Indonesia remains true to form over French journalists in West Papua

 

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West Papua, part of Indonesia, and the neighbouring independent Papua New Guinea

News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.

Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.

Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well known because the Indonesian government managed to shut down the province, denying access to the Western media or anyone else who might have been inclined to stir up trouble. For years Indonesia was able to engage in a cruel policy of suppression that by many estimates cost the lives of almost a third of the Timorese population. Eventually they could no longer stave off the inevitable and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.

Part of the reason I wrote  my novel Francesca, which is set around the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was that so few people had heard of this country and its struggles. It seemed evidence that the strategy of shutting down a troublesome region, denying access to outsiders and keeping a tight grip on the country’s internal media, worked. The thinking went that if no one knew, no one could complain, and no one would try to put a stop to it.

So I am curious to see how effective this policy will be in the age of social media and instant global communications. In one sense there’s no excuse for ignorance. Anyone with a search engine and the desire to know more can get an update on the fate of Dandois and Bourrat in seconds. The question then becomes, does anyone care, and is anyone going to do anything about it? Or is the information overload just too overwhelming, a couple of lone crusaders competing for our attention against vaster tragedies in Syria, Gaza and Iraq? Are there times when too much information is even more effective than too little?

My novel Francesca is available here. In the meantime you can follow the fates of the French journalists on twitter at #dandois and #bourrat

 

 

 

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The gourmet art of slow fiction

 

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A feast for the senses. Image by roland

Talking to a writer acquaintance recently, I was shocked to discover that a bag of potatoes can spend longer in a supermarket’s grocery aisle before hitting it sell-by date than many new novels are allowed to linger on the shelves of your local bookstore. Unless it’s the latest Stephen King or John Grisham, there’s nothing unusual about a book being given a fortnight to sink or swim before being shoved aside by the next round of releases, to be despatched unceremoniously to the pulping machines for recycling, perhaps enjoying a new incarnation as a latte cup holder.

It’s not just the time a book has to capture the public imagination that’s shrinking. Our expectations for books themselves are changing. Fast-sellers, fast-backs, in the world of fast fiction it’s all about speed, with the emphasis on the hook. No hook, no sale – to an agent, a publisher, a distributor, a reader, anyone really.

Forget about gently easing your reader into a story, if you can’t find a way to pull them in within the first few lines, you’ve lost it. What every publisher seems to want are the compulsive reads that will be gorged in a couple of frantic sessions. It’s a world in which “I couldn’t put it down” is taken as the highest form of praise.

But when you do actually put it down, exhausted and bleary eyed at three in the morning, how much of what you’ve read can you remember a few months, or weeks, later on? Did it cause you to change the way you think, about anything? As a result of reading it do you view the world, or even a tiny part of it, differently? Will the characters remain with you as you mull over the dilemmas they faced, the choices they made?

Whether it’s on the train to work, in an airport lounge or stretched out in the sun on holiday, fast fiction is the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s value meal. Little wonder the slow food movement, created in Italy as a reaction to the global homogenization of our eating habits and spread to encompass areas as diverse as parenting, fashion, photography and yes, even ageing, should reach the world of literature.

The philosophy of the slow movement is described by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.”

Where better to practise such an approach than wrapping oneself up in a really good novel? Essentially, this is the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal, the difference between settling into your table at Manoir de Quatre Saisons for a 13 course Chef’s extravaganza and grabbing a Big Mac and large fries on the go. Both will fill your belly, both will alleviate hunger pangs. There all similarity ends, with the reward for patience and perseverance over instant gratification coming in a slow after burn, with characters and stories you find yourself thinking about long after the dénouement has been reached.

My novel Francesca is available for purchase, and can be enjoyed over several sittings.

Bon appetit!

Off on your travels? Check out Trip Fiction before you go

It’s strange how some online ideas never quite take off while others seem like naturals from the outset. The minute you hear of them you wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

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This summer really get under the skin of your holiday destination. Image by Achi Raz

There are many sites devoted to books in general and fiction in particular; hardly surprising given the task of narrowing down books you might want to read from the millions of titles that appear every year. Where does one begin?

