The Spice Garden by Michael Vatikiotis

In Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands – the remote Moluccan archipelago – Muslims and Christians have lived peacefully together for centuries. European Catholic and Protestant missionaries began proselytizing in the region over 100 years ago. Saint Francis Xavier established a mission on Ambon as early as 1547 and by the 17th century there were as many as 50,000 Catholics in Central Maluku.

Though Muslims outnumber Christians in the north, Christians predominate in the south. In Central Maluku Christians and Muslims were equally divided and up until the end of the 20th century lived in peace and harmony. They respected each other’s traditions to the extent that often a mosque and a church were found in the same kampung.

The Christian community was a product of European contact, while Maluku’s Islamic community came into being as a result of early trading with southern Sulawesi and Java. The church and mosque congregations exert a powerful social and moral force in village life and today these modern religions have for the most part replaced indigenous animism – though not completely, as the novel’s denouement illustrates.

But for all their isolation and tranquility, in recent times these islanders were threatened by a gathering storm. As other parts of Indonesia were wracked by violent change, this long-maintained religious harmony began to unravel. Christians and Muslims descended into mass hysteria, falling upon one another in sadistic bouts of killing and forced conversions.

In Michael Vatikiotis’s debut novel, The Spice Garden, the burden of all this wild mayhem and cruelty falls upon a young priest, Father Xavier Lunas and a wealthy Muslim hotelier, Ghani. It is up to these two gallant men to save their communities from a cycle of barbaric violence that threatens the pillars of their respective faiths and customs.

The restaurant in Ghani’s Hotel Merdeka serves as an important setting in the book, where the two men have a beer together while discussing the pressing issues facing the island’s religious communities. It is here where we meet the supporting characters whose roles in the novel are crucial. The tensions quicken after a boatload of refugees one day lands on the island, bringing bloody tales of sectarian atrocities committed on other faraway islands of the Moluccas.

This engrossing, well-constructed story, inspired by true-life accounts of the religious violence that erupted in Maluku starting in 1999, takes place on a “fictional” spice island called Nori in a far-flung corner of the archipelago. It is obvious that this imaginary tropical island is none other than Banda in Central Maluku separated from the province’s other islands by a vast expanse of ocean.

The author, who worked for 20 years as a writer and former editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review, even invents a new spice that’s “hairy and the size of a plum that stubbornly refuses to grow anywhere else.” This is but a thinly disguised description of Banda’s indigenous nutmeg nut.

Employing an array of believable characters – religious fanatics, innocent victims, Chinese and Arab shopkeepers, sundry policemen and government bureaucrats, star-crossed lovers – the book explores the motives and effects of Islamic militancy as it clashes with a strong Christian community in a new era of religious conflict that plagues the world today.

The Spice Garden was the first serious in-depth novel about the horrific sectarian violence that shook a number of regions of Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto regime. Making apt use of his deep knowledge of the country’s society and politics, the author vividly and skillfully brings his characters to life in such a way that it greatly adds to the understanding of the social forces behind the traumatic events that have caused so much pain and tragedy.

The Spice Garden by Michael Vatikiotis, Equinox Publishing 2002, ISBN 979-97964-2-3, softcover, 256 pages, 14 X 21.5 X 2 cm. Available for Rp140,000 at Bali’s best bookstores or directly from the Equinox Publishing (

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