and the young Ah Hock longs to escape.
Small wonder then that when the swaggering Keong comes to live in Ah Hock’s village for 18 months after his parents’ divorce, the boys are drawn together in a friendship based on their similar circumstances and ambitions. Ah Hock has “the sense that a whole universe of ease and satisfaction (exists) just beyond the horizons of the world I was living in” but it remains beyond his grasp.
The scenes with his mother are among the most poignant in the book, documenting the struggles and compromises she has to make so that the pair of them can get by. She manages to save enough to buy a small piece of land on which they grow vegetables and rear tilapia to sell in the market. They might not have much, their prospects are limited, but they are independent.
After his mother’s death from cancer, Ah Hock goes to stay with Keong in the town of Puchong. He wants to improve himself and learn to use technology but there are so many difficulties in just getting access to a computer.
While Keong has chosen the life of a small-time gangster and hangs out with older boys selling drugs in the city, Ah Hock takes the more legitimate route to earning a livelihood and takes a series of menial jobs including as a waiter at Fatty Crab restaurant on the Old Klang Road.
Security and a steady income is always at a remove until he gets a job on a fish farm rearing sea bass for upscale restaurants in the city.
A promotion to foreman allows him the opportunity to realise some of his modest dreams – marriage and a terraced house. His wife Jenny’s attempt to move out of the poverty trap is to become involved in a pyramid marketing scheme selling cosmetics.
Keong comes back into Ah Hock’s life after 10 years, calling him out of the blue and attempting to resume their friendship – something that Ah Hock initially resists.
But when Ah Hock’s workers fall sick with cholera and the survival of the fish farm is at stake, he is forced to seek Keong’s help to find replacements.
An important thread that runs through the novel is the treatment of migrant workers in Malaysia and the tensions that surround them. Ah Hock notices the estate workers, the cashier in the supermarket, the security guards, and he is conscious of his own relationship with migrants. He realises that he has power over the foreign workers in the restaurant simply by being the same race and colour as the owners.
He works alongside Indonesians at the fish farm but his boss, Mr Lai, “didn’t want to know about their lives, didn’t want to think of them as real people” and doesn’t even bother to learn their names – yet Ah Hock can recall them years later.
Most tellingly of all, Ah Hock is not arrested for a whole month after the killing of the Bangladeshi because “When the victim is that sort of person the police don’t really care.” The prejudice against the migrant is institutionalised.
This is a novel of considerable strengths, dealing with important issues that are as universal as they are local, and there is a very real sense of place in the descriptions of the landscape both urban and rural. If the novel has a weakness, though, it is that the latter part lacks the narrative tension of the first half; this isn’t a page-tuner.