With the publication of ‘Map of the Invisible World’, and the recent death of Robert McNamara, MATT MCGREGOR revisits Tash Aw’s 2005 novel ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’.

I FINISHED Tash Aw’s 2005 novel The Harmony Silk Factory, set in Malaysia in 1940, to the news of Robert McNamara’s death. As Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence, people will rightly remember – and judge – McNamara as one of the principal architects of the war in Vietnam. But, as Errol Morris’s The Fog of War reminds us, McNamara’s involvement in American war crimes predates Vietnam by two decades, with his position as a statistician during World War Two. In The Fog of War, McNamara describes his work in improving the efficiency of the American bombing-raids over Japan’s wooden cities. The film portrays, along with McNamara’s later regrets, his technocratic certainties and absolutes, his statistics of maximum casualties, his systematic and ultimately terrifying mind.

With the firebombing of Japan’s cities in mind, The Harmony Silk Factory’s focus on the personal and private, on the relatively minor dramas of individuals, can seem absurd. The novel broadly considers the life of Johnny Lim, a orphan child who marries the daughter of a local oligarch and becomes, by the end of the war, a leader of the Communist rebellion in Malaysia and, post-war, a corrupt big-city gangster. With the Japanese war machine just about to blitz across South-East Asia, having just bombed Chinese villages with bubonic plague and two years since the ‘Rape of Nanking’, Aw chooses to centre the narrative on the melodramatic events of Johnny’s 1940 honeymoon.

But this is unfair, for The Harmony Silk Factory is less about history and more about what one does with history, how one deals with traumatic memories and the legacies of crimes. The novel is a triptych, with the early judgements of Johnny’s son, Jasper, and the later confessions of Johnny’s friend, Peter Wormwood, reflecting on and supplementing the central honeymoon diaries of Snow, Johnny’s wife. The problem is, none of the stories tie together: the three narrators give radically incommensurable versions of events. We have three honeymoons, three versions of relationships, three hopelessly different Johnny Lims.

Johnny’s educated son Jasper begins the novel from the present-day with his analytical attempts to get at the truth. He reads the historical record of Johnny’s life, collects the data: “every single article in every book, newspaper, and magazine that mentions my father, in order to understand the real story of what happened.” At one point, he summarises his reading in three pages of bullet-points – the tell of a writer who can’t quite make connections or see the significance of the information he possesses. He re-imagines his father’s life, as well as he can; and by the end of the first section we see Johnny as a violent peasant who grew into a corrupt communist leader and, later, a corrupting urban gangster.

But, as we learn during the novel, research and analysis only get you so far. In part two we begin to read the diaries of Johnny’s wife, Snow. She is, of course, outrageously, famously, mythically beautiful, as well as demure, shy and ignorant of sexuality. Before she met Johnny, she was desired by the entire valley, there were many prospective suitors, etc. Her diaries begin a year into their marriage, and it mostly narrates their belated honeymoon to the mysterious Seven Maiden Islands. For various reasons, they are accompanied on their trip by the eccentric Englishman Peter Wormwood, the stuffy Englishman Honey, and the brilliant Japanese academic and veteran of the invasion of Manchuria Mamoru Kunichika, who, according to Jasper, would eventually become known for his wartime crimes as the “Monster of Kampar.”

Anyway, after a periodically mystical boat-ride and boat-wreck, the four men and Snow wash up on one of the Seven Maiden Islands. Their repressed emotions arise. Snow grows interested in Mamoru. Peter is interested in Snow. Johnny is interested in Peter. They become angry, jealous, suspicious. hey are all confused; no one understands. The section ends with several violent crimes.

In the third section, elderly Peter Wormwood relives the journey with regret, as he waits for death in a Malaysian rest-home. He spends his days planning a new garden for the institution, something to resist the creep of the Malaysian jungle. These plans, we soon see, resemble his fragmented memories: they are both attempts at projecting order and unity onto the world.

Wormwood, Peter tells us, is a poisonous plant. We have, then, Snow and Wormwood, purity and poison, innocence and corruption. The novel is built on this oppositional edifice: we have civilisation (Mamoru) and wilderness (Johnny), knowledge and ignorance, reason and emotion, the mind and the body. In each of these oppositions, The Harmony Silk Factory insists that we cannot repress the latter. Hence the failure of Jasper’s rational analysis; hence the soap-opera emotions of the island.

The prime example of this occurs at the end of Snow’s narrative, when Mamoru, the ultra-civilised, multi-lingual Japanese professor, loses control. In a shocking but unsurprising scene he brutally attacks one of the party. He becomes wild, bestial. And maybe, in the middle of war, wild is what people become. There are rapes, massacres, irrational destruction. Set, after all, in 1940, Aw gestures to those crimes the Japanese army committed in China, and looks forward to those they would commit throughout South East Asia.

But this brings me back to McNamara. The firebombing of Japan, to watch his testimony in The Fog of War, wasn’t a mad, murderous act of revenge, a crime of passion. It was an expertly calculated technical exercise. The Harmony Silk Factory is about human imperfection, emotion and irrationality; but the terrifying thing about McNamara is that he wasn’t insane, he never lost his cool. With his charts and calculations, he was emblematic of the horrendous and efficient bureaucracy of war: he was perfectly rational.

Tash Aw, by way of rebuttal, might point to the range of inadequate obituaries published in the New York Times after McNamara’s death which, like the versions of Johnny in The Harmony Silk Factory, are hopelessly incommensurable. When the novel came out in 2005, various reviewers complained of Johnny’s ‘inscrutable’ character, as if Aw had lazily underwritten him, as if Aw simply couldn’t be bothered finishing him off. But this narrative disjunction is the best of the novel. Jasper, Snow and Peter are clearly bound by their different historical horizons. There are versions of Johnny each will never understand. People are, Aw suggests, whatever their crimes, finally unknowable; and versions of history are always points of view. Johnny, like McNamara, is judged for his crimes, as he should be; but as Judith Butler writes, “The capacity to make and justify moral judgements does not exhaust the sphere of ethics.” McNamara, then, was a war criminal; and a public servant; and a brilliant thinker; and a liar; etc.