The Birdwoman’s Palate, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

One of the great things about reading—and one of the big reasons I read—is that books can take us to all sorts of places we could never visit because we either don’t have the funds or we don’t have a time machine. I comb through book reviews looking for books that can be a literary travel package and jump on them. So books like The Birdwoman’s Palate, by Laksmi Pamuntjak, look like a great way to go to Indonesia when I know that I wouldn’t be able to go there because I do not do well in the heat. Also I couldn’t afford it. And also also because of Covid. Unfortunately, this book fell short. Because the plot was trying to do two different things with a protagonist who doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, The Birdwoman’s Palate never coalesced into a meaningful experience for me.

Aruna Rai works for an organization that monitors for outbreaks in Indonesia. She’s nearing the end of her contract when her boss offers her a unique opportunity. The organization has heard of strange outbreaks that aren’t really outbreaks across the island of Java. There are sporadic individual cases of avian flu here and there. No one knows what’s causing them, which is bad. But they don’t seem to be spreading, which is good. So Aruna and one of her colleagues, a veterinarian, are being sent to talk to the sick and try to find out what’s going on. This is the first plot. The second plot springs from Aruna’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. She decides to turn the fact-finding trip into a restaurant crawl with friends. She invites her chef friend, Bono, and her food critic friend, Nadezhda, to go try all the dishes they’ve wanted to try.

Once Aruna hits the road with her mismatched entourage, the story lurches from hospitals to restaurants to clinics to food carts. The tone shifts lurch from thriller-esque when Aruna encounters what appears to be a variety of corrupt practices to erudite bickering about what makes for the best Indonesian cuisine. There are also Aruna’s unsettling dreams, dreams that reveal a lot of grief, loneliness, and lack of direction.

And then The Birdwoman’s Palate ends. It ends with a whimper as Aruna leaves her job with no plans for the future. Nothing is resolved. This fizzle of an ending was even more frustrating for me because I didn’t have a good reading trip. There were moments of good writing, but they’re washed out by a lot of bland writing about food. And I mean that adjective deliberately. Pamuntjak doesn’t seem to have many adjectives for food beyond the basic sour, spicy, and sweet. I’m sure that readers more savvy than I about food will know what lemongrass and curry leaves and other common Indonesian ingredients taste like. I unfortunately have no clue, so I have to rely on description to give me hints. There weren’t enough of these, especially given the so many of the characters are raving about subtle flavors and nuanced aromas. The thriller elements didn’t go anywhere, either, so I didn’t even get that. I wish that Pamuntjak had thrown out the medical thriller plot and focused on the food and on Aruna’s character. And I really wish that there had been a solid conclusion to The Birdwoman’s Palate.

The Majesties, by Tiffany Tsao

At the outset of Tiffany Tsao’s The Majesties, Doll Worono has suffered a nearly instantaneous reversal of fortune. She was the founder of an innovative jewelry company, scion of a rich and powerful family of Chinese-Indonesians. Then, in one evening, she is poisoned along with 300 of her friends and family. She is left blind and in a coma. At least she’s not dead, like the others who had some of the shark fin soup that her sister poisoned. Even though we know who done it and how, we don’t know why. To be honest, as she lies in her hospital bed, neither does Doll.

Doll tells her story from that hospital, looking back on her life with her sister, Estella, to try and figure out where it all went wrong. Doll and Estella had every advantage in life. Their parents sent them to the finest schools. They never wanted for material comfort. The price they paid for all this luxury is that they have to toe the family line. They will work for the family company and keep the family’s secrets. For Estella, it means that she will also marry the man her family thinks is a good match, even though everyone knows he is a controlling, volatile mess of a human being.

Lurking in the background of all the family drama are questions about parasitism. Doll’s company, Bagatelle, uses a modified Cordyceps fungus to alter the behavior of insects, to turn them into living jewelry. This horrifying idea is explained away; people are told that the animals are dormant and not intelligent enough to miss anything. This idea of beautiful parasitism hung around in my brain. The idea started to blossom as I read more about the peculiar lives of the ultra-rich Chinese-Indonesians. They are isolated from the lives of people who make their lifestyles possible. They think nothing of bribing officials, firing potential unionizers, and worse. By the end of the book, it was hard not to think of the ultra-rich in the same way we think about the Cordyceps fungus.

