“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” according to Thoreau. That’s if they’re lucky. What if, like the narrator of Tash Aw’s latest novel, the desperation is noisy and violent? When We, the Survivors opens, such desperation has caused Ah Hock to take another man’s life.
Ah Hock is a Chinese citizen of Malaysia, a country where everybody—every man, woman and child—is on the hustle, and everybody is fungible. When the workers at the fish farm where Ah Hock is foreman come down with cholera, he and everyone else assumes they can be replaced easily, cheaply and permanently. It matters not if the substitutes are refugees from Myanmar, Nepal, Indonesia, Bangladesh or Mars. Indeed, bosses seek out these refugees because they can be paid much less than native Malaysian workers. There’s no thought given to sick leave, health insurance or even how people come down with cholera in the 21st century in the first place. But the economy is booming, and the replacements all have jobs.
Ah Hock’s boss is out of town, and he knows he’ll be canned if he can’t find a work crew, even though no part of the emergency is his fault. If he’s fired, he’ll probably be thumped back down to the bottom of a brutal economic hierarchy. He is no longer very young, and his body can’t tolerate the grueling physical labor of his youth.
Told to two interlocutors, a shadowy “you” and an uptight scribbler named Su-Min who writes a novel based on Ah Hock’s adventures, We, the Survivors begins and ends after the homicide. In between, the narrative loops through different, crucial times in Ah Hock’s life. Through most of that time, he maintains a reluctant friendship with a scoundrel named Keong. At times a drug dealer, gangster and fixer, Keong is a creep, but a fascinating one. He knows how the corrupt, inhumane hyper-capitalism of Malaysia works, and he works it to his advantage. Ever on the brink of violence, Keong knows everybody who’s anybody. Sometimes he’s flush, sometimes not. But his dedication to his “little brother” Ah Hock is genuine, and when Ah Hock goes to Keong for help, the hustler of hustlers does his utmost. It’s not enough.
The author of The Harmony Silk Factory, Aw brings us a steamy, smelly, muddy, Hobbesian Malaysia most tourists avoid. If there’s a book that’s a masterpiece of the wages of the worship of Moloch, it’s We, the Survivors.