The backdrop of the story is a roiling Indonesia grasping to find its place in the world in the aftermath of its independence from the Dutch.
Adam and Johan, living in neighbouring, enemy countries, are coming of age and considering their identities amid their adoptive families. At the same time, President Sukarno hurtles towards his demise in an increasingly oppressive Jakarta . Adam witnesses his adoptive father Karl, a Dutch national born in Baru, Indonesia, whisked away by soldiers, and heads to the Indonesian capital in a bid to find him.
Author Tash Aw covers similar ground to The Year of Living Dangerously—it even includes Sukarno’s famous speech declaring 1964 “the year of living dangerously”. But it also teases out other themes, such as race and home: Why did some Westerners come to Indonesia and become so intoxicated they stayed? The exploration isn’t always entirely satisfying, but the portraits of the various characters along the way more than make the ride worthwhile.
In earlier years, Karl had come to Bali as an artist, meeting Walter Spies and his posse. Refreshingly, Margaret, born in then Irianjaya, Indonesia to American parents, has none of his romanticism. Karl says, of Bali: “I feel this is where I was supposed to be all my life, my rightful place in the universe.” To which Margaret, who has no time for the paintings of the men there, says: “I hope you’re not going to say ‘spiritual home’. That’s what they all say.”
Interestingly, the paintings of Javanese-born, Dutch-educated Raden Saleh make a brief appearance, as the Americans try an 11th hour intervention to get Sukarno back on side by offering Sukarno two of his works; Raden Saleh is one of the artists featured in Jamie James’ Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic.
We enjoyed Map of the Invisible World for its setting, split across several islands in Indonesia plus Kuala Lumpur, and its characters. The plot isn’t entirely believable, but this is still a well-crafted tale, and if you’re looking to get a sense of the tensions building in Jakarta and elsewhere in the archipelago as Sukarno’s era came to an end, it makes for a great immersion.
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