Timothy Lindsey, The Romance of K'tut Tantri and Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1997, 362pp, Rrp AU$65. Reviewed by RON WITTON
What a wonderful book! For many of us who began our studies of Indonesia in the early sixties, K'tut Tantri's exciting autobiographyRevolt in Paradise (London: Heinemann, 1960) was a magical door that allowed us to experience the Indonesian revolution which, a little more than a decade before, had transformed the lives of all Indonesians, and which was still a living memory for our Indonesian lecturers. The thrilling events she described so vividly in her book stood in such stark contrast to dull, suburban Australia.
The details of K'tut Tantri's life were well-known to our generation, for we all read her book. We knew she was born on the Isle of Man and that she had gone to the US West Coast in the thirties. We knew that on Hollywood Boulevard, one rainy afternoon in 1932, she had seen a film, Bali, the last paradise, which so inspired her that she immediately set sail alone for Bali with her paint brushes and easel to live the life of an artist there.
We knew that once in Bali she was adopted by a Balinese raja and his family. Soon after, she had started one of the first hotels in Bali on the then 'undiscovered' beach of Kuta. There she mixed with such famous fellow artists as Walter Spies and Adrien le Mayeur. Before long, her close relationship with the local Balinese had upset 'proper' Dutch colonial society.
Then, when the Japanese invaded, she chose not to evacuate with the Dutch and other Westerners but to stay with 'her' people. We had read in her book how she subsequently endured privation, torture and hardship during the Japanese occupation. After the Japanese surrender, she joined the Indonesian revolution to fight for independence.
She was with Bung Tomo during the heroic resistance of the people of Surabaya against the returning Dutch colonialists and their British allies. This role gained her international notoriety as 'Surabaya Sue', who broadcast for the fledgling republic from clandestine radio stations.
She thus became a confidante of many of Indonesia's revolutionary leaders including President Sukarno. Her book described in detail how she subsequently travelled to Australia where she worked with the trade union movement and Indonesian sympathisers in Australia in order that the young republic might gain international recognition. In 1949 she managed to slip back into Indonesia to witness the Dutch hand-over of sovereignty to her adopted country. Then, after independence, she worked for the young republic as a Department of Information civil servant. Hers was an exhilarating and inspiring story, larger than life and wonderfully told. And what a way to learn history!
But... was it history? This is the question Tim Lindsey, barrister, historian and Indonesianist, set himself to answer in this engrossing book, in essence his dissertation for a well-deserved doctorate in history.
In absorbing detail, Tim Lindsey tells his own story, of how he also had read and been inspired by Revolt in paradise, but that he began to notice an intriguing quagmire of inconsistencies in K'tut Tantri's story. No doubt much of the story of her life was true. After all, the splendid photos he has included in his book prove she was there and that she mixed with the historical figures about whom she wrote so intimately. But why could her story not stand up to detailed historical scrutiny?
Slowly, we are drawn into Lindsey's explanations of why there are these blurred boundaries between her autobiography and the historical events she experienced. With the meticulous tenacity of a driven detective, Lindsey chases trails of evidence all over the globe in order to make sense of the contradictions he discovers.
As an exercise in historiographic and evidential analysis, it is astounding. He examines evidence from the Isle of Man, from the US, Indonesia, Australia, and, indeed, from anywhere in the world where K'tut Tantri has travelled throughout her long and eventful life.
So many names
Thus Lindsey unravels the 'tangled web' (p134) of her life, addressing the many mysteries that surrounded it, beginning with the basic question, what was her name? She had so many: Miss Walker; Miss Tenchery; Mrs Muriel Pearson; Mrs Manx; Miss Daventry; Surabaya Sue; K'tut Tantri; Miss Oestermann; Sally van de As... (p8f; p146f; p247f; p250f; p261n).
What did she do in Bali, and did she really run a world famous hotel or was it merely a glorified bungalow? (p48f). What role did she play during the Japanese revolution? Was she a collaborator? If so, doesn't that make Sukarno and many other Indonesian leaders collaborators as well? (p134f).
