May 26, 2018 Last Updated 11:04 AM, May 9, 2018

Bali's other face

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Bali behind the seen: recent fiction from Bali, selected and translated by Vern Cook, 1996, x, 159pp, available from selected bookshops or from the publisher, Darma Printing, 332 Wilson St., Darlington, 2008 NSW (tel. 02-9690 1852), for AU$15.

Reviewed by RON WITTON

It is ironic that Indonesianists are typically scornful of tourists who visit Bali in blissful ignorance of the 'real' Bali. However, as Geoffrey Robinson in his stunning study of Bali shows in great detail, most academic scholarship on Bali has in fact been shallow and misleading. Only recently has Adrian Vickers' excellent study, 'Bali: a paradise created' (Penguin, 1989), shown how a cultural myth of a harmonious, apolitical and peaceable artistic 'paradise' was constructed by these Dutch and foreign scholars.

Robinson's study has gone well beyond Vickers' largely cultural analysis to examine the social and economic roots of the deep divisions that have, since colonial times, penetrated and defined Balinese society. The book succeeds in its aim to demystify Bali and to restore to their rightful place the conflict and violence that have characterised the island's politics (p.18).

Robinson shows how the Dutch, following their colonial conquests and fearful of emerging 'communism' and 'nationalism' in the 1920s, embarked on a policy of restoring - and in some cases creating - 'traditional' cultural, religious and legal practices. They restored Bali's old and often despotic ruling families as the guarantors of a harmonious 'tradition'. The effects of the twin Dutch objectives of maintaining political order and maximising tax revenues were Balinese pauperisation, landlessness, economic disparity, conflict and violence.

If the Dutch patronised traditional elites, the Japanese during World War II patronised the lower castes and the youth. This contrast helps us comprehend how the independence struggle affected Balinese society, and how it led to social divisions that persisted throughout the period of parliamentary democracy and into the 'Sukarnoist' period.

However, it is his study of the horrific massacres of 1965 that is really breathtaking in its detail and analysis. A new Bali is revealed, not the harmonious and peaceful Bali of tourist posters, but a society riven by class, caste and ideological conflict, overriding any sense of Balinese solidarity.

The second book under review presents the fiction of eleven Balinese. Their short stories show what effect tourism, religious ceremonies, cremations, caste, marriage, land acquisition for hotels, and pressures for social conformity, have had on ordinary people. A timely complement to Robinson's study, it helps to penetrate the myths and superficiality that have marked our 'understanding' of Bali. The Language Acquisition Research Centre of the University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, have published the book in Indonesian together with teaching notes (details available by phoning LARC on 02-9772 9460).

Dr Ron Witton is an academic, Indonesian interpreter and translator who lives in Austinmer, New South Wales.


Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997


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