A novel bridge between us and them
Maturity at last. A novel from Australia that treats Indonesia as a real place, not an Eat, Pray, Love fantasyland of frangipani maidens in sun-kissed ricefields. This is how Troppo starts:
‘The first story I hear about my new boss is in a brothel in Bandar Lampung. I don’t realise it’s a brothel at first. From the outside it looks like a typical Indonesian beauty salon; pink curtains tacked up in a prayer arch over lace, a gritty Salon Kecantikan sign at the front and a becoming ladyboy at the door with toilet paper moulded into boobs’.
That’s an addictive intro.
Troppo is Australian slang derived from ‘tropical’. To ‘go troppo’ is to abandon normal conventions, to ‘go native’. It also means turning crazy.
In the hands of West Australian writer Madelaine Dickie, Troppo is a sinewy take on the people next door seeing Indonesians as humans with flaws and qualities, not economic units in a government statement.
The surfing, skateboarding knockabout’s literary talents won her a Prime Minister’s Australia-Asia Endeavour Award. She used this to live in West Java where she was mentored at Universitas Padjadjaran and Universitas Islam Bandung while writing her debut novel. The result may not be what they expected.
Promoted as a book about ‘black magic, big waves and mad Aussie expats’ Troppo follows the life of Penelope, a name associated with steady faithfulness. That’s not her bag, so she becomes Penny, as in dreadful.
Miss adventurous enjoys the Indonesian lifestyle, though her hosts have trouble slotting her into their mindsets. And so will many readers who are not into the religion of surfing and the worship of waves, or too old to remember overwhelming lust and its aftermath.
It’s 2004, two years after the Bali bombing. Penny is 22 going on 16. She’s a part-time hangover artist and full-time risk-taker on a break in Indonesia from her older conservative boyfriend in Perth. As she says, a bolter when things get too hard.
Soon this liberated lass is getting perved in the shower by masturbators, stalked in the bush by weirdoes and stoned by kids before making it into bed with a thigh-biting pilot who already has a pregnant girlfriend.
While her demure Sumatran sisters are treading an ancient path of service, mapless (but not hapless) Penny is desperately seeking self before her use-by date when tissues sag and a bikini is inadvisable.
The gap between Indonesians and Australians could hardly be wider despite Penny’s sympathies, empathies and occasional eruptions of guilt. She wants to find a bridge but doesn’t know how so turns to gin in a water bottle.
She’s set for a job at a resort where the arrogant and explosive bule boss Mister Shane, a former freedom fighter in Aceh, is in deep trouble with the citizenry.
Penny gets warnings aplenty but this surfing tragic is still in Pollyanna-land even when thugs hurl rocks through windows while a boozy party is underway.
Yet this libidinous lass is no naïf. She speaks Indonesian, likes street food and sleeps with a knife under her pillow ready to turn unwanted amorous advances into limp retreats. She can even handle unflushed squat toilets.
The tension builds. Fundamentalists are talking bombs. The expats tell her to go. So do local friends. But with only a third of the book gone and knowing Penny’s temperament we doubt she’ll be dozing on the next bus south.
Penny’s Indonesia doesn’t feature in airline mags. People are kind and cruel, honest and thieving, dirty and clean, treacherous and loyal – like anywhere. Their cut-and-paste view of outsiders has been colored by brash, exploitative drunks with too much money and too little understanding.
Like Elizabeth Pisani, author of the essential Indonesia Etc, Dickie has insights to offer through her unstable heroine. ‘For Indonesian people Islam is a symbol, not an ideology’. Penny asks a mountain village woman why she has started wearing a jilbab, expecting a deep discourse on faith. The reply - to keep warm.
She ponders the treatment of the elderly: ‘Here the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the community … everyone has a place.’
The expat group is a handy literary device to explore attitudes: Ageing academics in an ethnographic wonderland, balding failures seeking compliant brown virgins as the whitegoods market has closed, hucksters running businesses denied permits in their rule-bound homeland – and the drifters turned stayers.
One long-timer says; ‘The whole world speaks English. Why would I bother learning Indo?’
On the other side are teens trapped by customs dictated by men, controlling clerics, venal cops, dutiful wives whose dreams of a liberated lifestyle are destined to be trashed by frustrated and jealous husbands.
They ask Penny about ‘free sex’ and boyfriends, questions as predictable as ‘where you from, Mister?’
Ponders Penny: ‘Sometimes there are things you can’t explain. Cultural difference so vast you don’t know where to start’. She says she’s from New Zealand. Australia carries too much baggage in Indonesia.
What these generally unpleasant people share is a common hatred of Mister Shane so plot his downfall through black magic and violence which is bound to have collateral damage. Enough said.
Less able writers would have resorted to clichés in exploring this swamp but Dickie doesn’t use a monochrome palate. She has a fine sense of places ‘where the earth holds a memory’ but is more at home with the sea like compatriot writer Tim Winton.
What is it about these beach-crazed West Aussies? They’re always looking away, unlike Indonesians who know they’re at one with the land.
Troppo has already won a major award named after journalist and author Tom Hungerford, so Dickie, now 29, seems set to make a mark. Hopefully through revealing another Indonesia:
‘There’s something intoxicating about living in extreme places, among extreme people. You never, for a moment, forget that you are alive’.
Troppo by Madelaine Dickie
Fremantle Press, 2016
(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 February 2017)