I think I might have failed my Summer reading list challenge. In fact I know I have.
You be the judge: of the five books mentioned I have only finished reading four of them, one outside of the allotted summer time frame, and only ploughing through the final one as we speak. I did, however, read a fifth book that was not included on the list (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, maybe more on that some other time, or check out the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club review).
Now to the task at hand: reviewing The Year of Living Dangerously.
I’ve been told that the novel is based on, or inspired by, the experiences of CJ Koch’s brother, Philip Koch, who was an ABC foreign correspondent based in Jakarta during the 1960s.
Koch does a fantastic job of painting a picture of Jakarta under the reign of Sukarno. As president, he is in throes of losing his grip on the country as tension and unrest mount, the scent of revolution and Konfrontasi hang as heavily in the air as the smell of Kretek cigarettes and pollution.
Guy Hamilton is on his first assignment to Jakarta, and this is a story about how he discovers as much about himself, as the political instability of a country which is teetering on the edge of change. At the heart of the story is Hamilton’s relationship with the brilliant but peculiar half-Chinese, half-Australian dwarf, Billy Kwan. He is Hamilton’s first friend in a strange new world, he is his colleague and confidant, but the relationship swings between extremes: from dependence to co-dependence, from allies to enemies, from mysterious to obsessive.
Koch deftly uses the traditional shadow puppet theatre, wayang kulit, to illustrate the tightrope that Sukarno is walking between the governing parties and the military. He is not illustrated as the master of the wayang, the dalang or puppet master, but as the protagonist, the lost prince Arjuna, trying to find his way.
I finished the book before actually arriving in Jakarta, and the picture of Jakarta drawn in Koch’s book made it seem so much more appealing. In my mind’s eye he had drawn a picture of a pulsating city, sweating beneath its endless heat, complete with the smells, sounds and tastes. It was this picture, combined with the characters that made The Year of Living Dangerously such a compelling read.
The book was first published in 1976. It was banned in Indonesia under the Suharto Government until 1998. In 1992 it was made into a movie by Australian director Peter Weir, and starred Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver as the leads. The movie was particularly successful, winning numerous awards, including a best supporting actress Academy Award for Linda Hunt who plays Billy Kwan.