I wrestled with the ending of this book, even as it made its thesis of parasitic capitalism more clear. Although Doll figures out her sister’s motivation to her satisfaction, I didn’t really buy it. If The Majesties had been narrated by Estella, I might have understood. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a book I felt was narrated by the wrong character. That said, I enjoyed spending time in Doll’s head as she reviews her family history and comes to terms with crimes that she had always glossed over in the past. Apart from this flaw, I enjoyed a lot of this book and would recommend it to readers looking for a twist on the usual tales of dysfunctional families.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

All Ships Follow Me, by Mieke Eerkens

Mieke Eerken’s family is in the unique position of being caught in strangely opposing positions during World War II. Her father and his family were interned by the Imperial Japanese Army on the island of Java for almost the entire war. Her maternal grandparents were members of the National Socialist Party of the Netherlands. In All Ships Follow Me, Eerkens tells her family stories and shares her anxieties, concerns, and questions about her heritage as the child of a colonialist and the granddaughter of a collaborator.

The first third of All Ships Follow Me follows Eerkens and her father, Sjef Eerkens, on a trip to Java so that they can both see the places Sjef lived. Eerkens gives a capsule history of her father’s life up until the Japanese invasion in 1942. She then uses her father’s memories and documents from other internees to recreate the three years her father was a prisoner. Conditions were brutal; the internees were treated so badly that some of the Japanese officers at the Javanese camps were convicted later of war crimes. But even though the years from 1942-1945 were so pivotal in her father life and the lives of other Dutch settlers in what is now Indonesia, there are few remembrances of the Dutch dead.

In the middle third of the book, Eerkens shares her mother’s history. Her mother, Else, was born on the eve of World War II, so she has few memories of the war itself. Eerkens has to recreate the past by interviewing her aunts and uncles, and by taking a dive into the Dutch Archives to see her grandfather and grandmother’s trial documents. Else does remember the terrible shunning she and her family received after the war. When the war ended, there was an eruption of vengeance by those Dutch people who weren’t collaborators. Women who slept with Germans had their heads shaved. Children were taken away. Property was seized. Even now, people with collaborators in their families keep silent.

In the last third of All Ships Follow Me (the title recalls a quote famous to all Dutch people: the words of Admiral Karel Doorman, who went down with his ship during the Battle of the Java Sea), Eerkens turns to the legacy of her parents trials. Her parents are hoarders. They all have troubled relationships to food. Else still tries to keep a low profile and seeks affection. Sjef barges ahead in any situation, refusing to admit any wrong. Eerkens also touches on epigenetics, a developing science that has shown that severe trauma can be passed down to later generations. Even though World War II ended 74 years ago, it is still very much ingrained in the Eerkens clan.

It’s clear by the end of this book that Eerkens is still working her way through what all this means for herself. The last third is less focused, packed with questions about how to resolve her colonialist and collaborationist guilt, her frustration with and affection for her parents, how suffering should be memorialized, how to deal with her lack of a true home and food issues, and much more. Some readers may be frustrated by all this questioning, but I found it very human. Anyone who claimed to have answers to the kinds of questions Eerkens is asking is either a liar or very shallow.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Women and children at Kampong Makassar camp, near Jakarta (Image via Wikicommons)

Home, by Leila S. Chudori

Leila S. Chudori’s Home (translated by John H. McGlynn) circles around a black day in Indonesian history, while not revealing much about what happened on September 30, 1965. Instead, it details the long aftermath of the violence and the violent, repressive crackdown on communism through the lives of Dimas Suryo and his family. McGlynn’s translation includes some poorly chosen words and the book could have done with more editing, as it contains some typos.

