Louise Doughty, Black Water, 2016
Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard, 2013
John Harper, the protagonist of Black Water, is an operative in a private intelligence agency. In 1965 he is sent to Indonesia, his country of birth, and is there when the military use the September 30 coup as a pretext to launch the massacres of people accused of being communist.
Harper’s assignments involve him in these crimes – for example, he passes on a CIA hit list to the military – and as a result he becomes mentally ill. Eventually he is able to take on a desk job for the agency.
In 1998 he is sent back to Jakarta prior to the riots that led to the end of the Suharto regime. There he stuffs up badly, and the agency sends him to Bali to “rest”. The book opens with Harper lying awake in a hut near Ubud, terrified that the agency is arranging his murder.
What leads a man to join such a company and to commit crimes in carrying out his duties? How did he become the man who, when his baby daughter dies shortly after her birth, thinks, “at least you have been spared life.” He is defined by his past, and Doughty tells his story, beginning with his chaotic childhood.
This backstory alternates with what is happening in the present, in Bali, where he meets Rita, a teacher recovering from her own tragedy. He tells her some of what he had done, but not his most terrible acts. Can these two damaged people find peace together?
The narrative tension that impelled me to keep reading Black Water came firstly from the complexity and reality of Harper’s character, and secondly from Doughty’s technique of revealing plot points piecemeal, so that you don’t know the full story until the end. Doughty has spoken about her style:
“I love flashbacks and revelations and foreshadowing – but you have to hold two versions of the novel in your head at the same time: what you know about the book and what your reader knows at any given point are often quite different. It can be fiendishly complicated but it’s essential that it reads naturally on the page.”
Black Water is more than a thriller. It explores difficult questions about personal responsibility and how we may become part of the machinery of oppression and exploitation. It examines how we use simplistic reasoning to avoid difficult decisions: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will. If my company doesn’t invest in this mad and murderous regime, another will.”
Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, tells a very different story – a courtroom drama set in London – but it shares many similarities with Black Water. It is also a psychological thriller in which the main character is drawn into a destructive course of action. Yvonne is a respected scientist and respectable wife and mother who embarks on a torrid affair that eventually leads to her trial for murder. The structure of the two books is similar. Both use time shifts, flashbacks and foreshadowing. Black Water begins in the present, and Apple Tree Yard starts at a late and critical point of the trial. Both have a killer revelation near the end. Both novels reveal a writer at the top of her game.
A TV mini-series based on Apple Tree Yard has just screened in the UK, gaining rave reviews, condemnations and controversy. While capturing the complexity of Black Water on film would be more difficult, if done well it would be a disturbing but riveting movie.
Leila S Chudori, Home, Lontar Foundation, 2015. Translated by John H McGlynn.
Imagine that you have left your country to attend a conference. While you are away the military takes control, bans the largest political party, and starts jailing, torturing and killing members of that party. Then you find that your passport has been revoked. You were not a member of the party, but some of your workmates were, and that’s close enough.
You can’t go home.
As time passes you realise you can never go home. This is what happened to thousands of Indonesians after September 1965.
Growing up under the Suharto regime, Leila Chudori knew nothing of these people until she travelled to Paris and met exiles running an Indonesian restaurant. Her novel, Home, was prompted by their stories.
The first part of the book follows Dimas Suryo, who works for a news agency where some journalists support the Communist Party and others the Islamic Party. Dimas sits on the fence – he is attracted to Marxist ideals but also likes talking with an Islamic friend about spiritual matters. Reluctantly he agrees to attend a leftist journalism conference in Chile in place of a colleague who finds he cannot go.
Unable to return home after the military takeover, Dimas makes his way to France and joins other exiles to establish an Indonesian restaurant. He marries a spirited French woman, Vivienne, and they have a daughter, Lintang Utara. This section of the story is infused with Dimas’s longing for his homeland.
The second part of the book switches to Lintang’s point of view. She is studying cinematography at the Sorbonne and, for her final assignment, decides to make a documentary film about the victims of the Suharto regime. She begins to explore the Indonesian part of herself. She manages to get a visa to Indonesia by concealing her relationship to her father.
