Anthony Burgess Reviews Empire of the East (1993)

Taken from The Observer: 17.10.93

Fruit bats, blood soup

'Empire' is undoubtedly the right technical term for a mass of sea-sundered territories ruled from a single centre. When I lived in Malaysia I was aware of Sumatra a few sea miles to the west; when I was in Brunei (which on Norman Lewis's map has, with Sabah, been swallowed by Sarawak) I was to the north of an unexplored mass of jungle that belonged to Indonesia.

Indonesia was welcome to it. Indonesia was a mess and still is—sloppily or tyrannically ruled from Jakarta, way down south in Java; not better governed by the Dutch than by the men of Malay stock who took over. What Jakarta did with Washington's approval to East Timor (curious tautology—Timor means East), remembered in Lewis's fine book, goes well with the atrocities of Pol Pot. Hitler and Stalin might well have looked up from hell with approval at President Suharto.

The doyen of English travel writers, Lewis must now be pretty old. It was courageous of him to make the trips he did— through Sumatra, East Timor and Irian Jaya—the most eastward of the Indonesian territories (600 miles south you touch Australia). The danger is to be found less in the people you meet than in the food they offer and the karaoke they deafen with. Lewis's daughter Claudia, having been at work on a project with homeless Javanese, had just been in Sumba eating blood soup with pig fat. Fruit bats were much cooked in Sumatra. The Tropicana, a much-praised Chinese restaurant in Banda, served pig's stomach stewed in blood, and pork in snake's gall. 'You go for alligator? Shit, we got everything.'

Lewis motored, with his son and son's friend and an obligatory guide, up to Banda Aceh in the Sumatran north. This used to be Acheh, but reformed Bahasa spelling forced you (in theory at least) to drink Chocha Chola. The philology of the Orient is as shaky as its anthropology. But Indonesia has not gone as far as Malaysia in wishing its aboriginals to be kicked into Islam. A lot of Indonesians wish to cut Muslim throats because of a Muslim habit of micturating in streams and rivers and annoying the water gods. And what can decent rational Muslims do with a land where every movement may be defilement of a taboo?

Jakarta reason has devastated the rain forests on a Brazilian scale, killing off a uniquely rich wildlife. As for the waste land, that can become Japanese golf courses. And in a new paradise in which an excess of native cultures will be reduced to tourist pokerwork, the whole empire can become an under-paid, overworked labour force.

Getting to East Timor was difficult. No seats today or tomorrow and the waiting list is full. It seemed that there was some dirty secret to hide. Police scrutiny was in tense and there was a powerful military presence. The filth went back to 1975, when, after a meeting in Jakarta between Suharto, President Ford and Henry Kissinger, which the State Department called 'The Big Wink', Indonesia invaded the Portuguese territory of East Timor. The slaughter of probably a million Timorese, on the grounds that they were communists, still seems incredible.

Lewis's Portuguese was better than his Bahasa, but it was a dangerous language to use. Picking up the keys to his room, he let the word obrigado slip out. This nearly caused a riot. Only his taxi driver had the guts to cry 'Vivan os cornpanheiros!'.

His journey to Irian Jaya was less perilous, although his missionary pilot told him that there were probably still cannibals in the district. Lewis visited a Yali tribal community living in a stone age culture some ten thousand years old. The men were naked except for a penis gourd. Their solemn greeting was 'I honour your faeces'. There is a curious analogy here with the Malaysian protocol of addressing the dust under the Sultan's feet. Everybody coughed, and life was a bore mitigated by the weekly church service.

The Yali could not be expected to join in one of the most incredible feats of mining ever seen—the Ertzberg mountains in the highlands of Irian Jaya have been found to contain a body of copper, silver and gold that continues to be removed at the rate of 24,700 tonnes a day. Meanwhile, the native population have been forced to surrender 10,000 hectares of their land for which no compensation has been paid. And yet the Indonesian Constitution guarantees that' the earth, the waters, along with the natural resources contained therein, shall be regulated by the government, and are to be used to promote the utmost welfare of the people’.

Whatever government Indonesia has had, it has always been corrupt, cruel and mendacious. Mr Lewis has, with his inveterate skill, presented these purgatories with a light touch. His prose is almost edible. In old age he is writing better than ever.

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