Dimas Suryo, like many people in Indonesia, was targeted by the regime simply because he spent time with members of the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia. Dimas was lucky enough to get out of the country before September 30, but his first love and some of his relatives and friends were rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned by President Suharto‘s regime. For years after his escape, Dimas feels guilty for his relatively easy life in Paris while so many others suffer. He also laments the fact that he can never go home.

After Dimas tells his story, his daughter, Lintang, and his ex-wife, Vivienne, take over duties as narrator. Dimas covers the early 1950s to the early 1980s. Lintang and Vivienne cover the 1980s to 1998, when Suharto was at long last ousted from power. While the first half of Home is an elegy for what Dimas lost, the second half is about Lintang’s quest for the other, Indonesian half of her identity. Dimas mourned his lost home for decades, but never really told Lintang what it was like. Her exposure to Indonesia (which she frequently spells out in her letters and emails for some reason) comes through her father’s cooking and her three “uncles,” who also escaped just before the crackdowns.

I liked the second half of Home a lot more than the first. While I sympathize with Dimas, he often struck me as a prig who lacks understanding for human foibles. Lintang is much more interesting. I almost wish that Home has just been her story because it’s a lot more action-packed and focused as a narrative. I much preferred Lintang’s discovery of her heritage and her father’s homeland a lot more than Dimas’ intractable grief. A lot of the first half, I feel, could have been edited out.

Home is the second book I’ve read set in Indonesia. It is not nearly as successful for me as The Question of Red because of it runs too long, is uneven, and needed more editing. At least Lintang’s story came second, so I can feel as though the book ends on a much better note than it began with.

The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

30290554I don’t know why parents name their children after tragic figures from history, literature, or religion. As Amba, the protagonist of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red, tells us early in the novel, Indonesian parents usually avoid those names. And yet, her parents decided to name her after a twice-scorned, much wronged woman from the Mahabharata. They even named their twin daughters after Amba after the original Amba’s twin sisters. Amba vows when she’s young that she will not follow in her namesake’s footsteps. One might think that this would be simple enough. After all, what are the odds that history will repeat? This is the kind of question that fiction likes to answer with a resounding: of course history will get a chance to repeat.

Amba has a somewhat charmed upbringing. Her intelligence and odd outlook on life make her her father’s favored confidante. She has a more fractious relationship with her mother, which only gets worse when Amba gets old and her mother finds her a potential husband with a name straight out of the Mahabharata. Amba is headed straight into her namesake’s story. So, she delays. She puts off her fiancé and heads to Yogyakarta to get a degree in English. While she always wanted an education and the independence that comes with it, she’s also take the time to figure out what she wants to do. Salwa isn’t the right man for her, even though he’s wealthy and king. He isn’t passionate about Amba and Amba wants passion. Her situation gets even more precarious when she takes a translation job at a hospital and runs smack into her kryptonite: a man named Bhisma.


Political prisoners at a concentration camp on Buru, c. 1978. (Image via Engage Media)

The Question of Red is a love story that plays out against the political violence of the 1960s and 70s in Indonesia. While Salwa represents the safe route, Bhisma’s political ideals and his friendships with communists are increasingly dangerous. We know from the prologue and opening chapters that Bhisma ends up in one of Muhammad Suharto‘s concentration camps for communists and other enemies on the island of Buru. Amba tells her story (with documents to fill in some gaps later), guiding us through her decisions and tragedies from the early 1960s up to her visit to Buru to find out what happened to Bhisma after he was sent there.

Because of Amba, Salwa, and Bhisma’s names, I thought about free will and predestination a lot as I read The Question of Red. One might have thought that knowing the original story would count as a warning. All the latter-day Amba has to do is not what the first Amba did. But then, there’s a reason we have a cliché that tells us, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” The connection between Amba and Bhisma is irresistible. It seems that they have no choice but to pursue their love. Unfortunately, their obligations, their cultures, and their religions make things untenably complicated. Reading the book, I had my heart in my mouth until the very end, waiting to see if this Amba would have a happy ending or not. Would free will win this time? Or would fate step in? I’m not going to say; you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.