Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 3:35 AM, Nov 18, 2020

Book review: Black Water

Ron Witton

This is not a new release book. I happened upon a used copy of it in a local book exchange. Having had a life-long interest in Indonesia, I was immediately attracted to the blurb on the cover that states that the book moves ‘...between Europe in the Cold War, California and the Civil Rights struggle, and Indonesia during the massacres of 1965 and the decades of military dictatorship that follow...’.

Published in 2016, the book jacket also told me that the author, Louise Doughty, was a British novelist, and this was her first featuring Indonesia. I turned to the acknowledgements section in the back of the book and learnt that the idea for the novel had sprung from her attendance in 2012 at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and that in writing this book, she had had assistance from a number of Indonesians whom she names and also from John McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation. 

I was attracted by its promise of Indonesian content and by the fact that it was described as a ‘masterful novel about the secrets of one man’s past that explores some of the darkest events of recent world history’. 

I began reading it wondering if it would speak to me and my long association with Indonesia. To say I was not disappointed is to put it mildly. I found much in it that reminded me of my past experiences. For example, her description of the main character’s arrival by boat at Tanjung Priok in the sixties took me back to when I sailed from Australia and arrived in December 1962 at Tanjung Priok on a Lloyd Triestino ship after completing my first year of undergraduate studies in Indonesian and Malayan Studies at Sydney University. 

Jakarta street scene, September 1960 / WikiMedia Commons

Her depiction of Jakarta in the days of Sukarno is uncannily accurate in many small details. Apart from her ability to recreate in my mind the layout of the city in those days, I marvelled at her mention of, for example, there being Borgward vehicles in Indonesia in those days. Borgward was a little-known German car manufacturer that ceased production in 1961 but managed to create a presence in Jakarta’s then sparse traffic.

Having also been in Indonesia in early 1965 and again in 1967, there was much that I could visualise from her writings of the events of the latter half of the sixties with the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto. Her writing is scattered with allusions such as mentioning the burnt-out British Embassy opposite the old Hotel Indonesia, the killing of the Trisakti students and the torching of Chinese shops in Glodok. Her citing of organisations such as Gerwani and of Sukarno-era terms such as Nekolim, propelled me back to that previous era. 

I marvelled how this English writer could so cleverly weave in Indonesian words and phrases, often without any translation, so as to make social interactions and the period of which she was writing, come alive. No doubt non-Indonesianist readers might eventually work out the meaning of bule, klepon and bak mandi, but there is something natural about the way such terms are unselfconsciously used in the novel. However, one suspects that Indonesianists might gain an extra frisson from certain allusions in the novel, such as, for example, reference to the 12th Century Jayabaya prophesies, which I recall studying in considerable detail in my Sydney University Old Javanese classes.

However, there were terms in the novel that were completely new to me, despite having a life-long association with Indonesia. For example, she refers, without explanation, to 'Nefis' which Wikipedia informs me was the abbreviation of the World War II Netherlands Indies Forces Intelligence Service.

The book centres to a large extent on intelligence services and a section of the plot deals with the role of the CIA in the period subsequent to Sukarno’s overthrow when it provided lists of names of Communists and leftist individuals to the Indonesian military and its killer squads. This reminded me of being told by a fellow student of my time at Sydney University, Angus McIntyre (who subsequently became an eminent Australian academic), that he had become privy to the role of the Australian embassy in also providing such lists.

No doubt readers with a knowledge of the other places the novel covers will also marvel at her evocation of time and place. For example, the situation of African Americans in the US in the racist fifties is explored in considerable and moving detail. However, given the lack of explanations by the author, I was reliant on Wikipedia to explain the cultural importance of Tatum Pole Boogie, the legal significance Perez v. Sharp, and the manner in which racism pervaded the US National Park system.

Reviews such as that by Leyla Sanai of The Guardian have described the novel as a ‘taut psychological thriller... a masterful story about political and personal betrayal’, and indeed it is. But for anyone interested in Indonesia, it is so much more.

Louise Doughty, Black Water, Faber & Faber, London: 2016.

Ron Witton (rwitton44@gmail.com) gained his BA and MA in Indonesian and Malayan Studies from the University of Sydney and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. He has worked as an academic in Australia and Indonesia and now practises as an Indonesia and Malay translator and interpreter.

Inside Indonesia 142: Oct-Dec 2020

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