After my Insider's Guide to Bali was first published in 1989, friends sometimes asked me what books on Indonesia they should take with them to that vast country. I recommended three, C.J. Koch's novel The Year of Living Dangerously, Bill Dalton's Indonesia Handbook, and Brian May's brooding analysis The Indonesian Tragedy. Now, though, I would also recommend this new one. Indeed, Theodore Friend's Indonesian Destinies may well be the best book on Indonesia there is.
The author is a veteran American academic and foreign affairs expert who has previously written a prize-winning work on US-Philippine relations. Here he turns his attention to the world's fourth largest country in terms of population, a place he's been visiting since 1967.
It's important to establish right at the start how unusual a book this is. Friend mixes history with personal reminiscence in a way that allows him to peel back the layers of the country in a quite exceptional way. Thus you'll read about his experiences among the Toraja people of Sulawesi, and in the process learn about his "unpredictable left knee, reconstructed after a blindside clip in a soccer game severed two ligaments," and how it's still holding up at 67 as he clambers down slippery, 1,000-year-old rice terraces. Then, before you know where you are he's sitting in the Indonesian equivalent of the White House explaining the November 2000 Bush-Gore deadlock to President Wahid.
It's impossible for a non-specialist reviewer to be dogmatic, but you can be confident that all the major Indonesian events of the last 50 years are covered: East Timor (where London Financial Times journalist Sander Thoens was shot dead off the back of a motorcycle-taxi and his face subsequently "flayed back to the skull"), catastrophic forest fires that have devastated "seven or eight Vermonts," the policy of transmigration (encouraging people to move from Java to less populated, and frequently far less hospitable, islands), the secessionist
movement in Aceh, the matriarchal traditions of the Minangkabau, Christian-Muslim strife (most recently on Ambon in the province of Maluku), the killing of possibly half a million communists and others in 1965 to 1966, relations with Malaysia (which shares Borneo with Indonesia), and the 2002 Bali night-club bombing.
Needless to say Friend wasn't able to witness all these things, but it's quite astonishing how many of the major players he's met over the years, whether it's Jimmy Carter at 75 -- bouncy step, bright eye, balanced mind -- or a veteran democracy activist. Indeed, one of Friend's most endearing characteristics is that he doesn't evaluate people's testimonies according to their status. The signs are that he's a Christian, and he certainly displays the appropriate egalitarianism that weighs all souls equally, irrespective of their standing in the world's eyes.
The following gives a taste of the book's flavor. "I was back in Jakarta for the first time in four years. My wife, by the grace of God, good doctors and nurses, and sheer guts, had survived a serious cancer. Now, October 1997, free to travel, I was asked for my impressions by a senior Indonesian employee of the World Bank."
What he chooses to talk about to him are forest fires -- possible corporate involvement in starting them, the environmental degradation they cause, and the effect they have on orangutangs. This is typical. Friend is an authority on Indonesia's financial affairs, but nothing will convince him that money is all that matters in life. He's too intelligent, his heart too generous and his mind too comprehensive, for that. (Sadly his wife died from other causes last summer).