Review of Bruce Grant, Indonesia (new edition)

Review of Bruce Grant, Indonesia (new edition), (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996), Arena Magazine, 1997.

It must have been an honour difficult to resist – after all, how many writers have their first book republished in a completely new edition more than thirty years after the first? Bruce Grant’s Indonesia appeared in 1964, in Menzies’ Australia of the Cold War and the White Australia Policy, a time of fearful antagonism towards Sukarno’s Indonesia built on barely disguised racism, condescension towards nationalist “irrationality”, and anxious support for the neo-colonialist posturings of the Dutch in Western New Guinea and the British in the bizarre construction of “Malaysia”.

Grant’s Indonesia, when I first read it as a teenager in 1965 or 1966, excited me and impressed me deeply. It met a need I’m sure I shared with many other Australians at the time. What was this “nearest  neighbour”? Who was this “Bung Karno”? And what was all this anxiety and threat about? A high school teacher of mine had just started one of the first Asian History subjects, and was literally opening our eyes to a new field of learning. Grant wrote well, grafted English-language academic sources onto a fine eye and a careful ear, and most importantly of all, was deeply sympathetic to Indonesia and Indonesians. The history of another but different culture – ancient, colonial and revolutionary – (the last then closer in time to Grant than his first edition is to us) was made attractive, exciting, necessary, and at the same time both intelligible and strange. The message was that difference was both comprehensible and necessary to comprehend.

How then does the new edition of Indonesia read today? That partly depends on what a reader is looking for. And, as they say, where that reader is coming from. In other words, the historical context of the attempt at interpretation across cultures, and more importantly, languages and histories. We need also to remember that this goes the  other way as well: foreigners write “introductions to Australia” for their audiences. Two good examples are the Japanese sociologist Yoshio Sugimoto’sOosutoraria ni roku sen nichi [Six Thousand Days in Australia] and the Indonesian journalist Ratih Harjono’s The White Tribe of Asia. Both combine long and sympathetic experience in Australia with wide academic knowledge, and especially in Sugimoto’s case, a dialectic between the discussion of Australia, and the assumptions of their readers about their own countries. That is a key part of the problem: how to talk about Indonesia/Japan and Australia in the same breath, acknowledging what is shared in our worlds, as well as what separates.

I’m often asked: “What should I read before I go to Indonesia/Japan?” I fear I’m usually pretty useless in reply. Sometimes I suggest reading some of the few Indonesian novels readily available in translation – mainly Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru series. But these historical novels, and for all their coded import about the present and the more recently repressed past, don’t help that much first time around. On Japan I usually do the opposite, telling people to begin by avoiding most of the profusion of translated novels – especially the phallocentric Mishima-Tanazaki-Kawabata 1950s set so favoured by foreign publishers, and the endless quickies that seem de rigeur by foreign male journalists after their three year stint in Tokyo.

My two Japanese reliables are Karel Van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Norma Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, recently supplemented by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa’s The Japan We Never Knew. It’s not just that these are all well-written critical views of Japan by outsiders who are in some way also insiders. It’s not just that they help me, whenever I reread them, make sense of the Japan where I live and work. Most importantly, they actually seem to write about a Japan and Japanese people that I know and work with and love. I can see them, feel them in all their contradictoriness, their hopes and frustrations, their sense of  living in the same world as me. And these are books that Japanese people, friends, students, want to talk about and argue about.

On Indonesia, I’m more stuck. I usually either end up telling people to read nothing, just go, listen, watch, talk with people who’ll talk with you, and then follow your nose in a bookshop. Or I give them too much – the Amnesty reports, the church reports from Dili, the serious histories and anthropologies, Goenawan Mohammed’s Tempo pieces, something –  anything – about Indonesian Islam, Dick Robison on the triumphal rise of capital in Indonesia, Robert Cribb on the Indonesian holocaust, Pramoedya, and probably best of all, back issues of Inside Indonesia.

There is a need for a single starting point, and until recently there’s been nothing to fit the bill. Bruce Grant’s Indonesia aims to meet that need, as it did so well thirty years ago. But if the born-again Indonesia is compared to other journalists’ accounts – such as Hamish McDonald’s Suharto’s Indonesia from the early eighties or Adam Schwarz’s recent A Nation In Waiting, it shows its age. Grant has updated, and integrated new material smoothly enough. But there are no Indonesian language sources, and only a smattering of the huge and rich amount of academic writing in the past thirty years on Indonesia. A chapter of
interviews, the 1960s laid nicely beside the 1990s, finally doesn’t provide a sense of depth, of long experience chasing stories in Jakarta and elsewhere.

There are improvements: there are now two and a half pages on the holocaust of 1965-166, compared with four lines in the 1967 edition. But there is precious little on East Timor: twenty years of constant war and almost genocidal killing becomes “unrest”. The ongoing counter-insurgency war in Aceh does not rate more than a line. West Papua does no better. More to the point, Grant does not really come to terms with the totality of repression and violence in Indonesia, and the close connection between endemic militarisation and the profound economic transformation of the country. The bones of the capitalist and rentier- militarist political economy are mapped, but without Schwarz’s depth and engagement.

There will always be a need for a “first book on Indonesia”, but we need to move away from the idea, which was quite plausible thirty years ago, that the thing that has to be explained is somewhere out there, separate from us. The social forces that are shaping the possibilities for Indonesia’s future are exactly the same as for Australia – the tensions of globalising capital, state-forms, culture and technology on local experiences of threatened economic and environmental well-being, security and democracy. Australia is no haven from which to look at a troubled world of incomprehensible foreigners needing interpretation. We need to speak of Indonesia and Australia at the same time, in the same breath.

I would give Indonesia to someone going to Indonesia for the first time,along with a subscription to Inside Indonesia, but it doesn’t fulfil our real needs at this time. And I’m not sure that some honours aren’t better resisted.