ESSAY ... Jamie JAMES
The Twain Meet in Bali
The much-travelled isle has produced surprisingly little fine literature by foreigners, says JAMIE JAMES
KIPLING had it all wrong: East and West have been meeting with adulterous frequency since Marco Polo. The romance of the East is an imperishable element of the Western imagination—mainly as a negative touchstone, showing the West what it is by inventing an alluring fantasy of what it is not. This phenomenon, indelibly labelled Orientalism by Edward Said in his book of that name, began, like so much else, with the Greeks, who created a myth of their geopolitical adversary Persia as a land of tyranny and effeminate luxury, the better to define the Greeks’ conception of themselves as the models of rational, manly virtue. Western literature ever since has been well-populated by images of the Oriental as inscrutable, wily, exquisite, and cruel, created by storytellers who never ventured east of Istanbul at the furthermost.
Yet Westerners who spent years or whole lives in Asia have fared no better. The most admired European and American writers who have explored what used to be called the Far East—Kipling, Maugham and, above all, Conrad—took as their theme the strange mongrel world of the white people who came to Asia to live. They did so because they realised instinctively that no amount of observation would enable them to inhabit the minds of Asian characters as persuasively as they could those of the Western interlopers (which is, of course, what Kipling meant by the twain never meeting).
Yet everyone who comes to Asia and stays, however much we may learn and live, will always retain at the core a sense of the romantic mystery it evoked in us before we made the first journey here. When I came to Bali to live in 1999, almost the first thing I did after I found a house was to write a novel about the place called Andrew & Joey: A Tale of Bali. I told my story about two American men who come to Bali for a year through the e-mail messages of the protagonists and their friends back home, thus making all the voices Western. The book is wholly ironic: the reader knows from the start that every observation about the island is suspect, if not dead wrong. A slick dodge, perhaps, but it kept my hands clean.
In the 20th century, Bali became one of the most well-travelled places in the “Orient,” yet the number of imaginative literary works by foreigners who have sought to see Bali through Balinese eyes is surprisingly small. In fact, there are two.
Vicki Baum, an Austrian Jew, made her name and her fortune in 1929 with a potboiler called People in a Hotel, which was made into the film Grand Hotel (best known for giving Greta Garbo the line, “I want to be alone”—that and winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1932). Baum wrote dozens more novels, but the only other one that still lives (in English translation) is A Tale from Bali, an account of the Puputan of 1906, when more than a thousand Balinese royals committed suicide in the face of an invasion by the Dutch rather than surrender.
Baum’s novel, published in 1937 after a visit to Bali two years earlier, is based largely on reading and study, giving the book a dry, quasi-anthropological tone, which is surprisingly agreeable: the lyricism of most Western writing about Asia gets out of hand. She propels her story forward with clockwork persistence and makes her Balinese characters come to potboilerish life, but the most remarkable quality of the novel is that Baum never condescends to her material. She writes of spells and gods and caste without a hint of rationalist disapproval, or, worse, the simpering approval of the wise adult charmed by the wee brown folks’ winning ways.
The other book is The Painted Alphabet, a novel by Diana Darling, published in 1992. Darling’s story, based on an ancient Balinese myth, is about brothers, witches, sex, madness, and much more, and like all good myths it’s far too complicated to be summarised here. An American sculptor who previously lived in Paris, Darling came to Bali in 1980 and hasn’t strayed far since. In The Painted Alphabet, she doesn’t bother too much about “penetrating the Asian mind” and thus arrives at the human core of the myth, which lets its Balineseness shine through clear as daylight. It’s difficult to analyse how she does it, for the book itself partakes in some measure of the magic she writes about.
Shockingly, neither of these books is in print. Surely the world could do with two less glossy picture books of tony villas and gardens to make way for reissues of these interloper masterpieces. Since 1937, the best book about Bali by a foreigner has been Island of Bali, by the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, who grasped the place profoundly and comprehensively. This learned, beautifully written book comprises every aspect of Balinese culture, from the divine dance to the complex social structure to a recipe for perfect roast suckling pig, illustrated with exquisite line drawings, paintings and photographs by the author’s wife, Rosa Covarrubias.
But that’s another story.
JAMIE JAMES left his post as a staff critic for The New Yorker in 1999 and moved to Bali to concentrate on writing about Asia. Since relocating to Indonesia, he has published two novels, Andrew & Joey: A Tale of Bali and The Java Man. In June 2008, Hyperion published his seventh book, The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge, a biography of the American herpetologist Joe Slowinski. James’s previous nonfiction books include The Music of the Spheres and Eccentrics: A Study in Sanity and Strangeness. He writes on travel and culture for such international magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure and DestinAsian, and major American newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine