AN EMPIRE OF THE EAST by Norman Lewis

AN EMPIRE OF THE EAST

Travels in Indonesia

KIRKUS REVIEW

 A somewhat forced landing on the great Indonesian archipelago by British travel writer Lewis (A Goddess in the Stones, 1992, etc.). In his visit, first to the northern tip of Sumatra, then to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, the scene of ``this century's most ferocious small war'' after it was invaded by the Indonesians, and finally to the highlands of Irian Jaya, Lewis unfortunately labors under several disadvantages: he doesn't know much about Indonesia, he doesn't speak any of its 250 languages, except for a smattering of Portuguese, he found the guides either terrified or overly tactful, the conversation bland, the food uninteresting, and the scenery, at least in Sumatra and East Timor, not all that he might have hoped. There is another problem, of which he is aware, in combining ``the pleasant commonplaces of travel'' with a description of the war in East Timor, where, according to some reports, one-third of the people have been massacred, and where Lewis' account, though a good deal of it is second-hand, is chilling. The result is an uneven one, relieved by Lewis' humor: ``...[A]t five yearly intervals the nation goes into a paroxysm of excitement over elections which infallibly return Golkar, the President's party, to power. Innovations in the electoral process have included Golkar's advance notice of the overall majority that it expects to get, which is always correct....'' Of headlines in the Indonesian press, ``[i]ncorrect reports on security in Aceh,'' which purported to repudiate foreign accounts of trouble in North Sumatra, he notes dryly, ``No more convincing evidence of trouble could have been offered.'' His account is also enlivened by a sympathetic and interesting description of the life lived by the Stone-Age Papuans, where men are naked except for curving yellow penis-guards, and where, since warfare was outlawed, they engage in elaborate and sometimes dangerous warlike rituals. Lewis writes well, and it should be entertaining, but the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-8050-1960-X
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1994




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