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Clinging To The Past And 'The Invisible World'

Sometimes, the best way to capture the scope of vast international movements is to burrow into a single life.

That's how author Tash Aw explores the landscape of post-independence Indonesia in the novel Map of the Invisible World.

The book's main character, a 16-year-old orphan named Adam, is on a quest to find his stepfather. "He has to face, like his country, questions of where he's from and where he's going to who his family really is," Aw tells NPR's Guy Raz.

Adam's country, Indonesia, is in turmoil. It's the mid-1960s, a decade and a half after the nation of islands won independence from the Dutch. And the first president, Sukarno, has created a governing system he dubs "guided democracy."

"By 1964, the wheels are coming off this rather rickety bandwagon," Aw says, "and Sukarno's losing his grip on the situation and things are tumbling into disarray."

Indonesia is about to suffer through an attempted coup and violent civil war. And in that era, Aw finds parallels with modern Indonesia. "In the '60s, the great radicalizing element was Communism," the author says. "Today it's much more likely to be Islam."

Tash Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia. He now lives in London. And he admits that what he calls his "cultural DNA" is reflected in his characters' rootlessness.

"They're all living a life that seems to have a big part of it missing," Aw says. "Some of them can't let go of memories. They can't let go of something that no longer exists. Their present lives, in a way, seem less important than their past lives, their invisible lives. And so the novel's really about how they come to grips with this invisibility ... or not."

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