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Asia: ‘The Explosive Transformation’

Andrew Whittuck
Tash Aw

Hamid, in fact, goes further by deploying the genre’s hortatory second-person singular. He addresses his book to “you” and we never learn the narrator’s own name. As in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the second-person form of address helps Hamid to speculate impishly, in the postmodernist way, about the nature of collaboration between readers and the text: whether, for instance, the “you” to whom the novel is apparently addressed is the same as the Anglophone reader of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, who, bewildered by “distant lands that because of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own,” seeks out non-Western novels like Hamid’s for a bit of self-help.

Elsewhere in the book, Hamid uses the self-help genre’s predisposition to generalize, construct ideal psychological and sociological types, and narrate the generic drama of his self-made narrator—a seventy-year-long life driven by a simple impulse of self-aggrandizement. Liberated from conventional novelistic obligations of scene-setting, character development, and narrative progression, Hamid casts a wry, probing eye on the underworld of shady businessmen, venal politicians, and bureaucrats. We learn about the practices and rhythms of small and medium factories. We see how the logic of capital transforms everything: even the well-funded organization of Islamist students at a college is basically “an economic enterprise,” useful to politicians for its “street-filling capability” and “show of force.”

“The idea of self,” Hamid writes early on in his novel, “in the land of self-help is a slippery one.” The only useful self is one that has a chameleon-like ability to adjust quickly to new business circumstances. For this is a world in which bureaucrats “wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests,” and bankers “wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state.” Indeed, Hamid underscores the primary lesson of the last half-century of Asian capitalism as his antihero bribes politicians and bureaucrats for privileged access to lucrative contracts. There is not an invisible hand or free market at work. Indeed, “entrepreneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success.”

Hamid’s prose draws satirically upon the business school jargon that infects ordinary conversations as well as political speeches and newspaper editorials in Asian societies obsessed with economic growth. “Until the age of about twelve, when the opportunity cost of forgone wages becomes significant, most children in your area do in fact manage to go to school.” The higher rationality of opportunity costs, it turns out, has a chilling effect on all human feelings. “As far as getting rich is concerned,” Hamid warns, “love can be an impediment…. It dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success.” Even sex is either furtive or joylessly mechanical: “They engage in a degree of sound suppression, but muscular grunting, fleshy impact, traumatized respiration, and hydraulic suction nonetheless remain audible.”

Women—and children—generally fare badly in the hypermasculine world of the hustler. Phoebe, a fortune-hunting Malaysian in Tash Aw’s novel, is reduced to reading books titled “How-to-get-a-man-and-keep-him.” Pondering her choice of wardrobe before a crucial date, she opts to follow the counsel in her self-help manual: “Dress for Sex-cess.” The childhood object of infatuation of Hamid’s protagonist, described in the novel as a street-smart “pretty girl,” grows up to be a fashion model by indiscriminately bestowing sexual favors. Self-commodification is also the fate of his wife as she shaves off her pubic hair and dresses in racy lingerie. To no avail, as it turns out, since her husband, locked into a business rivalry, is absorbed with fantasies of violence. In fact, Sam Kandy in Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast is prepared to use violence against his own wives: he pushes the first out of a moving car, “a tumbling whiteness flattening out upon the black ground like a wave at night.” He has an equally murderous exit strategy for his second wife; he also forces his fiendish son, who has spectacularly violated a dozen virgins, into the army.

These desolate loners are very far from feeling solidarity with anyone in the present, let alone remembering the visions of national strength and dignity that flourished following their countries’ liberation from Western domination. In a society that is primarily jungle, with men and women little more than beasts of prey, there hardly seems any possibility of an effective political community. The long-bearded Islamists with whom Hamid’s protagonist briefly falls in at college only serve to underscore, like the Communists, the superiority of the profit motive.

But a life so impoverished of human values can breed unrest in even the most underdeveloped of souls. Hamid’s character sees a glimmer of transcendence only after he loses his fortune; then, defying all anti-romance strictures of the Asian self-help genre, he shacks up with the woman—the ex-model—who has given him his only real experience of tenderness and passion. Failure and a sense of drift also soften the hard carapace of Tash Aw’s gold diggers in Shanghai. Accordingly, toward the end the chapter titles of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Five Star Billionaire take on a phlegmatic, even wistful, cast: “Focus on the Fundamentals.” “Blow through the fluff,” Hamid writes, “see the forest for the trees.” “Strive to Understand the Big Picture,” Tash Aw echoes, “Know When to Cut Your Losses.”

