The year is 1965. The fiercely nationalistic, Western-hating government of the god-king Sukarno has delivered Indonesia to the brink of chaos.
Reporting on all the political turmoil of the times is a group of foreign correspondents who gather each day for Happy Hour in the Wayang Bar in Jakarta's venerable old Hotel Indonesia to discuss the day's events or Sukarno's latest bombastic propaganda speech.
Written by an Australian author and journalist, from the very beginning controversy has swirled around this 1978 best-selling novel which has been unofficially banned in Indonesia for over twenty years.
In 1982, Koch co-wrote the screenplay for the movie by the same name, directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. The movie became a huge critical and commercial success and is still a popular modern classic.
A well-conceived and beautifully written book, using down-to-earth and unpretentious language that brings slum denizens, foreign service types and members of the international press corps of 1960s Jakarta to life. Readers feel as though they are eavesdropping on this tightly knit circle of friends. The book is all the more frightening if you have more than just a working knowledge of modern Indonesian political history. One Australian reader commented that each time she turned a page, she vicariously felt that she could be thrown into a Javanese prison as a suspected communist, as indeed happened to many tens of thousands of Indonesians.
Even if you find fault with the author's analysis and only give him credit for describing what he knows and feels, the book excels as a convincing and compassionate eye witness account of shattering historical events.
The main characters are the Western journalist Guy Hamiltan, a talented, ambitious and solitary soul desperate to make a name for himself; Jill Bryant, a secretary in the British Embassy, suspicious, vulnerable and still naive after a succession of mismatched romantic involvements.
Then there is Wally O'Sullivan, known as "The Great Wally," the group's unofficial leader and respected news veteran. He is an enormously fat closet homosexual and harbors his own secret sorrows despite the numerous parties he hosts.
But it is the unforgettable Billy Kwan, Hamilton's half Chinese-Australian dwarf cameraman who endures as the most indelible and spellbinding character. Billy's disillusionment with his charismatic hero Sukarno and his eccentric political philosophies loom large in comparison to his stunted body size.
Only someone who knows Indonesia intimately would be ever dare to compare the abysmally poor Indonesian people to a cast of wayang puppets and the dictator Sukarno to the Grand Dalang (puppeteer). This inspired analogy adds drama and richness to the story.
It's even tempting to imagine the dwarf Billy Kwan embodying the eternal character of Semar, the deformed and beloved servant of Javanese wayang. The preeminent literary critic Anthony Burgess called Kwan "...one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction."
In some ways this complex and compelling drama of loyalty and betrayal is a travelogue; in other ways it's a romance set against an exotic and menacing backdrop; finally it resembles a fast-paced spy thriller packed with danger and intrigue.
The book is also about friendship, idealism, mysticism, obsession and ultimately betrayal. The environment and the culture the book portrays may be totally alien to many readers unfamiliar with Indonesia, so this novel can also serve as a primer to the country's political culture.
But no matter what genre you feel the novel belongs in, Koch's individualistic and evocative writing is able to transport you back to one of the most cataclysmic events of modern Indonesian history, a bloodletting which the country is still yet to reconcile itself with.
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