If you’re exploring a different part of the world, either in your mind or actually going there, you could start with Trip Fiction. It’s the perfect way to prepare for any journey. Simply key in a location and it will recommend books (primarily novels) that are set in that place. You can also search by author or title to find locations where books are set.

I do have to declare an interest, for my own novel Francesca (Indonesia, Timor-Leste) is on the site, in some pretty grand company I’m pleased to say. As with Goodreads and Amazon, there’s the facility to rate titles and post reviews.

If ever a site deserves to do well, this is one.

You can order your copy of Francesca here. A trip to Indonesia is not compulsory!

Francesca reaches Tasmania

Francesca reaches Tasmania

The first copy of Francesca to reach Tasmania (unless you know different!)

The other day I received a photo purporting to be the first copy of Francesca to arrive in Tasmania. It reminded me what a rapidly moving and global business book distribution has become, how ideas can travel across continents and oceans at the click of a mouse.

It was rather different in the era when Francesca was set, the mid 1970s.  Long before the days of the internet, mobile phones and social media, it was far easier to keep people in the dark. Tyrants and dictators used this to their advantage. Hiding their shameful acts often required little more than muzzling the press, censoring the mail, closing the borders and keeping foreign journalists out of the country.

Now the problem is too much information – so much is accessible but how do you know what to look for amidst all the noise? The danger now isn’t so much something will be hidden from view, more that it will be overlooked amongst decreasing attention spans and the tsunami of information overload.

So far I’ve been blessed to have heard from readers as far afield as the United States, Canada, Asia and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where I am currently based. In the same way, I see from the stats pages that this blog is read in dozens of different countries around the world. When I look at the figures I am overawed at the power technology has to connect billions of people from all over the world.

There’s another reason I was particularly gratified to see a copy of Francesca reach the shores of Tasmania. I have a particular affection for Australia’s island state, for its rugged beauty, for the friendliness of its people, for its environment, much of which remains unspoilt. Some years ago I spent several months there, writing the first draft of a novel that will be published later this year. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

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Sea cliffs along Tasmania’s spectacular coastline. Photo by John McLaine

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Francesca, wherever you are. Please continue to pass it on to your friends; I have found that word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication, even if it comes via twitter, Facebook or any of the other burgeoning social media out there. And if you have read it, please post a review, either here in the comments section or on Amazon.

You can order your copy of Francesca here 

The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

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A fantasy of heaven recreated by mass killer Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing

However the Oscars go when the envelopes are opened up on the 2nd March, there’s one film that seems destined to resonate around the world long after the final credits have rolled and the movie industry has turned its attention to the upcoming summer blockbusters. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, has been on a roll since its release, cleaning up at the major film festivals and garnering critical acclaim wherever it has been shown.

The film concerns itself with the purges that took place across Indonesia in 1965, inspired by the Suharto led Indonesian army to rid the military, the government and professions of communists or those suspected of communist sympathies. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

What makes The Act of Killing so unusual is the way it attempts to tell this story. Eschewing the usual witness statements, confrontations or dramatic reconstructions, the filmmakers track down perpetrators and invite them to re-enact their murders on film.

There is a reason for this, and it’s not just artistic choice. Oppenheimer’s initial attempts to gain testimony from victims of the massacres were thwarted by their terror of retribution, and then by obstacles placed in the director’s path by the Indonesian authorities. What went on throughout Indonesia in 1965 is fairly well known within the country, especially amongst the older generation who experienced it first hand. It’s hardly a state secret. Anyone with an internet connection and the time and inclination can get a pretty reliable account of what happened without too much difficulty. The problem is, until now no one in the West really cared, and in Indonesia it’s not a subject for open debate, or at least it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of Oppenheimer’s film. Many of the killers are well known within their communities and continue to enjoy not only impunity for their crimes, but connections at the higher levels of regional and national government.

