Issue 7, May 2008 | Sophie Loy-Wilson

Review - Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali

Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali
by Cameron Forbes
(Black Inc: Melbourne, 2007) 286 pp

Cameron Forbes's new book Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali is one of the more scholarly and impressive members of a growing club of Bali-lit; a series of publications which have appeared following the terrorist attacks which killed 202 people (including 88 Australians) on Bali's Kuta beach in 2002. Since these attacks Australia has been challenged to renegotiate its relationship with this favoured holiday destination and confront the unsettling presence of Anti-Western feeling among some sections of Indonesian society. Since 2002 two major works have emerged dealing directly with this theme. In 2004 Sydney Morning Herald journalist Emma Tom wrote Bali: Paradise Lost?, following on from ABC correspondent Alan Atkinson's 2003, Three Weeks in Bali: A Personal Account of the Bali Bombing.

Under the Volcano differentiates itself from these other works by deviating from personal travel log and contemporary journalism to explore Bali's history, beginning three million years ago, when tectonic plates collided forming the island's volcanic foundations. The following chapters chart early tribal settlement, the emergence of slave owning, feudal kingdoms, Dutch colonial invasion, Indonesian independence and the processes of post-colonial nation building following World War Two. This last historical period is centre stage and sets the scene for the true purpose of the book; to analyse events which dominate today's media coverage of Bali and Indonesia - terrorism, drug trafficking, tourism, prostitution, Islamic extremism - through an intricately researched account of the island's past.  Thus Forbes offers both a narrative history (from antiquity to modern day), and a historically informed analysis of contemporary events (the book includes chapters on drug mules and jihadists). 

Unlike some of his western contemporaries, Forbes avoids the temptation to wax lyrical on Bali's physical beauty (he leaves this job to quotable notaries like Nehru and Margaret Mead) and instead creates a carefully written corrective to such romanticism. A central motif, as the title would suggest, is the volcano (Gunung Agung) looming over Bali's picture-perfect rice paddies, lagoons, temples and beaches - a natural landmark central, Forbes explains, to Balinese mythology and religious practice. According to local legend, if the Balinese have not pleased the gods the volcano will erupt, punishing the island and its people. Forbes uses the volcano as an organising metaphor, a symbol of Bali's violent past and troubled present - proof that behind 'paradise Bali' are myriad social divisions, religious tensions and secretarian rifts constantly threatening to disrupt its idyllic image.

Covering such wide territory, Forbes grounds his text in the lives of locals - tracing individuals through archival remains, interviews and legends - creating a cast of characters whose insights, often quoted at the beginning of chapters, are designed to by-pass an outsider's perspective and tell the 'Balinese side of the story.'   For example, in the first half of the book we meet Anak Agung Made Djelantik, a Balinese scientist of royal lineage whose father was a proxy ruler for the Dutch and Wayan Ardana, a 28-year-old fisherman taking part in a Hindu initiation ceremony. Excerpts from the diary of Stanford Raffles are included as well as the blogs of a Chinese-Indonesian psychiatrist working with Balinese drug addicts. This method works, allowing Forbes to amplify the experience of individual subjects onto a global political stage (using Harold Holt to explain the CIA's interests in post war Southeast Asia) and rendering complex processes (such as the commodification of Balinese culture in the wake of mass tourism) accessible without offering gross generalizations.

The strengths of such an approach are on display in what is perhaps the most striking -and disturbing - feature of Under the Volcano; its engagement with the history of genocide and more particularly, with what Forbes calls the 'Asian Holocaust' of 1965-1966.  During this period, when Suharto came to power, six Generals were killed in Jakarta -their deaths blamed on the Indonesian Communist party, the PKI. What followed - the mass purging of Indonesia's communists - is well documented by Forbes in two powerfully written chapters simply titled 'Crime...' and '...Punishment.' In 'Crime' the trajectory of 1965-1966 is brought into sharp focus, cutting between the first hand accounts of individual survivors, and short pithy quotes from American and Australian diplomatic dispatches. As one survivor puts it: 'Bali became a nightmare of killing...There is no one living in Bali who did not have a neighbour who was killed and left unburied by the black devils with red berets who roamed around at that time,' (p 94). 

If 'Crime' is a testament to the horror and extent of the killing, 'Punishment' is an indictment of the nations who let it happen. Forbes quotes a speech given by Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in America during the riots: 'With 500, 000 to a million Communist sympathizers knocked off' Holt told an audience of CIA officials, 'it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.' (71) Meanwhile, Australian bureaucrat Andrew Gilchrist briefed the Department of External Affairs commenting that  'I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change.' (85) In the aftermath of the purges, Suharto introduced a foreign investment law and the first company to benefit was American corporation Freeport which quickly staked its claim to mineral riches in West Irian.  As Forbes' strident narrative voice points out, Australia and America were enthusiastic observers as well as beneficiaries of one of the 'worst mass murders in recent history...ignoring the blood as they welcomed the reorientation.' (122) Furthermore, Forbes argues, Australia is implicated in the historical revisionism of the Suharto era, when the specifics of this 'holocaust' were excised from official histories, and Prime Ministers from Whitlam to Keating courted the Suhato regime.

By obsessing over 'paradise Bali' foreign observers and particularly Australians have obscured a heritage of slavery, human sacrifice, colonial violence and twentieth century genocide. And without attention to such historic detail, Forbes implies, events such as the Bali bombings of October 12th 2002 will remain incomprehensible to western observers. Herein lies the strength of Forbes books, but also its most markable weakness.

Beautifully written and painstakingly researched, Under the Volcano goes beyond the constrains of popular history or travel log to make a serious and scholarly argument about the heritage of genocide and violence in Indonesia, and the links between such a history and the emergence of the militant Islamic terrorism which has had such devastating impact in our own time.  Such an argument deserves the support of both a popular and academic structure yet Forbes makes academic arguments without entering into academic debate. His footnotes are scarce and the book's structure loose and unwieldy.  In the pages of his sweeping 'story of Bali' Forbes weaves journalistic vignettes, excerpts from terrorism trials, anthropology, United Nations reports, hippie musings from surfing websites, bits of the Koran and local poetry - an impressive feat considering the diversity of such diffuse material. Drawing on the length and breadth of his career as a foreign correspondent Forbes makes wide global parallels, moving in a number of pages between Tasmania's Port Arthur massacre, humanitarian crises in Rwanda, Armenian genocides and the magic mushroom industry in Bali's northern valleys. The result is epic and allows the reader to reflect upon the historical patterns of modern day terrorism.  Unfortunately, it is this broad reach - the combination of discussions of surf culture with accounts of genocide - which ultimately detracts from what is a very powerful and important call for the recognition of an 'Asian holocaust' lost to popular memory behind a veil of historical revisionism and western ignorance.

Sophie Loy-Wilson is a second-year PhD student in History at the University of Sydney, where she received her BA (Hons) in History in 2006.