And if she was a 'collaborator', what is one to make of her incarceration by the Japanese? Concrete evidence of her incarceration exists in the form of the crude playing cards she made in prison. These cards are described in great detail in her book. In the course of his research, Lindsey finally unearthed the actual cards among her possessions. They can be seen in one of the many photos in Lindsey's book. What role did she play in the revolution, and in Australia? Was Australia's intelligence service right in their clandestine assessment of her (p201f)?
In teasing out fact from fantasy, Lindsey weaves a glorious tale in which an astounding cast of characters are involved. There are the famous Westerners who visited pre-war Bali and with whom she mixed, including Charlie Chaplin, Cole Porter, Barbara Hutton, Noel Coward, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. There are the famous Indonesians with whom she became intimate during the revolution and after, including Sukarno, Syahrir, Bung Tomo, Syarifuddin, Hatta, Ruslan Abdulgani, Ali Alatas and Sabam Siagian. There are prominent Australians such as Sister Bulwinkel of Bangka, Molly Bondan, Herb Feith and Sir Richard Kirby.
On the world scene, Lindsey, in making sense of her life, brings on such disparate figures as Matahari and King Zog. The cast goes on and on as Lindsey pursues K'tut Tantri's exciting but internally contradictory life story.
K'tut Tantri's book was translated into over a dozen languages. It would have made a blockbuster movie. Indeed, the fact that Hollywood was interested is demonstrated by the photo in Lindsey's book of the Hollywood movie mogul Charles Wick visiting President Sukarno in 1963 at the Jakarta presidential palace, with K'tut Tantri in attendance.
Lindsey's analysis of why such a film was never made is particularly fascinating. One has only to read the lurid descriptions found on the covers of the paperback versions of Revolt in paradise to see why Hollywood was interested.
While I still treasure the dour hardcover 1960 first edition that so captured my undergraduate imagination, I also own a 1963 Consul paperback edition of the book. On its cover is a rather anxious but beautiful, blonde young woman fleeing a scene of guerilla warfare among burning Balinese temples, accompanied by the words:
'The story of one woman's agony as she faces the onslaught of the Japanese war machine, tearing ruthlessly through the lush paradise that had been exotic Bali. A staggering human document which is one of the greatest stories of our time.'
How the 'film of the book' was both nurtured and stymied by K'tut Tantri herself over four decades is among the most complex paradoxes that Tim Lindsey explores.
The last part of his book takes us to the present. We finally catch up with K'tut Tantri herself, living in Sydney. The larger than life figure whom we meet through Lindsey has become a lonely but defiant character. Lindsey has the opportunity to glimpse the outrageous but charming personality he had been pursuing for so many years at second hand. She is in her late nineties, frail and 'increasingly remote and detached from events around her in a nursing home' (p317).
Lindsey tells how he became a close and loving friend, and how he then had to face the dilemma of when he might publish his study that, by its very scholarship, lays bare the secrets of this great romantic's soul. In a tender and moving conclusion to the book, Tim Lindsey discusses his 'solution to the dilemma of the biographer with a living subject'. 'After much anxious worry' , he reached his compromise, which was 'not to publish my research while I believed to do so would cause her significant harm' (p316). Lindsey now believes the time has come for us to become privy to the secrets he discovered. The book stands as a magnificent testament to K'tut Tantri's romantic life and to Tim Lindsey's compassionate scholarship.
K'tut died in her sleep on 27 July 1997. Her coffin at the non-religious memorial service on 9 August was draped with the Indonesian flag and Balinese yellow and white cloth. The Indonesian deputy ambassador said she had been a true hero of the revolution. Among the small group attending were former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Bill Morrison and wife, film-makers, scriptwriters, a historian, and anthropologists. Tim Lindsey will take her ashes to Bali for scattering, as she requested. Her modest estate will be distributed to poor Balinese children.
Dr Ron Witton is an Indonesian interpreter and translator, and a sessional lecturer in Indonesian.