Somber travels across the Indonesian archipelago—often a step ahead of the machete.
Readers who take their view of Indonesia from The Year of Living Dangerously aren’t far from the mark, if Parry’s account is to be trusted—and, as a correspondent for the Times of London, he has sterling credentials. Parry’s report begins in Borneo, long synonymous in the Western mind with all things savage. There seems a reason for all that: The Dayak of Borneo, the ethnic and political majority, harbor a particular hatred for a Muslim people among them called the Madurese, who are tough enough for Parry to liken them to Sicilians. As he travels through the island, Parry meets incident after incident of savagery, as in West Kalimantan, where the Dayaks had not only slaughtered the Madurese, but had also “ritually decapitated them, carried off their heads as trophies and eaten their hearts and livers.” Cannibalism in this day and age? You bet, Parry replies in a passage sure to provoke bad feelings among culturally relative types, pausing to acknowledge that the Dayaks’ ethnic-cleansing arguments are just modern enough to employ “the kind of consensus that has built up at various times about Romany Gypsies, or about Jews.” At another turning point, Parry is on hand for the “sack of Jakarta,” in which hundreds died in antigovernment demonstrations that led, in time, to the fall of Suharto—and the rise of a particularly militant kind of nationalist Islamism. The apex of the book involves Parry’s nadir, when, after one too many brushes with death on East Timor, where bike-gangish Indonesian paramilitary forces energetically butchered separatists and anyone else they came across, he fled, “because I was afraid of being killed or, more precisely, of dying in fear.” In such horrifying places, surely that’s about the only way there is to die.
A memorable book that will excite discussion in anthropological and geopolitical circles.