Review: Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice
At last year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Pat Walsh, one of the founders of Inside Indonesia, launched his latest book of short stories and poems: Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice. Stormy is Pat’s second publication. It follows 2011’s weightier and more serious At the Scene of the Crime: Essays, Reflections and Poetry on East Timor, 1999-2010. In 2012, Pat gained an Order of Australia for contributions to international human rights and reconciliation. In the same year, he received a doctor of letters from the University of South Queensland, which added to his 2009 Ordem de Timor-Leste. He’s also overseen the sometimes painful and lonely process of publishing the English language version of Chega! (‘Enough’ in Portuguese), the final report of Timor-Leste’s Commission for Truth, Reception and Reconciliation (CAVR).
Stormy’s subtitle, Twelve Months in Jakarta, is a guide to the book’s contents. Pat wrote Stormy whilst living and working in Jakarta proofreading Chega! for publication − a gargantuan task (the report is a five-volume set) taking the best part of two wet seasons. PT Gramedia, the Jakarta-based publishing house, published both Chega! and Stormy.
The book is a series of vignettes written as Pat distracted himself from reading through what must have seemed an unending account of human rights violations − thoroughly documented in Chega! − committed in the formerly Indonesian-occupied East Timor. The most moving of Stormy’s chapters is ‘Two Sharp Eyes’: the title refers to the clandestine name of Timor’s current president, the former resistance fighter, Taur Matan Ruak. ‘Two Sharp Eyes’ gives a very personal insight into proofreading 3,200 pages of distressing and sometimes graphic detail, and how Pat kept sane during the process.
The shades and patterns of life in Indonesian’s largest and sprawling metropolis are deftly painted in Pat’s writing, which crosses between poignant and quirky, provoking tears or laughter. His particular view on the people he met and places he visited in Jakarta prompted a memory of a bit-part character in The Young Ones, the 1980s BBC comedy series with the late, great Rik Mayall. The character turns to his colleague and says, ‘I look at life like this’, tilting his head sideways. Many of Stormy’s chapters are sideways perspectives, turning the mundane or the unnoticeable into points of reflection or moments of wonder. Compare a poem about chicken soup eaten after the author’s arrival from Melbourne to his naming a two-centimetre black bull ant ‘Bandung’, with an accompanying commentary on the insect’s purpose in life.
It’s a book to pick up in a spare moment (or to consume whole), as Pat describes the array of people he encountered, leaving the reader with the feeling of having briefly known them: the efficient and conscientious Dewi, a domestic worker, fulfilling all her household duties even as she leaves for her mother’s funeral; Pak (Mr) Subut, the taxi driver, relentlessly fishing for more unwary customers, ignorant of the exorbitant nature of his fares. Pat sees the humanity in the vast city, reflecting his lifelong interest in people and the stories they carry.
Over the 12 months Pat is inducted into the art of a cream bath (an Indonesian luxury head massage with avocado cream), endures the trials of renewing his Indonesian visa, and visits the port area of old Jakarta, a grand, decaying remnant of Dutch-run Batavia. He comments on the out-of-the-way places he finds to eat lunch and is shown around Jakarta’s central mosque. Stormy’s in-the-moment portraits of Jakarta life, aside from allowing the author a much needed and timely creative outlet, is excellent reading for a first-time visitor to the city, or a refresher for a Jakarta old-hand. The author’s extensive knowledge of Indonesia allows even an armchair traveller to negotiate a path through Australia’s largest neighbour’s enormous capital.
Pat Walsh, Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice: Twelve Months in Jakarta, Jakarta, Gramedia, 2015.
More information about Pat Walsh can be found at home.patwalsh.net.
Emma Coupland is a freelance editor and writer based in Timor-Leste. She worked alongside Pat Walsh at Timor-Leste's Commission for Truth, Reception and Reconciliation (CAVR) for two years.