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Novel set in the Netherlands and Indonesia

9th June 2021

The Interpreter from Java by Alfred Birney, novel set in the Netherlands and Indonesia, a coming-to-terms story that deals with the aftermath of WW2.

Novel set in the Netherlands and Indonesia

The Interpreter from Java is an intensely written book. The opening pages are raw and hit hard, no holds barred, although saved by a touch of bathos at the end of the first two pages which serves to situate the reader alongside the main narrator, Alan Noland (read no-land), the son of an Indonesian Marine claiming Dutch citizenship in Holland. Told in short sharp chapters, here is at first glance a story of identity, of what it was and is like to be Indo-Dutch, which is easily something few outside those two nationalities have ever considered.

It’s fairly easy to overlook the atrocities and hardships that occurred in Far East Asia, too, and especially in the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then. History tends to gloss over the aftermath of war, the slow recovery, the hardships and privations, and to ignore entirely the ravages of wars of colonial independence.

Birney paints a fascinating picture of Indonesia and a dismal picture of post-war Netherlands as ravaged, struggling and corrupt, and an even more dismal portrait of Noland’s father, the interpreter. There are passages in which Birney utilises the second-person perspective and has Noland issuing an anguished tirade against his father who he considers a vile fascist. The device brings the reader up close as though held by the collar. Fortunately, these sections are few and are tempered by a gentler tone for the most part. Noland holds his mother in low regard as well. She’s Dutch and he calls her a ‘heffalump’ which might grate with some readers. Don’t be put off by the passion and intensity of the first part of this book; it’s worth pressing on because about one quarter in, the narrative shifts to Indonesia and to Noland’s father Arto who tells the story of his own escapades in Java.

In all, Birney has penned a courageous and confronting story tackling the upheavals of war, colonialism and decolonisation, depicting one collaborator, Noland’s father, as amoral, unscrupulous, degenerate and as violent as they come, a personification, perhaps, of the worst aspects of the aforementioned. At its core, The Interpreter from Java is a story of family violence and whether any sort of trauma or mental health issue can in any way excuse that behaviour. Rage and hatred fill the pages at times. It’s a story of deep hurt, of blame and of struggling to come to terms with what is ultimately a betrayal of trust. It’s also a story of prejudice, resilience and survival of the offspring of those affected by war. Alan Noland’s narrative does not carry the dignity and detachment of the survivor but rather the psychological torment of the victim as he strives to resolve the past and reach that particular grail called peace of mind.

Setting is strong. There are no cocktails by the pool here, no The Durrell’s whimsical charm. Be prepared for an onslaught of a read at times, as the injustices and the struggles of a young man trying to understand his own family’s past are juxtaposed with a detailed account of the Indonesian war of independence from Dutch rule in the 1940s.

Birney provides us with a gripping and important read, bringing a slice of overlooked history alive in narrative form. The Interpreter from Java is in no measure an easy read from the point of view of content but it’s an important one nonetheless. I would recommend this book for those interested in immersing themselves in a slice of history they might not know about, and the masculine flavour would make for a great gift for any man in your life.

Guest Review by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel is a prolific Australian novelist. She writes both contemporary/literary, thrillers and dark fiction. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and via her website. 

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