We, the Survivors by Tash Aw review – murder in a world of injustice
A fearful young man carries out a seemingly random crime in this gripping and strangely moving novel
From the very first page of Tash Aw’s new novel, the ghost of Albert Camus’s The Outsider is an almost palpable presence. The detached tone of Aw’s first-person narrator, Ah Hock; the fleeting impressions of societal contradiction and injustice that govern his life; the catalytic presence of a supposed friend and petty criminal, Keong; and, most of all, the fact that Ah Hock seems recently to have committed a random murder make him a close cousin to Camus’s feckless, emotionally stunted Meursault, whose own drift into senseless killing provided the model for the existential antihero of the 1950s and 60s. There is even a racial element to both crimes: Meursault shoots an Algerian man he barely knows, while Ah Hock’s victim is Bangladeshi. This, however, is where the similarities end. For while Meursault’s homicidal impulse is a thing of the moment, the symptom of an undefined anomie, We, the Survivors provides an entire if barely visible history for Ah Hock. It is a narrative of exile, marginalisation and corporate greed, of abuses of the land and those who scrape a living from it, all of which have helped to form contemporary Malaysia.
To his defence lawyer, Ah Hock is a convenient stereotype, a “miserable, badly educated, hopeless” victim of society whose attempt to compensate for his low status by adopting a new name (Jayden, which sounds “cool” to Ah Hock until he hears it repeatedly mispronounced in court) is in itself so pathetic that some jury members begin to pity him.