Not everybody cries

Christopher Tayler

  • Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
    Fourth Estate, 437 pp, £18.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 749415 6

What kind of politics of representation is in play if you’re writing novels about East Asian countries in English? Is it more complicated or less if you’re Malaysian and a Cambridge graduate? Would the way your experience filters into your fiction look different when transferred to, say, a painter? And how might these questions be dramatised in an opaquely symbolic interlude? One set of answers is provided in Map of the Invisible World (2009), Tash Aw’s second novel, in which a painter who’s said to like ‘parrots and boys’ shows two of the main characters one of his early canvases: a painting of a farmhouse in Germany with oddly shaped cows in the surrounding fields and a young bride and groom drifting through the air. We’re in the prewar Dutch East Indies and the painter is Aw’s version of Walter Spies, a German primitivist who tried to do for Bali what Gauguin did for Tahiti. His visitors are Margaret, a precocious 15-year-old whose parents are American anthropologists, and Karl, a Dutch artist she’s decided she’s in love with. Margaret, who has only recently been deriding Bali’s European painters as ignorant phoneys, isn’t impressed. Still, Walter presses on:

‘This little tableau,’ said Walter, ‘is full of my conflicting emotions towards my homeland. Nostalgia, longing, but also fear and self-loathing and darkness – all those things are contained in this tiny piece. I did not realise this when I painted it many years ago. When one is young’ – he raised his eyebrow and turned to look at Margaret – ‘one does not see such things. But now, in the long autumn of my life, I can appreciate all the happiness and indeed the despair that has coloured my life.’ He waved his hand at the painting as if to prove his point.

As soon as they had left the compound Margaret dissolved into fits of hysterical laughter.

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