Snow Over Surabaya by Nigel Barley

How a bored and awkward Scottish schoolgirl with a yearning for distant lands grew up to become a revolutionary hero in a remote archipelagic nation, eventually writing one of the most celebrated war novels of the 20th century, is the unlikeliest of stories, but one that Muriel Stewart Walker actually lived. Always searching for an escape, her moment of epiphany occurred while working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Strolling one day down Hollywood Boulevard in 1932, she paused before a movie poster, Bali: The Last Paradise. This life-changing film was to inspire her to take the first steamer to the Far East, setting her life off on a course of high adventure.

Born in Glasgow in 1898, Walker’s life is subject to wildly conflicting accounts. She wandered from continent to continent – Europe, America, Asia – under a multitude of different names, though she became best known as ‘K’tut Tantri’ or ‘Surabaya Sue.’ She frequently changed professions and identities, ultimately completely reinventing herself in various tongues and accents that finally bore little resemblance to the original. After WW II, she joined the struggle for Indonesian independence and broadcast the rebel’s first revolutionary radio message to the world. She smuggled arms to help finance the new republic. She witnessed the Battle of Surabaya when the British attacked the civilian population, a bloody event that some have called a war crime. She went on to become an intimate of the new leaders of the republic, living to see Indonesia take its place amongst the free nations of the world.

Walker gathered her biographical tales together in Revolt in Paradise, a stirring account of her past, that inspired generations since it was first published in 1962. There have always been doubts about her version of events that many have dismissed outright as a blatant mixture of outrageous fantasy and dishonest omissions. Snow over Surabaya happily embraces those doubts and brings a new, spirited account of her adventures during those tempestuous times. Author Dr. Nigel Barley brings an anthropologist’s eye and a deep cultural knowledge of the region to breathe life into his characters and this woman’s personality, ideology and motivations. We get eye-opening insights of bygone eras, whether they be the Hollywood scene of the 1930s, pre-war Bali during Dutch colonial times and the reality of living under brutal Japanese occupation when imperial armed forces spread like a giant bloodstain over the Indies in 1942.

In his biography of K’tut Tantri, Barley gives himself over to his subject unrestrainedly. The book is a sort of reinterpreted, updated and more philosophical alternative to Walker’s novel. It is about the life that he believes K’tut Tantri wanted to lead or at least the life that he wishes she had led. Any romantically inclined writer, particularly those with such a fertile imagination as Barley, would be irresistibly drawn to this complex and intriguing character.

Though hailing from the West, Walker embodies everything that the mysterious East has to offer. Barley’s take frees K’tut Tantri from her fantasies and grounds her more in the actual experiences that she lived through. In spite of the author’s claim that his contemporized interpretation of Walker’s life is largely a work of fantasy, it deals with real events that are firmly rooted in reality or at least have a ring of truth about them. Though none of the book’s historical accounts are pure invention, but they unfold in a way that the writer would have liked. Links have also been deliberately made and liberties taken that historians would consider outrageous. Yet with all the contrived circumstances and the name-dropping of celebrities and historical figures, one can’t help but sense how much Barley keenly enjoys writing. Being familiar with Indonesian history, I knew precisely what was to come, but yet I found myself looking forward to the way Barley was about to describe tumultuous events of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. I felt that I was standing alongside K’tut Tantri while she contended with officious Dutch bureaucrats, talked her way past suspicious Japanese guards and bantered with the great artists and writers of the day.

Barley writes with grace, wit and enviable ease while employing a unique turn of phrase and a rich and varied vocabulary sprinkled with eccentric idioms, unusual metaphors and Englishisms like knickers, backsides, trousers, etc. A self-amused lover of words, there are wonderful tactile descriptions of the rapture of first love, vivid stomach-churning torture techniques in a secret police prison and the taut drama of smuggling arms from Bali to Java in an old Buick under a cargo of books. Snow Over Surabaya is an informative, entertaining work about Indonesia’s long struggle for freedom and also an idealized and reimagined yet believable portrait of an extraordinary woman.

Although his subject has been rediscovered several times by both the skeptical and the credulous, her role in the Indonesian independence struggle has been largely forgotten. ‘Surabaya Sue’ is little known in the West as well as in Indonesia. The reason for this neglect lies not so much in the tenuous relationship between Walker’s life and the truth but because her book falls between the genres of war story, biography, romance and travel. In many ways, her book belongs to the syrupy romance genre that developed after the Second World War, firmly rooted in conventional, Western notions of the Orient as an exotic paradise. Today, it is perhaps closest to what is now termed chick lit in which the protagonist sees her whole life as one long romantic journey. Walker’s purpose in life was to construct, defend and live her rich fantasies. At the end, she even came to believe many of the myths herself.

Snow Over Surabaya by Nigel Barley, Monsoon Books 2017, ISBN 978-1912049004, paperback, 224 pages, dimensions 13 cm x 20 cm.


Review by Bill Dalton

For any publishers interested in having one of their books   considered for review in Toko Buku,

please contact:

Copyright © 2019

You can read all past articles of Toko Buku at