In the third and longest part of the book, Lintang arrives in Indonesia in May 1998, just as it is about to, again, explode. Now the point of view is shared between her and two brave human rights activists, sons of friends of Dimas. Lintang, busy filming, experiences the student demonstrations, the demands for Reformasi, the shooting of the Trisakti University students and the resignation of Suharto. This is the most gripping part of the book because of the dangers and the speed of the action.
I felt a strong connection to the characters in Home – I cared about them, even Dimas, who could be infuriating and self-sabotaging at times. Lintang is the most sympathetic character.
I felt ‘at home’ in Chudori’s easy style and, as an Indonesian cuisine tragic, I loved the many references to food and meals. The book has some marvellous set pieces, such as a dinner party in Jakarta, in which Lintang reacts when the wealthy hosts unknowingly insult her father and his restaurant.
Indonesians who grew up after 1965 have been kept in the dark about the events of that time, but now novelists are filling in this ‘black hole’ in the country’s history. Pulang, the Indonesian edition of Home, was published in 2012, the same year as Laksmi Pamuntjak’s Amba. (My review of the English edition, The Question of Red, is here.) The two books complement each other:
- Pamuntjak tells of Suharto’s victims within Indonesia while Chudori focusses on the exiles.
- Pamuntjak’s two main characters are extraordinary, larger than life, like characters from mythology, while Chudori portrays ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
- Chudori is a highly skilled writer, but her prose does not sing as sweet as Pamuntjak’s more literary style.
- Home is the lighter novel, easier to read, while the reader needs to invest more in The Question of Red.
Pamuntjak says that people need to know what happened, and fiction is one way of getting the information across – “because it is more fun reading stories than long historical accounts.”
I found both books absorbing and rewarding and, yes, despite the heavy subject matter, great fun.
Laksmi Pamuntjak, The Question of Red, 2014, translated by the author.
Love and hate are intertwined in human life.
Intolerance exists in every human society and country, says Laksmi Pamuntjak, and emerges as force and violence. Her novel, The Question of Red, is set during the massacres and repression beginning in Indonesia in 1965, in which possibly a million people accused of being Communists were murdered. It also covers the Muslim-Christian conflict of 1999-2002 in the Maluku Islands. That violence displaced 700,000 people and claimed at least 5000 lives.
Pamuntjak is pointing to the similarities shared by the two sets of events, and by other conflicts, going back to the archetypal civil war of the Mahabharata epic. She gives her protagonists, Amba and Bhisma, names from figures in that epic, which is central to Javanese culture.
“I once believed one must be prepared to sacrifice oneself to prevent the triumph of hatred,” says Bhisma. “But hatred doesn’t go away, I realise now.”
But nor does love go away. The Question of Red weaves two strands through its pages: a story of great love, and a chronicle of the history of those violent events. Love doesn’t go away despite the fact that Bhisma and Amba are only together for two weeks, which begin at the time of the abortive coup on 30 September 1965 and end when Bhishma disappears in the chaos following a military attack on a University in Yogyakarta.
Bhisma is not a Communist Party member, but some of his friends were left-wingers, so he was arrested and sent to the prison island of Buru. There he continually writes letters to Amba, and buries them under a tree in the hope that she may eventually be able to read them.
Amba does what she needs to do to protect and nurture their child, but her life is overwhelmingly defined by the loss of Bhisma. In 2006, she receives an anonymous email telling her Bhisma had been on Buru Island, but has now died. She resolves to travel to Buru to find out the truth about her lover.
One of the pleasures of the book is the use of colour. Rather than the Us and Them of black and white, Amba follows colour and light. She rejects the man her parents choose for her: “I always knew I would fail him because I could not love tidily. … For me love could not be a duty. I only knew how to love body and soul. That meant loving a thousand colours, loving what makes you feel alive. It also meant loving imperfection.”