It was only when Oppenheimer turned the story on its head by offering to narrate it from the perspective of the killers that he was able to break the deadlock. Such was their confidence in their invulnerability, these former mass murderers, many of them benign looking grandfathers, were happy to talk to the cameras. Not only were they willing to describe what they had done without apparent remorse, they were up for re-enacting their crimes in front of Oppenheimer’s cameras. Many were brought up on a diet of American gangster movies, and the idea of being the stars of their very own piece of cinéma vérité was apparently irresistible.

The device of standing back, letting the cameras roll and paying out enough rope until the subjects hang themselves (or in this case enough wire until they garrotte themselves), is not a new one. The director Nick Broomfield is probably one of its most successful practitioners, deftly deploying it to undermine the menace of Afrikaner white supremacist Eugène Terre-Blanche and turn him into an object of utter ridicule in his classic 1991 documentary “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”.

However, the praise for Oppenheimer has not been universal. Along with the accolades, there’s a small but influential group of reviewers who have taken extreme exception to The Act of Killing. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser found it particularly objectionable. “I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing JewsInstead of an investigation,  or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.”

The problem is, Oppenheimer’s solution to his difficulties in telling the world the story of the 1965 massacres doesn’t quite penetrate the darkness. The victims’ families were unable to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. The killers, who could tell their stories, were hampered by their complete inability to empathise with their victims or see events from any perspective other than their own. Fraser continues, “I find the scenes in the film where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance.”

There’s no doubt The Act of Killing is a tough film to watch. The version I saw ran to 2 hours 39 minutes, which was well over an hour more than I needed. By the end I felt utterly polluted, which I am sure is part of the point. Apparently even this was whittled down from over a thousand hours of footage. How I felt for the production team, having to live with it day in day out in their editing suites for years on end. Having these grisly scenes endlessly played out, with the ageing murderers given full rein to make-up and prosthetics like kids in a candy store, simply echoes Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion to the 1962 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann about the banality of evil.

We get the point. We got the point 20 minutes ago. More is simply over-indulging these monsters who lack any sense of self reflection, or interest really. By befriending them, pandering to their sense of self-importance and giving them free rein to express the contents of their twisted minds, there is a danger Oppenheimer has become morally contaminated himself. He keeps pushing his subjects ever so gently, ever so subtly, for some kind of broader awareness of what they did, but at the end of the day it’s just not there. If they are eventually forced to confront the reality of what they did, it won’t come from their revolting little playlets, but from the justice their fellow citizens may well demand once they see this film. In interviews Oppenheimer comes across as strangely protective of the principal character Anwar Congo, but with or without an Oscar I doubt he will be able to shield him from the rage his fellow Indonesians will unleash upon him and his cronies. Ironically, it is the film’s critical and commercial success rather than its radical approach that poses the greatest threat to the killers and the greatest hope for their country.

Could it be that given his difficulties extracting testimony from victims and the extreme nature of his subject matter, Oppenheimer bumped up against the limits of the documentary? As a novelist, I cannot help thinking that fiction might be better equipped to deal with these stories. Naturally, I have to declare an interest. My own novel, Francesca, deals with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which occurred ten years on from the 1965 purges. There were differences, of course, but there were many similarities. It was the same army acting with the same brutality and callous disregard for human life. The captains in the purges were colonels by the time East Timor came along, the colonels generals. In both cases the United States gave the Indonesian government carte blanche to carry on doing what they were doing, the imperative of containing the threat of communism, however spurious it actually was, trumping any notion of human rights or justice.

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel that bears her name commences, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. She and her family suffer as hundreds of thousands of her fellow Timorese did at the hands of the Indonesian army. As the writer, I can choose how I narrate those events. I can speak for those whose voice has been suppressed. In the artificial world I create, I can paradoxically come closer to the truth than some supposedly factual reconstruction. For really, who actually cares about Anwar Congo? He was just one of thousands of like-minded thugs, his importance lying only in the fact he was representative of so many. In a novel I can place the reader wherever I want: inside Francesca’s head, with the soldiers, as casual onlooker, whatever best serves my overall aim of distilling the truth from the events as they unfold.

