Tash Aw: “Sail”

01/12/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

“Shorn of their sails, the boats looked fragile, purposeless,” observes Yanzu, a self-made “comfortably” successful businessman in Hong Kong who is considering the purchase of a yacht (a rich person’s toy), so as to console himself after his failed affair with a flighty, adventurous English teacher. She was his metaphorical sail, and all the wealth in the world won’t make him feel like any less of a failure right now: a fancy dock is still a dock; he’s still beached. “Men do the stupid things when they are in love, she had once told him, laughing high-spiritedly, but he did not agree: men do the stupidest things when they are out of love, because they think they have failed.” This string of failures extends back to Yanzu’s initial pursuits as a cub reporter: he was saddled with the grunt petty crimes on the police blotters, and though he believed himself to be the visionary “outsider” who would bring scathing, illuminating op-eds to the paper, he was quickly disillusioned by his editors, by his dwindling rancor, by his settling:

He found himself looking quite calmly at the unchanging view, at the washing line sagging with wrinkled clothes, the lazy whirring fans of air-conditioning units, the families who lived in the next building, so close that he could hear their TVs, watch their young children grow up, day-by-day; and everything suddenly shrouded by the sheets of rain during the downpours that would last all afternoon in this semitropical city. These were the things that would keep him company now.
He knew he would never write again.

He manages to marry a rich woman named Violet — it’s not clear what she sees in him, given that she’s independently wealthy and apparently more intelligent and as successful in law as he is in business — but this only brings him a secret shame at his inability to converse with her in English (the “educated” language, apparently), let alone at his business, where he must rely on others to translate the words of American contractors while he smiles and nods. At home, at the office, in life, he finds himself becoming the passive onlooker, not the firebrand of a participant he dreamed of being, and so it’s no surprise that he falls for the first English tutor who shows him the slightest bit of patience and attention. For the first time, he doesn’t feel as if he’s stumbling — but he misreads the rapport between them. At first, he sees her as his equal, someone who is “alone in a foreign place,” but soon realizes that she’s merely “a foreigner, she was passing through, she was bored, she wanted adventure.” Out of hopeless romanticism, depression, whatever it may be, he nearly drowns her while they’re out on a yacht, only to pull back at the last moment, exposed and vulnerable to her imminent departure, which brings us back to the beginning of the tale, the yacht that he considers purchasing, and yet which remains one zero out of reach.

As you can probably see in the synopsis/analysis I’ve offered, Aw is consistent in his linking of elements to his central theme (and title), this “sail,” and he does a fine job of provoking empathy for Yanzu’s feelings of loneliness. In my opinion, this ability is one of a storyteller’s most essential traits — the mastery of theme, or what the photographer might call a “motif” — and yet I confess that there’s something in this tale that leaves me cold. Even though it’s been edited down to its core (the use of numbered sections proves especially efficient in cutting directly to the relevant scenes, with no real transitions required), is it perhaps too long? I’ll have to revisit this one at some point; perhaps it’s just hitting too close to home.


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