Bhisma is colour-blind – he cannot distinguish between red and green, and this results in a fateful turn in the story. Red is crucial to the story in several ways. It is maligned as the colour of Communism. It is reclaimed by Amba’s daughter Srikandi, an artist, when she is asked why there is so much red in her work:
I grew up with red, you see. It’s been the key colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing, I think you all know what it is, and I understood how that was supposed to have made us all fear it. But I never bought it, this lie, because, wherever we are, red is inescapable: the red of apples and tomatoes, of the blood of the chicken you cut up for food, and for us women, our own menstrual blood. .. I was never scared of red, despite that stupid propaganda film we schoolchildren had to watch each year. … At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red. Ruby, scarlet, vermilion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon. I knew the power of each of those names. For that I have one person to thank, and that person is my mother. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.
The Question of Red is a complex, multi-layered novel spanning the period from the 1950s to 2011. Time shifts threaten to derail the story, but never do so. Despite its subject matter, it is a joy to read, because of the literary quality of the prose and the depth of the characters. Pamuntjak is bilingual and translated the novel herself. She has written two books of poetry in English, one of which was included in the 2005 UK Herald Books of the Year.
To me, Buru had abstractly represented the evil of the Suharto regime, but now I have a more concrete sense of the physicality of the island and the prison camps, and understand something of what life was like for the prisoners. Pamuntjak’s dedication for the book is: For those once incarcerated in Buru, who have given me new eyes. She has passed those new eyes on to her readers, whether they are Indonesians or citizens of other countries who love Indonesia.
Maxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil, Hachette, 2014
Maxine Beneba Clarke is a master of voice.
In the first story of this collection, a young woman from a Sudanese family has taken on Australian ways. She has just bought a new pushbike: “Those wheels were gonna change my life, I knew it. Sure fucken thing.”
Wheeling it into the street, she meets an older, traditional woman: “This young woman, she walking down Barkly Street with that red bike, brand new and for herself even though she look like she Sudanese and a grown mother too.”
The story alternates between the viewpoints of the two women. The older woman is shocked, but at the same time fascinated, by the bike. (We find out why by the end of the story). The young woman resents being judged, and in her mind she hears other older women criticising “these children, born in this country [who] think they can behave like the Australian children.”
Clarke’s skill in writing different voices makes the culture clash between the two protagonists clear and believable. The clash then takes an unexpected and moving turn, which filled me with wonder that so much could be fitted into such a short story.
Two stories are set in Jamaica. One uses Jamaican patois for dialogue, and the other, Big Islan, is written entirely in patois. In the story, Nathaniel’s wife is teaching him the alphabet: “Since J fe Jamaica, everytin aroun Nathaniel seem like it nyah quite de same. Since J fe Jamaica, de ocean bin callin, nyah calmin, de young man.” At first, this might appear difficult, but I found that once I immersed myself in it, I could read and enjoy it quite quickly. I am grateful to Clarke for painlessly introducing me to this patois. The story also illustrates how literacy may create dissatisfaction.
While Clarke is Australian, her parents’ original home was Jamaica. Most of the point of view characters in the stories are from the African diaspora, people now living in London, Jamaica or Australia. However Clarke also channels two white Australian women (a hairdresser and a social worker), two white American women, one of whom is transgender, and a Tamil boy who flees Sri Lanka as a refugee and ends up in Villawood Detention Centre.
Can authors write characters of different ethnicity to themselves? Of course they can provided, as Louise Doughty says, they do due diligence. When we step outside our own skin, we should do it properly, with acres of research, whether we’re channelling a Sri Lankan or a neurosurgeon.
This issue has recently been in the news, thanks to Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in which she claimed, wrongly, that she had been accused of cultural appropriation and that she’d been told she shouldn’t write characters of different ethnicity. She was responding to a review of her latest book which, in fact, did not make those accusations. Rather, the reviewer was criticising her use of racist stereotypes. Shriver had not done due diligence.
Maxine Beneba Clarke confronted Shriver at the Festival and called her a racist. Has Clarke done due diligence in her stories? My impression is that she has put enormous efforts into getting it right, with painstaking research going into each story. Clarke herself has said, “For a while, I knew everything that happened in Jamaica in 1949.”
