Book review, Literary criticism

Black Water by Louise Doughty

louise-doughty-pic

British writer, Louise Doughty.

In Indonesia in 1965, fifty-one years ago, a coup against President Sukarno was crushed by the military leadership of Suharto and the blame fell on the Communist Party (PKI) which led to mass killings of suspected Communist members, sympathizers, and their families. Nowhere was the massacre more severe than in Bali: in the weeks surrounding Christmas 1965 it has been estimated that 80,000 people were killed; around 5% of the island’s population. Village people could not opt out: if you did not name someone as a Communist, you, yourself were suspected of being one. Even if you were merely fighting for land reform or education for women and girls, these communist-tainted ideologies were enough to condemn you. Villagers who huddled with their terrified, but relieved, families after naming a neighbour, then had to listen to screams as those neighbours were dragged from their beds and hacked to death with machetes; no-one could expect the relatively swift and painless bullet from a gun: too expensive. Villages only had long-handled sickle-like knives they used for cutting grass for their pigs; those and other methods that were easy at hand.

“We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished”.

— Adi Zulkadry, death squad leader quoted in the Oscar nominated documentay The Act of Killing

Old scores, family feuds, village rivalries that had been simmering for decades, generations, suddenly had an outlet for settlement. Any Bali villager today over the age of 60 must have memories of that time; and their families, being spared, must have had a hand in it. So the logic goes.

There have been various books, (including Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously), and films and documentaries (40 Years of silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, 2009, The Act of Killing, 2012) that were based on this ‘tragedy’.

“1965 is an event that has and continues to influence many Indonesians and as such, we chose to dedicate a proportion of the program to enriching our understanding about this, through themes of reconciliation and remembrance. We hoped that these panel sessions would enable conversations to take place that continue Indonesia on its journey of healing, particularly for those whose lives were so severely affected.” Janet deNeefe, Founder and Director, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The Ubud Festival has presented many written and visual works based on the killings at various festivals but it was the 2015 festival that the police stepped in and forced the organisers to cancel various sessions; the 50th anniversary too remindful, too dangerous, too raw to allow talk and debate about such a controversial event – “the massacre of up to 500,000 or more alleged Communists between 1965 and 1968 by the Suharto regime.”
“Unfortunately, whilst we pride ourselves in bringing topical issues to the forefront of national and international dialogue, we had to consider the festival’s program in its entirety and the many other important issues which will be explored through it, including human rights, activism and censorship,’ DeNeefe said.

Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, last year refused to apologise to the victims of 1965, even though he had made an election promise to confront Indonesia’s past cases of human rights violations. The event is not taught in schools; it is being erased from the country’s history.

It was this event of 1965 that inspired British writer Louise Doughty, a regular visitor to the Ubud Festival to write Black Water, her ninth novel, which was published by Faber & Faber earlier this year.

Ironically many writers choose fiction to highlight real events.

“Novels arise from the shortcomings of history”.  So said Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, born 2 May 1772 and known by his pen name, Novalis. The facts of history are usually dry and un-engaging, so to engage readers writers use the novelist’s art of researching the facts by talking to the participants, then imagining the detail; the personal detail that can grab a reader’s attention, put them in the character’s shoes and inspire them to dig further, light their own imagination and spur them on to seek more answers: the truth can inspire fiction in the writer and then that fiction can inspire truth in the reader.

Black Water tells the personal fictive story of a mixed race (Dutch, Malay) man, an intelligence operative, called, by his English name, John Harper. The book is divided into three parts: the first set in 1998 when Harper is on ‘forced leave’ in Bali (why?) and embarks on a love-affair; part 2 is his early mixed race life in the Dutch East Indies, Holland, the US, and then Indonesia from 1942 to 1965, the year of ‘the tragedy’ which marked the making of Suharto; and finally, back to 1998 where the personal and the historical co-mingle; where we discover what really happened to John Harper.

Doughty is often described as a thriller-writer but in supplying the personal facts to colour the historical truth Doughty doesn’t describe the horrific violence but ‘imagines’ what could happen: dense prose of the atrocities that could befall you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time; like most village victims. This and rather flippant drops of dryness, along with little glimpses into the future undermine any suspense as if such novelistic techniques were too commercial; or maybe it’s her attempt to dislodge the ‘thriller’ epithet. Consequently, the reader is distanced from the actual threat to Harper’s life rendering his fear as mere paranoia until well towards the end where the narrative takes on a page-turning haste that would’ve served the text better had it arrived earlier. It’s really a small point but important from a reader’s point of view. However, Doughty’s side-stepping of horrific descriptions of torture and murder may just be her novelistic skill at work: preparing us, blind-siding us, for the tense and terrifying climax. But Doughty at her best is when she is charting the geography of the heart especially of lonely, damaged people as they fumble for some support, trust, and commitment even if talk of such things are rarely on their lips.

Doughty, a British writer of Romany descent was born in 1963. She spent most of her twenties in casual teaching and temporary secretarial jobs, the latter supplying material for her first novel Crazy Paving (1995). She has been nominated and won many awards as well as being a judge for some of the prizes she has, in the past, won.

Black Water is the first book I have read that is set in the place where I live. I was interested in Doughty’s book to give colour, weight, and detail to the events of 1965 that have only filtered through to me via the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Literature in Indonesia is not an important pastime, especially in Bali where free time is usually taken up with duties to the banjar (village council) and the temple. But this is changing although Indonesia’s most famous novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, via his Baru Quartet, publishing in English by Penguin, is not known in Indonesia: the book in the Indonesian language is banned because of its anti-authority themes. Indonesia is a country that is crawling out from under its past but it’s a slow and bumpy ride. Black Water should help to it along a bit.

You can find the book here.

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