‘Him and me’, but not quite ‘us’
- Book: The Interpreter From Java
- Location: Indonesia, Netherlands
- Author: Alfred Birney
Wow! I am really not too sure that I am going to be able to do this piece of work the justice it deserves in my review, and I do hope that I have interpreted the inferences in the way in which they were intended. I think this manuscript would probably benefit much more from the understanding and knowledge of a literary critic, or historian, who could offer the recognition it no doubt commands.
For me personally, I would have preferred to have known which sections of the story were fiction and which memoir and factual, although I am guessing more of the latter, rather than the former. The translation was excellent on the whole, although I did find the story layout rather disjointed and at times quite rambling. I found myself having to re-read passages a couple of times, in order to work out exactly whose voice I was hearing in the dialogue, so some clearly marked chapters and more concise narrative, may have made for a slightly shorter, easier to follow journey, through what was undoubtedly a very important documentation of this period in Dutch East Indies (Indonesian) history. An emotionally draining, highly personal account, which holds nothing back in the telling and is definitely not reading for the faint of heart.
The conflict between the Dutch East Indies and the occupying Japanese army is, I have to confess, a part of World War II about which I knew little if anything at all at the start of my reading of this book. The violent, brutal treatment of a nation and its people by their invaders, is exposed in vivid detail by Alan’s father and grandfather, setting the scene for what is to become a lifelong vendetta against authority by both men, in which they don’t hold back in playing their bloody, sickening parts in what is probably in all truth, the reality of a war which had begun years previously, with the Dutch colonisation of the nation.
The atrocities committed on all sides of the divide are portrayed in horrific detail, using a vivid language which cannot be mistaken for anything other then what it is, leaving the reader unable to escape and in no doubt about what they are witnessing, if they were to simply close their eyes and imagine themselves there. Arto’s diary entries are raw and intense, not given to any finesse or literary skills. We are thus treated to the horrors and terrors first hand and laid bare, although how much of the action has been embellished slightly in the telling, as I got the impression that Arto thrived on recognition and praise from his peers and masters, I guess we will never know. Arto is ostensibly an interpreter, later assigned as a Special Services employee, although he preferred to introduce himself as a Dutch Marine, a title he perceived was more befitting of his mixed heritage. In reality either such job title seems to have given him carte blanche to become one of the most feared and violent of aggressors and interrogators, deliberately placing himself at the forefront of any military confrontation, to all intents and purposes an assassin in chief, where he strove not to take prisoners, preferring to mete out his own style of instant justice.
Having survived what was almost the massacre of a nation by the Japanese Army, one would have thought that Arto would have then come down on the side of an independence coup by the Indonesian people, to gain freedom from their Dutch colonial masters. However, the ever troubled Arto, decided that he would back the recolonising Dutch forces who were being sent into the area, turning his back on many of his friends and family, heading to what he believed to be the endless possibilities for advancement, which would await him under Dutch rule, or even in the Netherlands itself, if that transition were possible. When it became apparent that the Dutch may have to cede their colonised state to the independence movement, Arto was evacuated and repatriated as a collaborator, alongside many of the fleeing Dutch and found himself in what he had anticipated being the Europe of his dreams.
Arto however, is always striving for that elusive recognition which never really materialises, so is never going to be happy with his new found freedom, simply moving from being an outcast in his own country, to being just as much an outcast in another. He just never wakes up to the fact that he has lost that which could have been the most important thing in his life – the love and respect of his own family – perhaps that is because he has never learned to love and respect himself.
That Arto’s father had himself suffered at the hands of the Japanese Army, is never disputed, neither is there any doubt about the way those events shaped his future and mental well-being, culminating in the sustained beatings and abuse to which he subjected Arto’s mother, Arto himself and his siblings. Thus, I could see how this also begins a lifelong struggle for the troubled and badly damaged Arto, in his personal unseen war against his invisible demons, which he documents infinitely and copiously, but without ever really apportioning blame, or atoning for his own part in the impact they have on either his own life, or that of his family. That the man is shaped by his own father, I don’t think is in any doubt, however the wedge which Arto then drives between his offspring, most particularly between Alan and his twin brother Phil, is an almost unforgiveable act of wickedness, only adding to the brutal upbringing he had subjected them all to and the coercive controlling behaviour he displayed towards his wife.
There are multitudinous recorded instances of abuse, cruelty, abandonment and violence against Alan’s mother and siblings, instigated by and personally recorded within the pages of Arto’s meticulously kept diaries, so much so that I needed a lot of stamina to keep ploughing through them. Who, having inflicted such terrible mental and physical cruelty on their own family, wouldn’t have wanted to hide their deeds and hang their heads in shame? So I wonder if Arto felt that by committing his acts to paper where they could be read about by others, he was in fact condemning or condoning his own behaviour? I would like to be generous and think the former, however in the cold light of day, I honestly feel that Arto wore his transgressions like a badge of honour! In fact, the many confessions almost became overwhelming in their frequency and intensity, but I felt that I owed it to Alan and the rest of the family to keep reading this important and powerful piece of social commentary, right until the bitter end.
In the final reckoning however, Phil is at least willing to consider that many of Arto’s failings were not necessarily of his own making, more a product of his own childhood and upbringing. Alan however, is unwilling to concede any mitigation for his father’s behaviour, even at the very end, when Arto’s death closes the chapter in his life and the man he grew to hate with a vengeance, no longer had the power or ability to hurt him any further.
Arto, an uncompromising, demonic beast of the cruellest kind who enjoyed meting out retribution; or a complex and disturbed individual, searching for a sense of belonging and unable to control the behaviour instilled in him by his upbringing and circumstances?
An excellent piece as a one off detour from my usual reading genres, there is no doubting the book’s merit as an important piece of social history, as well as an insight into the political machinations of a part of the world about which I knew very little, but now know a whole lot more!