In an otherwise positive review. Fiona Wright notes that “telling the stories of other marginalised groups … is a risky business”, and points to what she considers minor inaccuracies in the story of the Tamil boy. Clarke has replied with a convincing rebuttal of Wright’s claim.
Interestingly, Clarke sees limits – she would not write a first-person indigenous voice. ”I feel, even though I’m a migrant of colour, I’m a beneficiary of the colonisation of Australia.” That statement indicates how scrupulous she is.
Clarke’s skills, particularly in creating voices, make these stories a pleasure to read, even when painful things happen to the characters. I’m particularly taken with the longest story in the book, Gaps in the Hickory, set in New Orleans and Mississippi. In my memory it takes up a space as big as a novel.
Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound, translated by Annie Tucker, 2015
Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring, 2015
“Be happy in the beginning, Gus, but then be ever vigilant – a child as beautiful as that … the gods will not be still.” Thus Minke’s mother advises him on his marriage to Annelies in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, This Earth of Mankind.
In Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, it is men who will not be still in the face of beauty.
Many scholars see Pramoedya Ananta Toer as Indonesia’s greatest writer, and Kurniawan is now being hailed as his successor. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger, the first and second of his four novels, demonstrate his virtuosity in very different ways.
Beauty is a Wound is a long, wild ride through Indonesian history, told through the central character of Dewi Ayu, a prostitute, and her family. They experience the traumas of history – Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, the War of Independence, the 1965-66 massacres, the Suharto regime – but, in addition, the family seems subject to its own special curse. Dewi Ayu and her daughters and granddaughters have great beauty, which exposes them to cruelty, rape and murder. We only find out at the end who is responsible for the curse and why.
The supernatural is everywhere, reflecting cultural beliefs and traditional stories, especially the wayang (shadow puppet) tales derived from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The first sentence is: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years.” Ghosts abound, and an evil spirit plays a key role.
The novel itself is high-spirited and funny, and the strength of the narrative kept me avidly involved despite the trauma, magic, chaotic time shifts and multitude of players – about 20 main characters and a host of minor ones.
Man Tiger is a much shorter, less exuberant novel, with only about 7 main characters. Like its predecessor, it has a killer opening: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” Why did Margio, “the sweetest and most polite of his peers”, “a model of restraint”, kill Anwar, and why so savagely – by biting through his jugular? Through backstory, the novel excavates the lives of Margio and his father, mother and sister until, on the final page, we understand.
There is almost nothing of the supernatural in Man Tiger, apart from the white tigress who inhabits Margio – and she can be read as a metaphor. What kept me involved in this story was the depth of characterisation and the imperative to find out what had driven Margio to his gruesome act. In Beauty is a Wound, the characters are fascinating, but they also have a mythic quality – the men have unusual powers, the women have an otherworldly beauty. The characters in Man Tiger are real, ordinary people, and they engage us deeply.
Despite their differences, these two novels share themes. One is the superficiality of those men who only see the outer beauty of a woman and not the deeper qualities that the beauty conceals. As critic Tiffany Tsao notes, the man who seduces one of the women in Man Tiger is “unable to see her true worth beyond her beauty because he mistakes her beauty for her true worth.” That reveals his own shallowness. Tsao argues that “the structure of the two novels suggests that an individual’s worth lies simply in having an interior at all.”
Another theme is the intergenerational nature of trauma and violence. As Philip Larkin puts it: “Man hands on misery to man.” In Beauty is a Wound, the cruelty of Dutch colonisers has consequences in an independent Indonesia. In Man Tiger, the abuse of Margio’s mother by his father plays a role in Margio’s own actions.
A third theme is the dynamic between love and vengeance – the huge emotions aroused by love and desire and the extreme acts that can result. Love and Vengeance is the working title of the English translation of Kurniawan’s third novel, due in 2017. It would also have been a suitable title for both Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger.
I sometimes found the portrayal of women in Beauty is a Wound disturbing, and Lisa at ANZLitLovers examines this aspect in her thoughtful review. To me, the women in Man Tiger are more sensitively and realistically portrayed.