That has always been the higher purpose of fiction, its greatest strength aside from the sheer love and pleasure of losing oneself in a good story. It is also why the novel refuses to die, and why I have chosen it as a medium of expression. Of course I will be biased, and no doubt various authors’ tricks will creep in as emotions and sympathies are manipulated towards the direction I desire to lead the reader. But at least I am not at the mercy of some marijuana addled gangster in unexamined denial, and neither are my readers.

Whatever else it has done, The Act of Killing has well and truly lanced the noxious boil of murder and lies festering beneath the surface of Indonesian society, and for that the country owes Oppenheimer a massive debt. He and his team of filmmakers have created a forum, at considerable personal cost, in which an open debate can now take place. For anyone who knows Indonesia, that is no small achievement. On that level, if that level alone, he got the truth he wanted for his film, the truth that is a prerequisite for the reconciliation the Indonesian people so desperately need. Whether that is enough to justify the stomach churning violence that constitutes the larger part of The Act of Killing, whether that elevates it from a series of mini snuff movies to a surreal masterpiece, is another matter entirely.

Francesca, published by Betimes Books, can be ordered here

What’s in their cans?

Francesca is a period piece – I hesitate to call it a historical novel for fear of how that ages me. Invariably the characters were shaped by their times, and no more so than with regard to the music they liked to listen to.

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Robert Plant in full flow at the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem both Eddie and Amanda had pretty good taste, though it wouldn’t have looked that way to music critics of the day. Hard though it is to believe in an era where people will pay several grand to see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Eddie’s choice) at an O2 reunion concert, or keep a show like the Abba inspired Mamma Mia (Amanda) running for decades, both these acts were widely despised by the music establishment of the early to mid 1970s.

So far as these worthy arbiters of taste were concerned, Abba was throwaway bubblegum pop and Led Zeppelin music for adolescent retards. In a contemporary review of Led Zeppelin II Rolling Stone magazine described Robert Plant as “foppish as Rod Steward, but nowhere near as exciting” before going on to deride Jimmy Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”. Back in 1976, if you’d tried to predict who would be listened to forty years on and cited as significant influences by the top artists of the early 21st Century, you’d have got very long odds against these two.

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Abba’s Agnetha Falkskog

The self styled intellectuals who controlled the music press were more into prog rock bands that if they haven’t been forgotten, are rarely talked about or heard on the radio: Yes, Hawkwind, Rush, as well as the more durable Genesis and Pink Floyd (though I would argue that Floyd were never really prog). When the Indonesian army marched into East Timor Peter Gabriel had just left Genesis, though his avant grade theatrics were less to Eddie’s taste than artists like Hendrix, the Stones and Jim Morrison, all of whom have been treated pretty consistently by the judgement of history.

Of course Amanda knew how deeply uncool it was to admit to liking the Swedish pop quartet, and whenever asked about her preferences would instead cite David Bowie, who was in the process of shedding his glam rock skin to emerge into the Thin White Duke.

To me what’s most poignant is all the music neither Amanda nor Eddie listened to because it hadn’t been written yet. It’s hard to imagine Bowie without Heroes, China Girl or Wild as the Wind, but that’s how it was. If you’d been sitting on a bar stool alongside Eddie with a can of Tiger in the early evening Kalimantan breeze and started discussing REM, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Blondie or The Clash, he’d have wondered what on earth you were talking about. An Elvis called Costello? And as for revering that icon of global peace, the late John Lennon, back in 75 and 76 when he wasn’t feuding with Paul McCartney he was boring the world to death with hits tedious agitprop.

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Bowie during his Thin White Duke years

And of course it was all on vinyl, 8 track cartridge or cassette. But if you’d really wanted to throw both Eddie and Amanda, not to mention every other character in the book, all you’d have to do is tell them you were about to order your copy of Francesca online, and read it on a Kindle.