Their lost characters stumble toward the melancholy wisdom that “Nothing in Life Lasts Forever.” Hamid’s unlikely lovers, in particular, are preoccupied with what Henry James on his deathbed called “the distinguished thing.” This gives an unexpected maudlin tone to the concluding pages of both novels. It is as though Hamid and Aw finally recoil from the extraordinary lovelessness of the worlds that their cynical formulas for success have described; they cannot, it seems, accept the implication, written into the hard, philistine code of the self-help genre, that human life is endless struggle, devoid of spirit and beauty.

They also cannot subscribe to its conservative ethic, which blames the imperfect individual for his failure, rather than the social system rigged against him. Across Asia, capitalism seems even less an equal opportunity game than it did when only some people were allowed to get rich first. The severe ruptures it causes—between rich and poor, urban and rural, local and global—are too plainly manifested, whether in India’s Maoist insurgencies, or the tens of thousands of demonstrations annually in China. Living in Pakistan, Hamid is alert to its savage hierarchies and the

rising tide of frustration and anger and violence, born partly of the greater familiarity the poor today have with the rich, their faces pressed to that clear window on wealth afforded by ubiquitous television.

Threatened by anarchy and vengeful brutality, the minority of the affluent take refuge in gated communities, of the kind Hamid’s protagonist supplies water to, while the rage of those left definitively behind goes on the boil in countries with overwhelmingly young populations, such as India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which together account for one fourth of the world’s population. “At times,” Hamid writes, “watching the stares that follow a luxury SUV as it muscles its way down a narrow road, you are nearly relieved to have been already separated from your fortune.” Certainly, Hamid’s novel could have completed its arc of nihilism by concluding with the casual and perfectly meaningless murder of his protagonist during an armed robbery—a generic end to a generic life that is featured every day in the crime sections of Asian newspapers. In that sense, his character’s preference for a life of moderation before his death by natural causes hints at a survival strategy for Asian plutocrats, and outlines an addendum: “How to Get Filthy Rich and Still Die with Dignity in Rising Asia.”

In many Asian countries, the rising tide of frustration and anger has been contained by authoritarian states, which, while relying on brute force to maintain basic order, can also furnish visible evidence to back their emollient rhetoric of progress and development. Large regions of Asia today are construction sites, pregnant with the extravagant promises of consumer capitalism. Toward the end of Yu Hua’s Brothers, the main character, one of China’s beneficiaries of the “collusion of business and government,” demolishes the town of his youth, replacing it with shiny shopping malls, restaurants, and residential complexes.

Everywhere across Asia remorseless speculators are obscuring the dust and grime of hardscrabble lives with a modish antiquarianism, such as in the coffee shop Hamid’s protagonist frequents in his old age, whose “faux-wornness” conceals the eviction of the fruit seller who previously stood at its site. The past, abandoned without regret, is only another source of profit. The property developer in Five Star Billionaire hopes to turn an old, much-loved cinema in his hometown Kuala Lumpur into a “mixed-use development,” a boutique hotel with luxury brand-name retailers.

Returning to his village at the age of one hundred, Sam Kandy oversees its transformation into a model tourist attraction, one cleansed of its creator’s many crimes. Here in this “authentic” Sri Lanka, “history and memory” are “conveniently located and reasonably priced, and also reachable by safe roads lined with newer rest-stations and only a few army checkpoints.” Some useful employment is generated: “Villagers not selected to be villagers became ticket takers and staffed the refreshment stand.”

But there still remains that immovable mass in the great Asian hinterland that, as Boyagada writes, is made up of

little men in cheap slacks and T-shirts and Bata slippers smoking in the shade, men who never studied like they should have when all of them were village boys, and so could now only watch as those who did study left the village again, while they remained here, weeds in this the garden of the world.

The unsettling last image reminds us of how numerous and unwanted are those left behind—and destined never to catch up—in the Asian race to Western-style abundance and glamour. Though largely mute in these dramas of Asian capitalism, the future really belongs to this invisible majority of the “filthy poor”—people who can’t even try to enlarge their limits of possibility, but retain the silent potential of weeds that can overrun the world’s most zealously maintained gardens.

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