There are many reviews of these two novels but the one by Tiffany Tsao at the Sydney Review of Books is, for me, the most penetrating. I highly recommend it, especially her analysis of the implications of translation for fiction. She finds it odd that other reviewers of these books have not engaged with the fact of translation. “Each translated phrase is the sole survivor of a mass slaughter,” she says. “As readers of translated literature, we must be haunted [by] the words or clauses that have been culled for the sake of the final translated product.” Tsao worries that a beautiful translation may prevent us from seeing the depths in the original.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was often thought worthy of the Nobel Prize, especially for his Buru Quartet and his moving short stories. The early work of Eka Kurniawan is a hopeful sign that Indonesia may one day have another contender.
Post 11 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festivals
Can we ever really know reality?
No, said CERN physicist John Ellis, “We are increasing the number of things we know, but the number of things we don’t know will always be infinity.” Ellis originated the term “Theory of Everything”.
Ellis was speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival run in Hay-on-Wye at the same time as the main Hay Festival. A perfect combination – after binging on ideas and debates, we could rejuvenate by immersing ourselves in music.
Existential novelist Janne Teller, at the same session as Ellis, described a different way of knowing. “We can listen to our characters,” she said. “They teach us.” What would it be like to be a flying horse? She described imagining her way into the horse, discovering what it was like to gallop, then feeling the moment as the wings stretched out and the horse lifted off the ground.
A Drug is defined as …
… something a politician once used and now regrets, said psychiatrist David Nutt. He was the chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but was sacked for telling the truth about drugs – for example, that horse riding is more dangerous for children than Ecstasy. He told the audience at Hay that the war on drugs has made the problem worse, and that all drugs should be decriminalised and addiction treated as a health issue rather than a legal issue. He points to the success of Portugal, and asks: Why believe in prohibition when we know it didn’t work for alcohol?Michelangelo versus Hirst
The Scream gives you something – it’s a visual attack on you, art critic Julian Spalding declared at HowTheLightGetsIn. But if you look at conceptual art, like Malevich’s Black Square, or Hirst’s shark, it gives you nothing – it’s no more than a clever idea. An unmade bed can’t be compared to the Sistine Chapel.
Spalding argued that the conceptual art of prominent British artist Gavin Turk was not art. Gavin Turk, who was on the same panel, quietly asserted that his art is art. “No, it’s not,” cried Spalding.
The “yes it is, no it’s not” went back and forth a few times, then the chairperson told Spalding that if Turk says his art is art, then it is, and Spalding was not allowed to say it wasn’t. That really set Spalding off, and squashed any chance of an enlightened exploration of the question.
“If you doubt evil …
… look into your own mind.” Philosopher Peter Dewes quoted Kant in a session on evil at HowTheLightGetsIn. But psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen said he does not use the word – it is a leftover from religion, and is scientifically unhelpful. “Why shut down enquiry?” he asked. “If someone enjoys cruelty, ask why. Has abuse in childhood caused him to become an abuser in adulthood?
Dewes was unconvinced, arguing that “evil” is a way of expressing repugnance. Another philosopher, Rebecca Roache, said that the term is helpful for things that are extremely wrong and that we don’t understand.
For Baron-Cohen, empathy is a more helpful concept. He uses it in measuring and researching prosocial and antisocial behaviour to identify the social and biological factors that cause people to have low affective empathy, and consequently to do things that the philosophers might label as “evil”.
“There is no such thing as race,” …
… said geneticist Anne Bowcock at HowTheLightGetsIn. “There are no specific genes that can be used to determine a person’s race. There are more differences within populations that between them.”
Journalist Kurt Barling agrees. “Racism begat race. Race itself is a fiction.” He says we need to liberate our imaginations from all racialized seeing and racialized solutions.
That’s all from Hay – for this year
This is my final post on the 2016 Festivals in Hay. In this post I’ve shared just a few moments from more than 700 events at HowTheLightGetsIn, and previous posts have reported on a tiny fraction of the hundreds of events at the main Hay Festival. Next year, the Hay Festival will run from 25 May to 4 June, but HowTheLightGetsIn will skip a year and return in 2018.
Participating in these twin celebrations of books, ideas, music, art and culture was a ten-day high.