“But the truth is that there is no because. And because there is no because, there is also no why. He did what he did. Sometimes things happen that way. Or maybe the because was buried so far in his past that it’s impossible to figure out what it is, so it ceases to be real.”
We, the Survivors by Tash Aw is a poignant story of a middle-class Malaysian man named Ah Hock released from prison recently after serving the time for murdering a Bangladeshi migrant worker. Su-Min who had been doing research for her studies in America returned to Malaysia and interviewed Ah Hock about his life which later turned into a book.
Ah Hock was from a Malaysian fishing village living with his mother. His father eft for Singapore when he was young and never returned. The struggling life of Ah Hock and his mother was rough. He happened to befriend with Keong, a thuggish boy from his village a few years older than him. Just like other youths, they wanted to leave the village and dreamt to become tycoons in a city. They went to Kuala Lumpur and worked random jobs. Ah Hock had his own set of moral value. He worked in restaurants whereas Keong worked as a drug smuggler. Soon, he managed to separate Keong from his life.
Years later, Ah Hock was working as a fore man in a plantation. Though uneducated, he was a diligent and hard working person. He got married and though he had not become a tycoon, he was somewhat enjoying his life. One day, he received a call from Keong and reconnected with him. Regarding a serious situation at work, Ah Hock reluctantly asked help from Keong which led to turn Ah Hock’s life upside down.
From the beginning, Tash Aw let the readers know that Ah Hock murdered a man but we don’t know why he did it or how it occurred. It is not a mystery or thriller kind of novel that unravels the homicide case. I get to know Ah Hock’s life from the beginning of his childhood including the misfortune family affairs, the struggles with poverty and rise from it as well as his working life and married life as an adult.
Through the interviews, his life is unfold. Although it is told in Ah Hock’s narration, I believe it is not to diminish the crime he committed but to showcase the dull yet strenuous life of working-class people in Malaysia. At the same time, distressing lives and obscurity of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, and Nepal as well as Rohingya refugees were attentively portrayed.
Many times in the story, I see Ah Hock’s shoulda, coulda, woulda moments. Regrets for doing this or not doing that and most of them are related to his association with Keong. His conversations with Su-Min are interlaced between his recount on his life. In a glimpse, the reader gets to see insights of an intellectual like Su-Min. Though it may not portray the entire upper class or the intellectuals, it is an interesting read. Aw’s storytelling is crafty and evocative. Sometimes brisk as the necessity of plot but most of the time steady and compassionate.
The story brought the reader’s attention with a homicidal plot at the beginning but Aw doesn’t rush in telling how it occurred. He takes time in telling Ah Hock’s story. After reading it, I contemplate on the importance of the narrative in the stories. Of course there will be differences between how others tell our stories and how we tell our own even each of us tell the truth. Some won’t see the adversity faced by the blue-collar people from their perspective. Some will only tell what they see from their point of view.