Tag Archives: Kalimantan

Character Sketches 2: Benny Surikano, Mr Fixit

Benny is the glue that binds together so many characters in Francesca; there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t owe him for a favour or has turned to him for an introduction, a deal on the side, a way out of a scrape.

During the 1970s and beyond, it was hard to overestimate the pervasive influence of the army on all aspects of Indonesian life. Photo by Studio Titus

Benny is a former colonel in the Indonesian army who is now on the payroll of Constar Oil of Texas. His job description is as vague as his purpose is clear: to brush aside any obstacles Constar encounter drilling for and extracting oil from the land and sea around East Kalimantan.

As a former Indonesian Army officer, Benny is a man whose contacts go right to the top. It is even rumoured he’s on friendly terms with President Suharto, an exaggeration Benny doesn’t feel the need to correct. Yes, they served as young officers together and have always supported the same political goals, but there was never any personal chemistry between them, and in his heart Benny wonders whether the President even remembers him.

How you view Benny depends very much upon who you are. For the American and European expats he is employed to serve he comes across as a bit of a buffoon, with his Playboy sunglasses and stacked heels; Backhand Benny they call him behind his back, always out for a cut of any action. In spite of that, no one wants to alienate him, for you never know when you might need Benny and his valuable contacts.

For the Indonesians who encounter him as he goes about amassing a personal fortune through his various businesses, Benny is a man to be feared. There are no jokes here, this is a man who has the connections, combined with the complete absence of any moral scruples, to get you killed or seriously hurt should you stand in his way.

Benny’s redeeming feature is the deep and genuine love he has for his only son, Rollo. He will do anything for his boy, now in his twenties and fresh out of a brief spell in the Indonesian Army. In Rollo Benny sees all the promise of a new generation who will lead Indonesia into its rightful place in the world; others however see a spoilt, pampered brat whose path through life has been eased by his ruthless and powerful father.

Coming next… Amanda Cole

 

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Character Sketches 1: Francesca, the Timorese survivor

Over the next few posts, I’ll be outlining some background to the principal characters in Francesca, starting naturally with the woman after whom the novel is named.

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Photo by Riza

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel begins, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Whilst her experience of life has hitherto been rather narrow and sheltered, she has benefited from a western style education in one of the Catholic schools run by Portuguese missionaries in Dili.

This places her amongst the small educated Timorese middle class of the time. Her father, who Francesca adores, works as a technician in Dili’s main radio station. As such, he is particularly well placed to discern which way the political winds are blowing, which makes it all the more of a let-down when his predictions turn out to be so hopelessly inaccurate.

Aside from her father, the other key influence in Francesca’s life are the nuns who educated her. They left her with a faith that is stretched to breaking point but somehow endures. More importantly, at least in the short term, they have instilled in her a love of languages. It is this passion, unusual for someone in her position, that enables her not only to stay alive but to build a new life for herself when she ends up in Indonesian Borneo.

By the time she arrives there she has seen far more than a girl her age should ever see. Her experiences have left their mark in an aloofness and a distance, which people find puzzling; they are drawn into unravelling its mysteries, with little success. She has erected a wall around herself, and whilst she has stared utter despair in the face, by nature she is neither cynical nor ruthless. Indeed, she is perplexed and on occasion dismayed by the force of her instinct to survive.

This aura, combined with her intelligence and natural good looks, attracts the attention of rich and powerful men; her saving grace is that something within her compels them to want to help her rather than exploit her.

Coming up next… Benny Surikano.